The End of Great Novels?

Obviously it’s not news to anyone that the publishing industry is facing a lot of rapid changes — certainly you wouldn’t be here with us if you didn’t agree! — but in his article “Are Writers Finishing Great Novels, Or Are Great Novels Finished?” for the Huffington Post on Monday, writer Michael Levin seems to believe that it’s the act of writing fiction itself, not the medium by which it comes to us, that’s in serious decline.

To make his argument, he’s taken a look at the recent novels of two celebrated American authors: John Grisham and Tom Wolfe. Both are similar, he says, in that they are both “second rate” and full of themes that are already very well known to us. “You need 699 pages for that?” he says of the subpar plot that dominates Grishman’s new book, Back to Blood. “So what gives here? If these guys can’t get novels right, who can?”

Ultimately this leads him to complain that in the future, lengthy fiction-writing might be a completely lost art, fallen victim to “Twitter feeds” and short attention spans:

You’ve got some terrific genre writers today — Michael Connelly, Lee Child, Stephen King, James Patterson, and Grisham himself come to mind. But is there a single author, Grisham and King notwithstanding, whose works attract the deserved attention of a mass readership?

Dan Brown? A one-time phenomenon, whose moderately well-written thriller, The Da Vinci Code, succeeded because it gave legitimacy to the anti-religious feelings of a broad audience and raised the sales of his past and future works.

J.K. Rowling? The world’s most famous children’s author, whose first foray into adult fiction hasn’t set the world on fire.

E.L. James? How do you follow Fifty Shades? With 128 Colors?

Tellingly, the Modern Library’s list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century, includes only two books published after 1980. Salman Rushdie’s 1981 novel Midnight’s Children ranked a lowly 90th, and William Kennedy’s Ironweed, published in 1983, merited a dismal 92nd place. After them, crickets.

Maybe Solomon was right: There’s nothing new under the sun. Or at least there’s nothing new for novelists to notice and describe. Novel means new, and we’re seeing next to nothing that’s new in novels.

What Levin might be forgetting is that although the bestsellers’ lists are dominated by a very small percentage of authors and although the industry appears to be shrinking, there are more places to find fiction to read than there ever has been before, from local zines to electronic bookstore to free fanfiction websites. It’s the same as what’s going on in the music industry: it’s become so much easier to record an album in your basement that a lot of talented bands are producing quality music on their own, and as a result there’s so much more material out there that a lot of the less established artists get lost in the crowd. “Genre fiction” as he’s defining it here is akin to “pop music” – there’s a lot of subpar, easily churned out stuff out there, but the real gems are the ones you have to discover for yourself.

So don’t get discouraged, readers! You might not be writing the Next Great American Novel, but then again, no one is. That doesn’t mean that the book you’re writing or hoping to write doesn’t have value and can’t be a fantastic work of of art. Keep working at it!

Remember, there’s still time to get in a question of the week – submit one in the comments below!


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