Permalink for this paragraph 0 The novel has been dead for nearly as long as it has been alive. Its very name reveals part of the problem it faces: the genre’s practitioners have felt throughout its history the pressures of newness. In the words of William Hill Brown, the author of what is arguably the first U.S. novel, “What is a novel without novelty?” (qtd. in Gilmore 620). Novelty, however, while one of the genre’s primary attractions, makes its downfall inevitable. One critic has in fact read the death of the novel foretold in the sequel to its originary text, Cervantes’ Don Quixote; once the novel was no longer new, it seemingly began the long trek deathward (Reed). John Barth, in LETTERS, his epistolary return to the novel’s origins, cites a 1758 missive in which Samuel Richardson expressed his concerns that the novel would turn out to be nothing more than a fad, and one that had likely already run its course. Richardson thus becomes, in Barth’s narrative, not only the first English novelist but also the first English novelist to worry about the novel’s death. Just over two centuries later, Barth himself reveals a strikingly similar cluster of concerns in “The Literature of Exhaustion,” a set of anxieties with which contemporary novelists continue to grapple.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 But as the examples of Cervantes and Richardson indicate, the novel’s death presupposes its birth, and each of the genre’s origin narratives has built into it a certain fated conclusion. In Ian Watt’s formulation, the novel begins with Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding, and it is irrevocably tied to the rise of a particular species of realism, as well as to the rise of the English middle class (Watt). The threat of the novel’s death, in Watt’s narrative, emanates from critiques of realism and carries with it the specter of the dying hegemony of the overwhelmingly white and male English bourgeoisie. In Nancy Armstrong’s revision of Watt’s model, however, the novel is born not simply out of the consolidation of middle-class power in England but also out of the desire to confine female influence to the domestic sphere, a relegation presented in the early novel as a fait accompli (see Armstrong). By considering the role of gender in the novel’s origins, and by taking seriously the domestic fiction that predates Watt’s triumvirate, Armstrong’s narrative includes texts within the category of the “novel” that would, in Watt’s narrative, be certain signs of its death.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 In fact, the novel, however defined by its origins, has always been a nervous genre, equally concerned about its present and its future, anxious about its relationships to truth and to history, apprehensive about which side of Andreas Huyssen’s “great divide” between high art and mass culture it fell upon. However odd it may sound in the era of MTV and first-person shooter games, the novel was once blamed for many of the ills of youth culture that have since been charged against jazz, moving pictures, rock and roll, television, video games, and the Internet. The argument that the novel corrupted the morals of women and adolescents revealed its ideological basis most clearly in the political turn such accusations took in the early United States. The novel was accused of being antirepublican, of producing solipsistic, individualistic (in the original negative, Tocquevillian sense) readers who shirked the masculine world of action and commerce for the feminine realm of domesticity and illusion. This is the crux of the matter: concerns about the genre’s insalubriousness mask far deeper, nearly unspeakable ideological terrors that revolve around its apparent powers of feminization.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 This discourse has of course long since inverted. In his attack upon the “damn’d mob of scribbling women” who threatened his livelihood, Hawthorne began the masculinization of the novelistic form at the same time he pointedly separated his work–which he considered a form of high art–from the domestic scribbles his female competitors produced. In the century and a half since, the novel has become the grand old man of popular entertainments and has acquired through its associations with the masculine and its aspirations to high art a thick veneer of respectability. The rise of serious study of the novel on the university level during the twentieth century–and the even more recent addition of the U.S. novel to the curriculum–has further transformed an object of moral opprobrium into a source of spiritual and ethical uplift. We have reserved our cultural concern and excoriation for a list of latecomers, the “popular” art forms that have at least temporarily fallen on the wrong side of Huyssen’s great divide. The early accusations leveled at the novel are important both as a reminder that the novel was not always considered the high-art form it is revered as today, and as an acknowledgment that the concerns about more recent media forms revealed in contemporary cultural discourses may seem equally baseless in the coming centuries.
Permalink for this paragraph 1 Moreover, just as the seemingly ahistorical sense of moral uplift attributed to the novel by those who lament its passing is in fact a relatively recent development, the suggestion of such elegizers that the novel had a “day” that is now past often vastly overestimates the historical influence of the form on Western culture. Literacy, and particularly the kind of literacy that allowed for leisure-time, nonbiblical reading, has always been the province of an elite, educated few; the reading public, especially that segment of the public with the disposable time and income available to acquire a taste for printed literature as art, has always been a minority. The image many elegizers of the novel create–a moment in the past in which a people, a culture, a nation was affected as one body by the movements of literary thought–is largely mythical, a revisionist creation of a nonexistent utopia.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 The discourse announcing the death of the novel has served throughout the twentieth century to separate the canonical from the noncanonical, the literary from the pulp, the meritorious from the meretricious. Pronouncements of literature’s death have hardly been limited to the novel, of course; in 1988, Joseph Epstein touched off a verbal avalanche in literary circles by demanding to know “who killed poetry.” His contention–that university creative-writing programs were largely responsible for the genre’s death by drowning in the roiling waters of hackdom–produced such an overwhelming response that two full issues of the AWP [Associated Writing Programs] Chronicle were given over to varying levels of agreement and rebuttal. Perhaps most surprising about this often vitriolic exchange was the number of practicing poets who took Epstein’s salvo seriously, as though his inquest negated their continuing creative lives. As Paul Mann’s Theory-Death of the Avant-Garde suggests, such obituaries must be read with a skeptical eye:
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Throughout the history of the avant-garde, guardians of tradition, ideologues of various parties, and a host of parasites, promoters, and dreamers have been ready with the news of the passing of this or that once-innovative movement or style; modern culture is typified by such deaths, by the death of painting, the death of the novel, the death of the author, the death of x or y movement, even the death of the new. (31)
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Modern literary culture is particularly riven with these deaths; critics, readers, and writers alike seem all too ready in this turbulent era to take the bad news as gospel rather than with a grain of salt. Such death notices often look a bit different, however, when one considers what the messenger–ideologue, parasite, promoter, or dreamer–might stand to gain from the proliferation of the message.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Anxieties about the novel’s role in an increasingly technological world have flourished throughout the century. In the 1920s, for instance, D. H. Lawrence felt compelled to let his readers know “why the novel matters,” insisting rather airily that “[t]he novel is one bright book of life. Books are not life. They are only tremulations on the ether. But the novel as a tremulation can make the whole man alive tremble. Which is more than poetry, philosophy, science, or any other book-tremulation can do” (“Why” 105). It is intriguing to note that, while Lawrence overtly compares the novel to other “book-tremulations,” the notion of “tremulations on the ether” evokes a newer, if repressed, threat: radio. Indeed, Lawrence’s presumed optimism about the novel’s power, which begins to ring a bit of self-conscious boosterism, is reserved for the form’s potential; in “Surgery for the Novel–or a Bomb,” he treats much more harshly the novel as it exists:
Permalink for this paragraph 0 How do we feel about the novel? Do we bounce with joy thinking of the wonderful novelistic days ahead? Or do we grimly shake our heads and hope the wicked creature will be spared a little longer? Is the novel on his death-bed, old sinner? Or is he just toddling round his cradle, sweet little thing? (114)
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Ultimately, Lawrence hedges this question by claiming that the novel is simultaneously both dying of its own self-absorption–a reading of modernist experimentalism that might give us reason to return to Paul Mann’s sense of the “guardians of tradition”–and displaying its as yet immature promise. That claim, rather than simply evading the issue, inadvertently reveals some of the subtext of all of literature’s death notices: they are simultaneously birth announcements, clearing away the old to make way for the new–even when that “new” is a return to a mythologized, idealized past.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 The impact of Lawrence’s conviction of the derelict state of the novel appears to have been minimal; the experimentalist bent against which he railed in “Surgery for the Novel–or a Bomb” (i.e., Ulysses) has arguably had a more lasting effect on the literary century than has the overheated novel of tremulations (pace Miller and Mailer). Lawrence’s contributions to the death-ofthe-novel discourse nonetheless reverberate in the present. In 1987, a group of scholars connected with the journal Novel held a conference and in 1990 produced a volume entitled Why the Novel Matters: A Postmodern Perplex. Acknowledging their debt to Lawrence, the conference organizers and volume editors declared their intent to update his concerns and questions to the age of late capitalism: “Why and how do novels ‘matter’ in postmodern times? What kind of confidence, if any, do they inspire as literary artifacts or even as newly democratized cultural artifacts? Is the novel alive and well amid competing texts and contemporary uncertainties? Is it still empowered with some of its old socio-literary clout?” (Spilka and McCracken-Flesher 5). The scholars’ projected answers to their questions are embedded, as they are for Lawrence, in the questions themselves: the novel continues to matter, though in a mode more cultural than literary; its certainty rests in its representation of uncertainties. The editors expand upon the shift they describe: “the novel continues to flourish in ethical form, and to problematize ethics throughout the world, but especially . . . wherever the problems of women and minorities are taken seriously as fictional subjects” (8)–that is, the novel is not dying but democratizing. Other critics, as we’ll see, interpret this less as a change of subject matter than as a devolution of the literary into the sociological, another sign of the genre’s moribundity.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 The concerns about the novel’s continuing role raised by the Novel group–Does it inspire “confidence”? Does it have “clout”?–are not only for the future status of the novelist, but also for the future status of the critic. The underlying question in Why the Novel Matters should be interpreted not as, Will the novel survive? but as, Should we bother reading novels anymore? This question is both honorable and self-serving, asking simultaneously whether continued attention should be paid to a form historically associated with an oppressively humanist (shorthand for racist, sexist, classist) sense of the individual and whether our critical careers will suffer from such continued attention. Similarly, we see in Joseph Tabbi and Michael Wutz’s more declarative Reading Matters the contributors’ “hopeful premise” that
Permalink for this paragraph 0 as the scene of writing changes, the book will not be left behind–but neither will it be quite the same in its new context. How best to use the book in the new media ecology, and how to write about literary texts without resorting to hermeneutic modes of “interpretation,” are questions that preoccupy even the most text-centered of these contributions. (2)
Permalink for this paragraph 0 The concern of Reading Matters in demonstrating that the book lives on, even in the age of cybernetics, is thus not with how to write a novel in the age of its obsolescence, but with how to write about one.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 This concern for the critic’s integrity has long been a part of such discussions of the death of the novel and frequently takes on a pointed blame-the-victim tone. The great surge–arguably, the pinnacle–of the death-ofthe-novel discourse during the late 1960s was largely created by critics of the novel who were, according to Jerome Klinkowitz, responding to a stagnation perceived in U.S. writers’ steadfast refusal to give up the well-made novel (see Klinkowitz). A number of these obituarists–among them Leslie Fiedler and Susan Sontag–point to the rise of the critic as a by-product of the demise of the novel, suggesting that only the form’s death could account for critics’ existence (see Fiedler; Sontag). Others, including Louis Rubin, insist that reports of the novel’s death have been greatly exaggerated, largely by critics who don’t know where to look for the next great thing (see Rubin). But whether they argue for the novel’s demise or against it, the participation of such critics in the death discourse has the inevitable effect of drawing attention to criticism itself. On the one hand, Sontag argues in “Against Interpretation” that “[i]nterpretation runs rampant here [in the United States] in those arts with a feeble and negligible avant-garde: fiction and the drama” (10). On the other, Rubin in The Curious Death of the Novel insists that Sontag is able to make this argument only because she is not surrounded by Faulkners, Hemingways, Joyces, Manns, and Prousts; the lull in production while the writers of the mid-twentieth century work out their issues of influence creates the space for such obituaries. Both the “hermeneutic modes of ‘interpretation’” Tabbi and Wutz resist–the very focus of Sontag’s ire in her famous “Against Interpretation”–and the critical eulogies Rubin derides would by this argument be unnecessary if the novel itself were in better straits.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Much of the work of the critical death discourse revolves around what Spilka and McCracken-Flesher in Why the Novel Matters refer to as “the new hegemony of theory itself” (4), whether striving to create this hegemony or pointing to the hegemonists as the cause of the novel’s fall. Roland Barthes in “The Death of the Author” and Michel Foucault in “What Is an Author?” together famously herald the poststructuralist demotion of the writer necessary to theory’s rise to dominance. For Barthes, this dominance is achieved by replacing the positivist figure of the author with the decentered “scriptor”: a construct “born at the same time as his text, . . . he is not the subject of which his book would be the predicate” (52). In fact, this powerless scriptor is the creation of the text’s true producer, the reader. Barthes argues that “in order to restore to writing its future”–a future apparently in doubt–”we must reverse the myth: the birth of the reader must be requited by the death of the Author” (55). Only in destroying the writer can writing be saved; the theorist thus kills in the medium’s defense. Foucault in “What Is an Author?” similarly links writing and death, particularly as “manifested in the total effacement of the individual characteristics of the writer” (117), a destruction carried out in this case not by the critic but by the text itself: “Where a work had the duty of creating immortality, it now attains the right to kill, to become the murderer of its author” (117). Replacing the writer is the “author-function,” or the figure of the author constructed through discourse, the purpose of which is “to characterize the existence, circulation, and operation of certain discourses within a society” (124); the writer is thus demoted from subject to adjective. Of course, a select few such author-functions are given extended powers as “initiators of discursive practices”: the “distinctive contribution of these authors is that they produced not only their own work, but the possibility and the rules of formation of other texts” (131), a description that seems to fit the theorist best.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Theory, in the narrative of its new hegemony, thus becomes both culprit and savior, murderer and hero; theory displaces the novel from cultural centrality at the same time it “rescues” the novel by announcing new ways of reading. Theory’s new dominance over the novel–or what Stephen Connor refers to as “changing relationships of priority between cultural and critical activity”–is frequently read as an element in the postmodern condition; theory becomes “the mediator and validator of this new [postmodernist] fiction (indeed, for some, began to outshine some of this primary material as evidence of the postmodern temper)” (7). I will return to consider the role of postmodernist discourse in the anxiety of obsolescence later in this chapter. For the moment, it must be noted that theory’s interaction with the novel is frequently imagined to be double-edged: in mediating, theory detracts; in validating, it apparently kills. The deadly force of theory, however, is only half the equation. Paul Mann argues, in his examination of the death discourses of the avant-garde, that the very telos of the avant-garde was the production of its own death theory; theory produces the movement’s death, but that death has been its theory all along and a necessary element in the movement’s continuance. While the novel is of course nowhere near as self-consuming a cultural form as was the work of the avant-garde, it has arguably had its death embedded in its text since volume 2 of the Quixote. And while certain writers and critics lay the blame for the death of the novel on the dominance of theory, the postmodernist novel has often embraced theory as its critical counterpart. The novel both resists and requires its own theoretical death to go on.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Among those who blame theory for the novel’s death is Alvin Kernan, who points in The Death of Literature to the much-hailed death of the author, the disintegration of the canon, and the rise of “discourse” as evidence, if not causes, of that untimely demise. “Many of our best authors,” Kernan complains, numbering among them Nabokov, Mailer, Malamud, and Bellow, “have experienced and not recovered from a crisis of confidence in the traditional values of literature and a sense of its importance to humanity” (3). With such self-assured categories as “traditional values” and “humanity,” however, and with his list of “our” best authors, Kernan reveals the sticky underside of such concern about theory: the problem is less the rise of the critic or the death of the author than the dismantling of the rationalist–and largely white male–individual and his centrality in the world of discourse. As Marianna Torgovnick suggests in the concluding discussion of Why the Novel Matters: “It may be that the question of why the novel matters only arises in economically and socially privileged cultures or in segments of such cultures free to bask in what [Charles] Newman calls ‘the post-modern aura,’ which depends upon an inflated rhetoric of cultural crisis” (361). Indeed, one of the conclusions toward which the present investigation is working is that the anxiety of obsolescence both requires social privilege to be mobilized as a discourse and conceals the repressed anxiety that the threatened disappearance of that privilege engenders.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 In fairness to Kernan, in The Death of Literature he distributes the blame for the decline in literature’s “authority” among the rise of theory, changes in the contemporary social structure, and a “technological revolution that is rapidly transforming a print to an electronic culture” (9). And he makes a valiant attempt at critical distance: “The death of literature looks like the twilight of the gods to conservatives or the fall of the Bastille of high culture to radicals, but my argument is, to put it simply, that we are watching the complex transformations of a social institution in a time of radical political, technological, and social change” (10). But Kernan’s rhetoric is far too colored by the anxiety of obsolescence to remain this impartial; The Death of Literature cannot read any of this change as benign. Moreover, the bracketing of technological change by political and social change reveals their intimate connection. One of the goals of the chapters that follow is to examine the ways in which anxieties about theoretical discourse, and fears of social change even more, are repressed and replaced by a more palatable and seemingly progressive technological concern.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Surprisingly, at one moment in his study Kernan blames the overproduction of books for the medium’s death, in much the same way Joseph Epstein blames the death of poetry on the existence of too many poets writing too many poems. What is dying in these visions cannot be literature per se but rather some confidently asserted notion of “literary quality.” Kernan draws this distinction in a telling fashion: “if literature has died, literary activity continues with unabated, if not increased, vigor” (4). Under the category of “literary activity,” one can safely lump Jacques Derrida and Jacqueline Susann, post-structuralist discourse and Oprah’s Book Club–all phenomena that contain or are contained by the act of reading, but that exist outside (or more frighteningly, work to undermine) the strictures of canonicity. Again, Kernan:
Permalink for this paragraph 0 This is the bizarre way that things die in a society of surplus and overproduction. The end of the age of the book, and with it the age of literature, is figured not only in the difficulties of using and storing printed material, and in the amount of printed material being piled up, but in the gradual waning of the privileged position in the world of knowledge–”what is printed is true”–that the book has held for about five hundred years. (140)
Permalink for this paragraph 0 The prospect of “too many books” here is made to present a technological problem–one of information storage and retrieval–but with a problem of discernment lurking behind it, the difficulty of sorting the good from the bad, the worthwhile from the waste of time, the canonical from the non-. Louis Rubin targets this question of discernment as the key to understanding claims of the novel’s death, brushing aside all the usual culprits such as social and technological change: “The truth is that the only thing that can destroy literature is bad books”–while quickly distancing himself from that position–”and surely these are no more common than in previous eras” (7). Kernan disagrees; the “surplus” he imagines is certainly not of good books. Kernan’s mobilization of economic rhetoric in contemplating the novel’s relative health suggests at the same time an oddly functionalist mode of thinking about the novel’s operation in culture and a critique of that mode, in much the same way Charles Newman uses the trope of “inflation” to signify both the importance and the vacuity of the postmodern. For Newman, too, overproduction leads to meaninglessness, particularly of theoretical concepts. But for Kernan, behind the discourses of technology and economics lies a larger problem that steadily erodes the book’s “privileged position”: epistemological uncertainty. Once upon a time, a reader could assume what was printed to be true. Now, who knows who’s writing what you’re reading?
Permalink for this paragraph 0 This concern with supply and demand does not, however, diminish the technological concerns that surface in much of the death-of-the-novel discourse and that characterize the anxiety of obsolescence. Kernan devotes a full chapter to those fears, entitled “Technology and Literature: Book Culture and Television Culture.” Sven Birkerts likewise focuses on the technological threat to the book in The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Birkerts, like Kernan, fears for the future of literature, but he is somewhat less apocalyptic in his approach. His concern, Birkerts claims, is to explore the ways in which literary practice registers “the shocks of the new” (3). Nonetheless, he writes in a distinctly elegiac mode, suggesting that one of the ways in which those shocks are registered is in the waning of literary authority.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 I do not anticipate a future utterly without books, or bereft of all discourse about ideas, or entirely given over to utilitarian pursuits. No, what I fear is a continued withering-away of influence, a diminution of the literary which brings about a flattened new world in which only a small coterie traffics in the matters that used to be deemed culturally central. (194)
Permalink for this paragraph 0 That such literary matters once were “culturally central” is, as I suggested earlier, a suspect notion. What is important in Birkerts, however, is the degree to which he locates in new media technologies the cause of the withering away he perceives. In “The Faustian Pact,” the final elegy in the volume, Birkerts claims to have met the devil–Wired magazine. This publication enacts for Birkerts “the argument between technology and soul” (211), the true evil of which seems to reside in Wired‘s use of print to promote the very media that undermine Gutenberg’s technologies. This complicitous arrangement reverses the situation presented by the Bold Type editorial discussed in the Introduction, in which new media are used to promote literature. Such an exchange of support can, for a writer like Birkerts, be valid in only one direction. The lines between good and evil have been as firmly drawn as those during World War II; while Bold Type may be a Schindleresque figure, saving (some) novels from certain annihilation, Wired is a collaborator. In fact, extending this metaphor of traitorousness, E. L. Doctorow claims that writers themselves are often coconspirators in their own demise. In a brief exchange, New Yorker senior editor Deborah Garrison asks Doctorow the following questions: “In our culture, in which film is the primary popular art and has sadly superseded the novel and poetry, what is the standing of reading and writing? How much are people reading? How much of the film culture crosses your mind as you are making aesthetic choices?” Doctorow responds: “Serious readership has always been the minority in this country. Novelists have always been very alert to all the enemies. Today, obviously, film is the enemy; some of us sleep with the enemy.” The novelist, by this logic, seems to face a difficult decision between being a marginalized cultural figure and contributing to the novel’s marginality, a double-edged choice rendered particularly remarkable given Doctorow’s own relationship with film.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Thus, writers and critics from across the ideological spectrum have suggested for decades that the novel is declining, has declined, should be laid to rest, is in need of revival, or some combination thereof. Some of those concerned about the novel’s obsolescence blame the rise of poststructuralist theory; some blame overproduction; some blame the changing technological climate. Many, like Kernan and Doctorow, blame the novelist himself. But the most definitive statement on the novel’s death, John Barth’s landmark 1967 essay “The Literature of Exhaustion,” takes a very different approach to the novelist’s role in his form’s demise. In this essay, Barth explores the novel’s imminent obsolescence from the writer’s perspective, claiming to see in this obsolescence no real cause for worry; in fact, Barth’s ostensible fears for the end of the novel, as played out both in this essay and in his own fiction, become an overt series of poses manipulated for the novel’s continuance. Such an admission is made apparent in “The Literature of Exhaustion.” This brief text, ostensibly a study of Borges, is most relevant and insightful when Barth uses his thoughts about Borges as a pretext for discussing “some professional concerns of my own” (29). These concerns largely revolve around the state of the novel in an era when the writer seems to be facing “the used-upness of certain forms or exhaustion of certain possibilities” (29). In one exceptionally dense paragraph, which I quote here at length, Barth sketches out both the “felt ultimacy” central to the writer’s anxiety of obsolescence and the means by which that anxiety can be put to use, claiming that Borges’ work perfectly illumines his subject:
Permalink for this paragraph 0 how an artist may paradoxically turn the felt ultimacies of our time into material and means for his work–paradoxically because by so doing he transcends what had appeared to be his refutation in the same way that the mystic who transcends finitude is said to be enabled to live, spiritually and physically, in the finite world. Suppose you’re a writer by vocation–a “print-oriented bastard,” as the McLuhanites call us–and you feel, for example, that the novel, if not narrative literature generally, if not the printed word altogether, has by this hour of the world just about shot its bolt, as Leslie Fiedler and others maintain. (I’m inclined to agree, with reservations and hedges. Literary forms certainly have histories and historical contingencies, and it may well be that the novel’s time as a major art form is up, as the “times” of classical tragedy, grand opera, or the sonnet sequence came to be. No necessary cause for alarm in this at all, except perhaps to certain novelists, and one way to handle such a feeling might be to write a novel about it. Whether historically the novel expires or persists seems immaterial to me; if enough writers and critics feel apocalyptical about it, their feeling becomes a considerable cultural fact, like the feeling that Western civilization, or the world, is going to end rather soon. If you took a bunch of people out into the desert and the world didn’t end, you’d come home shamefaced, I imagine; but the persistence of an art form doesn’t invalidate work created in the comparable apocalyptic ambience. That’s one of the fringe benefits of being an artist instead of a prophet. There are others.) If you happened to be Vladimir Nabokov, you might address that felt ultimacy by writing Pale Fire: a fine novel by a learned pedant, in the form of a pedantic commentary on a poem invented for the purpose. If you were Borges you might write Labyrinths: fictions by a learned librarian in the form of footnotes, as he describes them, to imaginary or hypothetical books. And I’ll add, since I believe Borges’ idea is rather more interesting, that if you were the author of this paper, you’d have written something like The Sot-Weed Factor or Giles Goat-Boy: novels which imitate the form of the Novel, by an author who imitates the role of Author. (32″“33)
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Despite Barth’s insistence on his lack of interest in the material condition of the novel, he does maintain a clear interest in the apocalyptic “feeling” that surrounds it. Unpacking the feeling that has for Barth produced the “considerable cultural fact” of the novel’s demise reveals the key to the cultural function of the death-of-the-novel discourse: it is endlessly productive of more discourse.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Though Barth is clear about the apocalyptic sense many have expressed with regard to the novel, “inclined to agree” as he is that the novel may have “just about shot its bolt,” he never overtly states the cause of the demise of narrative literature. Instead, Barth attempts to put off this waning of influence to the notion that “[l]iterary forms certainly have histories and historical contingencies,” and thus that the novel’s “time” may simply be up, a monumentally shrug-shouldered assessment of the situation. But there is a hint of something further at work in those “historical contingencies,” momentarily glimpsed in the use of the “McLuhanite” label “print-oriented bastard.” New, nonprint artistic and communicative forms–primarily television, though it is never named within the essay–are at the root of this decentering of print and the relegation of its writers and readers to a state of cultural illegitimacy. As one of Barth’s characters frames the situation:
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Nowadays the genre [of the novel] is so fallen into obscure pretension on the one hand and cynical commercialism on the other, and so undermined at its popular base by television, that to hear a young person declare his or her ambition to be a capital W Writer strikes me as anachronistical, quixotic, as who should aspire in 1969 to be a Barnum and Bailey acrobat, a dirigible pilot, or the Rembrandt of the stereopticon. (LETTERS 84)
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Like the popular circus, the dirigible, and the stereopticon, the novel has become “anachronistical” not simply because its time is up, but because it has been “undermined” by newer, flashier, more technologically advanced forms of electronic communication.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 But one must note that the adjective Barth uses to describe the pursuit of fiction in the age of its obsolescence derives from the text of its birth; the novel has always been “quixotic.” Barth suggests in “The Literature of Exhaustion” that whether television is actually undermining the novel is beside the point; in fact, for him, whether the novel “expires or persists” is “immaterial.” As another of his characters describes Barth’s project, in a letter to the “Author”: “A. assures me that you do not yourself take with much seriousness those Death-of-the-Novel or End-of-Letters chaps, but that you do take seriously the climate that takes such questions seriously; you exploit that apocalyptic climate, he maintains, to reinspect the origins of narrative fiction in the oral tradition” (LETTERS 438). While the belief that the novel is dying evidenced by both writers and critics is, in Barth’s own words, sufficient to create the “considerable cultural fact” of its doom, this doom is itself a worthy subject of consideration. And, Barth pithily points out, unlike the prophecy whose validity is called into question when the world doesn’t end, the novel’s most literal continued existence does not “invalidate work created in the comparable apocalyptic ambience.” Writing about the end of the novel is, after all, still writing.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Which is precisely why, unlike his characters, Barth senses “[n]o necessary cause for alarm in this at all.” Perhaps “certain novelists” might worry, seeing their livelihood disappear, but there is a solution: “one way to handle such a feeling might be to write a novel about it.” This is precisely the project Barth argues that writers such as Nabokov and Borges (and, with the hedge of false modesty, Barth himself) have undertaken: writing novels about the environment in which writing novels is no longer possible. Such an overcoming of apocalypse valorizes the author as one working against his time, one able “paradoxically” to “transcend what had appeared to be his refutation.” The writer, in his transcendence, becomes equated with the mystic, able to escape the “finitude” of the McLuhanite age. This is Barth’s impression of Borges: “His artistic victory, if you like, is that he confronts an intellectual dead end and employs it against itself to accomplish new human work” (“Exhaustion” 31). The humanness of that work is not incidental; contained within the transcendence achieved by the successful writer is a form of reversion in which the “dead end” of the contemporary is rejected in favor of a return to the values of traditional humanism.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Whatever the causes of its demise–technological or theoretical, overproduction or underconsumption–the putative death of the novel forms the heart of the anxiety of obsolescence. By depicting the genre as an endangered species, critics and novelists alike have built a protected space around the novel–and, not incidentally, the novelist–in which the form and its practitioners are kept safe from the encroachments of the changing contemporary world. By carefully reading the novel of obsolescence, one can begin to uncover how the representations of the novel’s “enemies” function to create that protected space, as well as how technological changes in contemporary culture serve as convenient masks for other, more threatening, social and political changes that confront the novelist. We must begin, however, by taking claims of the novel’s passing with a grain of salt; as Paul Mann points out, “perhaps the avant-garde needs its death to go on living” (38). In this, the historical avant-garde, whose nominal front-lines orientation demanded a continuous rooting out of the belated, and the novel, whose claims to newness require its repeated exhaustion, are not so different. Paraphrasing Mann, we can suggest that the postmodern novel is indeed living out its death for discourse: the death of the novel is alive and well.