The Novelist’s Complicity

Warner Bros. Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby, Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan, Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway, and Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan, in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, 2013

“In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me a word of advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.” Thus begins F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a novel that many regard as one of the finest literary works of the twentieth century. It’s certainly one of the most popular. The words are uttered by Nick Carraway, the narrator, through whom the entire story is told. His father’s advice is to refrain from judging people because not everyone has had the advantages he has had. But what of those who had all the same advantages and then some, the people who make up Carraway’s milieu in the novel? Carraway proceeds to condemn them, though perhaps pulling his punches when it comes to the eponymous hero.

No effort at putting Fitzgerald’s novel on screen has ever been entirely successful, certainly not in terms of fidelity to his vision. The medium of film has a major obstacle to overcome if it is to provide a faithful rendering of a first-person novel, such as the The Great Gatsby: in general, film cameras show everything in the third person, not from the vantage point of a particular character but from a stance separated from any consciousness. If our reading experience of a first-person novel is substantially conditioned by the particular perspective of the character telling the story—when is it not?—then recreating that reading experience through the third person of film is impossible.

There are often other impediments. Time and causation are dealt with differently, flexibly, in novels. Take Fitzgerald’s novel. There’s some doubt about how Jay Gatsby made his money; in the end, Carraway can really only report half-heard hearsay and rumors of historical shady dealings. How could such antecedents be brought into a film narrative while retaining the quality of doubt as to what precisely happened? That doubt or vagueness is, after all, essential in giving us permission to regard Gatsby sympathetically.

What I’m getting at with all this detail is that there’s a basic difference between fiction grounded in the interiority of characters, on the one hand, and film and TV, on the other. Novels do interiority and the drama of the mind infinitely better than TV and film do.

The imminent death of the novel has been announced every year for as long as I can remember. (This doesn’t mean that the novel won’t die; it means that successive soothsayers haven’t been very good at soothsaying.) In 2009, the American novelist Philip Roth predicted that within twenty-five years the readership of novels would amount to a cult. “I think people will always be reading them,” he said in an interview, “but it will be a small group of people. Maybe more people than now read Latin poetry, but somewhere in that range.”

Roth’s prognosis has some data behind it. While the publishing industry might be thriving, buoyed up by cookbooks, self-help manuals and all manner of non-fiction, fiction sales have fallen by 23 percent over the past five years. In most industries, this would raise alarm bells.

Good evidence-based research explaining why fiction sales have fallen so much seems to be lacking, but this hasn’t stopped speculation. The attention spans of readers, it’s said, is now trained for tweets, Facebook posts, and information in bitesize morsels. Roth suggested as much in his interview. “To read a novel requires a certain kind of concentration, focus, devotion to the reading,” he said. “If you read a novel in more than two weeks, you don’t read the novel really. So I think that that kind of concentration, and focus, and attentiveness, is hard to come by.”

Reading now, also, has strong competition from screens. This is a new golden age of television, we’re told, and I agree. With The Wire, The Sopranos, Madmen, Breaking Bad, the reboot of Battlestar Galactica (think “Shakespeare in Space”), and many, many other shows, there has been a steady supply of riveting dramas, with rich characterization, moral depth, and tumultuous plot lines. The boxed set and the binge-watching of viewers have freed up writers from the constraints of the weekly serial, whose intervening seven days ensured that scarcely more than a cliffhanger of the plot survived in the memory. Now TV writers can craft and develop character over time, something novels do. Binge-watching offers space, also, to introduce subordinate plot lines and ideas. Just like novels.

Television today appears to be capable of delivering many of the rewards novels might offer. There’s some research suggesting that reading fiction improves our capacity to empathize with others whose lives are very different from our own. Even on this score, television can claim some success. Who would deny that The Sopranos has inculcated in viewers a strange empathy for the New Jersey mobster or that Breaking Bad has inspired warmth toward a drug-dealing chemistry teacher?


And if television can reach a wider audience than novels ever did, isn’t the goal of broadening empathy better served by those superbly well-written TV dramas?

Television might offer strong competition and attention spans might be sagging, but there may be deeper cultural trends that have led to the decline of novels. In a paper published in 2014 in the journal Administrative Science Quarterly, researchers found that winning a famous literary prize seems to be followed by a steep fall in the quality ratings of a book on the online book review site Goodreads, a limb of the Amazon behemoth. This happened after Julian Barnes won the 2011 Booker Prize for his novel The Sense of an Ending. The researchers speculate that what might be happening is that winning a famous prize draws in a great many readers who would otherwise not consider the book, many of whom have no other reason for expecting to like the book. Some of these readers might not even be habitual readers of fiction.

Amazon and Goodreads ratings, and numerous online book-reviewing sites, have all contributed to and reflected the democratization of the arbitration of literary taste. But such democratization is not intrinsically a good thing. The arbitration of scientific evidence is not conducted under the auspices of universal suffrage; it is scientists who adjudicate on the risks of climate change, for instance, not elected politicians, and that’s exactly how it should be. The democratization of reading tastes has gone hand in hand with the demise of the critic, and with that, the idea of reading a novel because certain people with discernibly good judgment think that the book is worth reading. A writer—I think it was the novelist Claire Messud, but don’t quote me—suggested that the literary critic should aspire to be able to say of a novel that “this is a great book even though I didn’t like it.” The implication is that there is much more to what makes a book great and worth reading than merely one’s visceral reaction of liking it or not. Great works allow us to gather around the campfire and discuss things of importance—not least of all, our diverse subjectivities. This idea might smack of snobbery, but it’s useful to reflect that the idea retains influence in other areas of art, such as painting and sculpture—notably, areas that don’t rely on an economics involving a large number of buyers of the same product.

The question, however, remains: Should the demise of the literary novel trouble us? I think the answer is “yes,” but not nearly as much as some literary novelists would have you think.

Great television is taking over the space occupied by many novels, and taking with them many excellent writers. And by and large, it’s delivering the same rewards to its audience. But what about novels that exploit the opportunities that are available only to the form of the novel, such as novels that explore interiority, or rely on the novel’s versatile treatment of time and causation? Who will speak for such novels?

If I seem reluctant to sound the alarm for the demise of the literary novel, even as a novelist myself, it is because modern fiction, particularly English-language fiction, has moved in the direction of the televisual, anyway. Much so-called literary fiction is evidently written with an eye to an option for film or TV adaptation. The response to the challenges from television and other media has been to become more like the offerings of those media. In some ways, this is understandable behavior on the part of each novelist. For all but a tiny few, it’s nearly impossible to make anything even approaching a living from writing literary fiction. But the effect of this in aggregate is to leave much of modern fiction looking like an inferior version of TV. If novelists are relinquishing the very things that are exclusively the province of the novel, then they are complicit in the demise of the novel. If they don’t want to save the novel, why should anyone else?

This essay first appeared as a broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s “A Point of View.”

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