The Mark Blog

Is the Novel Really Dead? Again?

These days, everyone’s a writer.

Not of books, but of blurbs, blogs, sound bites, tweets, texts, etc. We are communicating our own stories, day-by-day, moment-by-moment, reflecting on our everyday lives or on the flashing headlines that make truth seem stranger than fiction. So where do novels fit in in the zeitgeist?

They don’t, at least not according to David Shields' Reality Hunger, which I finally got around to reading recently. The book contains loads of controversial ideas, many of which are not the author’s own—his point being that we’re beyond the age of plagiarism and ideas should be shared free of ownership. But his central point is that the traditional novel, with made-up characters and heavy plot lines, has become antiquated. It’s a worn-out mode. For contemporary writing to have relevance, the author must draw from his own life, a personal reality. Which, of course, is subjective. And often, in a way, imagined.

Memories themselves are fictions, so a work of nonfiction, like a memoir—or what Shields calls a lyrical essay—should not be held to a higher standard of factual truth. He feels that James Frey, whose memoir A Million Little Pieces was discovered to have been “made-up,” was unfairly castigated. He argues that Frey should have defended himself by saying, “Everyone who writes about himself is a liar.” Also, he suggests Frey missed an opportunity by not questioning the reality of Oprah’s on-screen persona, which, in my opinion, would have been awesome.

From all I’d heard, I thought the book would be more anti-fiction, but in fact it’s a proponent of blending fiction with nonfiction. It encourages work that sits on the frontier between genres, that confronts the real world directly but also mediates and shapes the world, as novels do.

Of course this is nothing new. Writers have blended fact and fiction since the beginning of the form. Some personal favorites like Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, and Joan Didion have written both novels and nonfiction books, as well as blurred the line between the two. Pessoa, Celine, Beckett, Fante, and Bukowski all blurred this line by creating thinly veiled alter egos. Other writers, from Djuna Barnes to Anne Carson, have even added a poetic sensibility into the mix. What Shields seems to be saying is that this nontraditional form is now usurping the classical model, and that in our age of interconnectivity, sampling, and collaging, a purely invented novel rings false.

Much as I want to, I can’t entirely discount his theory. I find these unconventional hybrid works appealing. Of all the books I read last summer, the one that stuck with me the most was Roberto Bolaño’s Savage Detectives. Bolaño usually includes his alter ego Belano in his writing, but the brilliant method he uses in Detectives is never to have him narrate any passage. The last time we see Belano, he’s off to certain death in a tribal war in Africa, which, as far as my research dug up, Bolaño was never actually involved in. Other aspects of the book did actually happen, or at least some version thereof, making it truly a hybrid of fact and fiction.

The other book I read and enjoyed over the summer was Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (I know, I’m a little late to the party). It’s a well-told story, but never once did I believe that any of it happened. However, in the edition I read, Chuck wrote an afterword as fascinating as the book itself, detailing how the popularity of the book and movie led to several real fight clubs popping up all over the world. Sometimes a story can be so well told that life will mirror it, rather than the other way around.

I can’t say if the novel will survive, though there are many modern examples that still seem relevant, and very fictional to boot. Murakami comes to mind, maybe because he incorporates dream-like scenarios, which also can be a part of our everyday reality, if we’re lucky enough to remember them.

But where does all this leave me, and the huge task ahead? I’m not writing a traditional novel, but a collection of stories. As I stated in my last blog post, they’re not completely linked right now, but related. Yet the more work I do, the more linked they become. And the more honest, which could also mean my stepping out as narrator. As it stands most of the stories could have the same main character, even if told from a different POV. I may, in the next draft, go the extra mile and try to make them all the same person.

And yes, I may have to create an alter ego. Elliot Player? Rick Lyre?

Suggestions are welcome in your comments…