Will the novel ever die? A guest post by Jo-Ann Mapson

November feature author Jo-Ann Mapson and Henry in their office

What I’m doing:

* Strapping on my blue tights and red cape (read to the end to discover why)
* Finishing up Finding Casey, a novel to be published 2012 from Bloomsbury
* Packing for a library event in Sacramento this weekend
* Drinking Diet Cherry Coke
Thinking about:  Will the novel ever die?
I met Tony Hillerman twice.  The first time was at the Book Expo in Las Vegas,  in the 1980s.  I was starstruck.  John Updike, Amy Tan, Barbara Kingsolver, and Mr. Hillerman, who was there to sign galleys of his latest book.  At that time, I had only published a book of short stories with a small press.  From a distance, I watched these writers I considered giants and wondered if I would ever be in their places.  I figured not.
The second time I met him was in Colorado at a writers’ conference where we were both speaking, along with Jill McCorkle and Regina Barreca, who I remember got in trouble for using the “F” word in her presentation (hilarious).  It happened that Tony and I were seated at the same table, and I remember listening to him say he was glad to come to the conference because there was good fishing nearby.  That was my first insight into this man.  He was down to earth, kind to all, and he loved fishing.  During his presentation he said the reason he wrote the Leaphorn and Chee novels was because of his fascination with Navajo ceremonies.  He mentioned that one editor tried to talk him out of using them in his novels. 
Cue: Major laughing.  Even now.
Every time I turn around some yahoo is bemoaning the death of the novel.
On Youtube there’s a jillion-part interview with Phillip Roth, who insists that in the next 25 years, the novel will become a “cult artifact.”  I understand his fears, because the current state of publishing is mired in the unknown.  Who knew that the field I spent 25 years “breaking into” could go extinct during my lifetime?
Shoot, the other day I logged onto Amazon.com and there was a banner for videos of Cliff Notes.  Presumably kids can’t be bothered to read the print version, so they published the guide on another platform.  After being horrified for fifteen minutes, it occurred to me that maybe it wasn’t so dreadful—after all, someone watching the video is still receiving the printed word. 
In other cultures stories are told, not read.  Decades ago I gave Like Water for Chocolate (Spanish version) to my husband’s business partner, a Latino man who did not read.  He gave it to his sisters.  They read the book aloud.  They heard the story.  Isn’t that where stories reside after we finish reading a book?
I asked some of my novelist friends to weigh in on the subject: Will the novel ever die?  Here are their responses.
From Rich Chiappone, author of:
Water of An Undetermined Depth (stories)
Opening Days (essays)
(Rich has just completed his first novel—with much angst and tearing of hair, I might add)
Novels will never die for the same reason horses will never die: because some people will always want to own them, no matter what improved mode of transportation (or reading material) comes along. I just read that there are seven million horses being kept –most as very large pets– in America, land of the automobile. Anyway, novels will always be written because short stories and poems are too hard.
Jodi Picoult, author of:
Sing You Home
House Rules
Handle With Care
(and 90 jillion other bestselling novels!)
The novel will never die because it does something that nonfiction can’t — it gets the reader hooked by accident on character or plot but ends up, after the last page is turned, making them think hard about moral and life choices.  For example, no one wants to read a treatise about grief.  But if you read a novel and live through the character’s suffering, you might learn something about how to deal with loss in your own life.  Novels teach us surreptitiously instead of overtly, but in a way, because their lessons are more poignant and more resonant for that very reason.  –Jodi Picoult  🙂 (emoticon hers)
Caroline Leavitt, author of:
Pictures of You (NYT bestseller)
Girls in Trouble
Meeting Rozzy Halfway
(Please note Caroline has been writing and publishing novels since the 80s, and in 2011 her new book landed on the NYT list)
I think the novel will never die because our brains are hard-wired to love and want stories. Our brains really and truly are always trying to fill in the connections, to think about what happens next, to plan ahead.  People love to read novels because they get to experience other scenarios and better understand their own lives, plus as life gets more and more complex and difficult and just plain hard–stories let us “purge that pity and terror.”  Novels also answer our questions or fears and role play them. What would I do if my daughter murdered someone?  What would I do if the person I loved the most betrayed me? Novels offer a safe harbor!

Here are some authors I only know through reading:
Paul Auster, author of:
The New York Trilogy
The Music of Chance
The Brooklyn Follies
(and more)
Human beings need stories.  Childhood bedtime stories help shape reality.  We wouldn’t be human without narrative fiction.  Fewer people are reading novels, but there are thousands there in a bookstore.  A flexible form, not fixed like a sonnet, you can do whatever you want with it.  Reinventing itself constantly, like every historical moment needs to be told in a story.  iPads, telephones, formats too early to say where it’s going.  Reading provides an experience.
Umberto Eco, author of:
Name of the Rose
William of Baskerville
Foucault’s Pendulum
(and many, many other books in various fields)
Will the book disappear as a result of the Internet? I wrote about this at the time – by which I mean at a time when the question seemed topical. Now, when I’m asked for my opinion, I simply repeat myself, rewriting the same text. Nobody notices this, firstly because there’s nothing more original than what has already been said, and secondly because the public (or the journalistic profession at least) is still obsessed with the idea that the book is about to disappear (or perhaps journalists just think their readers are obsessed); therefore, journalists never tire of asking this same question.
There is actually very little to say on the subject. The internet has returned us to the alphabet. If we thought we had become a purely visual civilisation, the computer returns us to Gutenberg’s galaxy; from now on, everyone has to read. In order to read, you need a medium. This medium cannot simply be a computer screen. Spend two hours reading a novel on your computer and your eyes turn into tennis balls. At home, I use a pair of Polaroid glasses to protect my eyes from the ill effects of unbroken onscreen reading. And in any case, the computer depends on electricity and cannot be read in a bath, or even lying on your side in bed.
One of two things will happen: either the book will continue to be the medium for reading, or its replacement will resemble what the book has always been, even before the invention of the printing press. Alterations to the book-as-object have modified neither its function nor its grammar for more than 500 years. The book is like the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved. You cannot make a spoon that is better than a spoon. When designers try to improve on something like the corkscrew, their success is very limited; most of their `improvements’ don’t even work. Philippe Starck attempted an innovative lemon-squeezer; his version may be very handsome, but it lets the pips through.
The book has been thoroughly tested, and it’s very hard to see how it could be improved on for its current purposes. Perhaps it will evolve in terms of components; perhaps the pages will no longer be made of paper. But it will still be the same thing.
To sum up: the written word is going electronic. Permanently. Soon. Once that happens, storytellers will have no need to shoehorn their stories into these 8″ x 12″ hunks of pulped wood and ink. And once we’re not restricted to the medium of the novel, we’ll be leaving the form behind.

The death of the novel doesn’t mean the death of storytelling. It doesn’t mean that nobody’s ever going to put an Aristotelian structure of fiction into 120,000 words. On the contrary, it’s going to mean that storytelling will finally be unleashed. We’re going to see fiction strap on blue tights and a red cape and really soar.
Strapping on my blue tights and red cape,
Jo-Ann Mapson in Santa Fe

Jo-Ann Mapson’s novel Solomon’s Oak was an Indie pick in HC last year, and is an Indie pick in paperback for November.  It won the ALA RUSA award for women’s fiction.

2 thoughts on “Will the novel ever die? A guest post by Jo-Ann Mapson”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    It was great to read these thoughts gathered from multiple authors, including authors you know personally, Jo-Ann. It's an ongoing cultural conversation I don't tire of reading about, especially when my own book anxieties are running high.

    I notice that my own kids have no such anxieties. My son (17) points out that radio was not replaced by video, and neither completely replaced the newspaper. Formats keep multiplying without completely replacing what came before (just like Rich's horse example) and the public's appetite for media in general seems only to increase.

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