The Novel is Back! (Well, sort of.)

I’m so excited I might split my pants. This fall, the literary world gets two giant releases: Jonathan Franzen’s Purity and Avenue of Mysteries, John Irving’s fourteenth novel. I might very well drive to Barnes & Noble, pluck these novels from the shelf, and stand in the checkout line. I might take my time with each, poolside, or read feverishly while sprawled on my recliner. There’s no way to tell. There are plenty of short story collections crowding my bookcase—I could read these (and I will), but each story will feel like a snapshot…a Snapchat, even: there in full Technicolor one moment, but then gone much too quickly. I desire characters. Long digressions that fail to advance plot. Minor characters, for Christ’s sake. I want to be lulled and led—follow me all the way through this unnecessarily long flashback! I want to live with characters I both detest and adore for 500 pages (563 in Franzen’s latest).

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But wait. Maybe I should curb my giddiness. Wasn’t the novel supposed to be dead? Who has time for make believe when there’s reality television and Facebook feeds? When there’s Donald Trump? In the early ’00s, when Survivor and Big Brother reigned (followed by American Idol and Duck Dynasty—do people really watch this?) I might have…no wait, I did fear that novels would go the way of poetry and aerobics classes—sure, these things are good for you, but who’s got the time, really? The American public seemed disinterested in fiction, let alone the novel. Televised singing/dancing/juggling competitions, however, now that’s entertainment! When you’re smack dab in the middle of the fad, it’s difficult to see the fad for what it is. From 1995 to 1999, I proudly wore a chain wallet. It was cool and would always be cool. Only when you unsnap that chain from the belt loop on your jeans, though, do you recognize how silly you’ve been.

This brings me to Netflix. Thank god for Netflix. If you need any evidence that the novel is alive and kicking, look no further than Netflix. Okay, follow me here… By the end of the ’00s, the American public had started coming out of the reality television mania that had held the networks and cable channels hostage for so long. People craved story. Characters. Plot. Shows like Breaking Bad and Dexter and True Blood had huge followings. At work, people weren’t talking about what contestant ate what exotic (and possibly poisonous) food on Fear Factor, but were now speculating on who was truly the evil one on Lost, Jacob or the Man in Black. Netflix was live streaming and people were catching up on shows that their best friends were urging them to watch—it’s like the best show ever, seriously. So friends, as you can see, the novel is back and bigger than ever. Case closed.

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Not exactly.

The public’s need for story is one thing, and television and live streaming are not, of course, the same as engaging with a book. But I submit that there is some crossover here. Save for the latest Star Wars, set to be released this December, people seem more interested in long-form storytelling. We want to stay with a character for 9 seasons. We want to watch all 9 seasons this weekend. Many of the shows we binge watch were novels; has Tom Perrotta written anything that hasn’t been adapted for film or an HBO series? There’s some good news on the bookstore front, too: independent bookstores are actually increasing; Barnes & Noble is still a thing—and please go there, today, and buy a tangible book. Are all book sales up? Certainly not, and the number of authors out there who can put up sales numbers like Franzen or Irving are few…and yet, I remain positive when it comes to the novel. Positive because people still crave characters. The novel is always on the brink of extinction, or so we’ve been told. But as long as we’re suckers for big sweeping stories, the novel will never be a fad, even if it is more fashionable some years than others. And if it is a trend, trends come back, right? So this weekend, I plan on digging out my old chain wallet, snapping it to a pair of jeans, and then leaning all the way back in my recliner with a novel in my hand.  


Matt Hall is an MFA fiction candidate at Virginia Tech.

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