The novel is dead again, like some kind of Lazarus in reverse, forever dying any time a would-be literary Jesus needs to startle us into buying more literary novels in bulk and so lead us into the holy land of—well, according to Will Self this time—the 1980s.
It must be hard for someone who styles himself a “serious novelist” to come to terms with something that we who write poetry have experienced for quite a while: the fact that our books just don’t sell the way we want them to, and that people don’t read as much poetry as we’d like them to. Prose does still dominate the literary marketplace in a way that poetry hasn’t for some time, after all, and to the fiction writer, a shift away from the high literary style, full of flâneurs flâneuring, might indeed resemble a falling sky.
We poets cut our teeth on the knowledge that our work will have a limited market as much as we do on the study of prosody, so I have the luxury of standing at a calm remove from the predictions of literary doom. And as I stand at my little remove, I wonder whether I’m alone in thinking that it’s good that readers have more choices in their reading these days. It’s true that, were someone writing in another era—let’s pick 1813 for example—a writer’s circulation among the percentage of the reading population would be relatively high. However, when we consider the fact that the reader in England in 1813 could conceivably read all the new publications in the nation in that year, we gain a little perspective into how incredibly small the literary world of the time was. When a reader could make his way through Pride and Prejudice, the new Lord Byron, some PB Shelley, and still have time for a the single genre novel (the aptly named Tales of the Dead was a big hit in the horror market that year!), it seems obvious that tastes would be centralized, options would be limited, and reading would be a different experience from what we enjoy today. I’m not sure that, as a writer, I’d trade greater circulation for a greater group of options as a reader.
I wonder, too, when it comes to the jeremiads on the decline of fiction if whether volume of readership really is more important than quality of readership. I recently read a 1956 Flannery O’Connor letter to the writer John Lynch (printed in the collection The Habit of Being), in which she says, “I think it must be easier on the nerves to publish poetry because it’s not generally misunderstood as it is not generally read. Anyone who can read the telephone book thinks he can read a story or novel.” It would be tempting to think of O’Connor’s statement on the ill-equipped reader as simply an instance of her charmingly snide humor were it not for her other letters’ documentations of her fan mail: personal favorites of mine include a series of missives from a “mountaineer whose favorite word is ‘literature’ which he spells ‘litatur,’” and another man who, apparently interested in dating O’Connor after reading her work, “was very polite and asked me if I had a wooden leg.” I imagine that it would be pretty demoralizing to have a book or story terribly misunderstood or treated as an opportunity for pickup lines.
If all we care about are the numbers of books sold, we miss connections with readers who genuinely appreciate the work. With a greater number of titles published each year than ever before, readers have greater opportunities to seek out work that appeals to and moves them. I don’t always understand how someone’s tastes could run to sword-and-sorcery or romance, but is it really so bad that, today, readers choose books they engage with, care about, read deeply, and make an effort to understand? I wish more readers consumed poetry voraciously, but I’ll take a small and faithful band of intelligent and invested readers over the mountaineers of litatur any day.