Literary Criticism
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Minority Culture

Fergus McGhee

Will Self
‘A Care Home for Novels: The Narrative Artform
in the Age of its Technological Supercession’
The Richard Hillary Memorial Lecture

Gulbenkian Lecture Theatre, St Cross Building, Oxford
6th May 2014

As the critic Frank Kermode recognised in 1965, “the special fate of the novel is to be always dying.” Elegies for the form have long constituted a kind of genre in themselves, of which Will Self’s lecture is only the latest specimen. In the twenties, T.S. Eliot declared that it had perished with Flaubert and James, a view echoed by José Ortega y Gasset, and by 1948 Lionel Trilling could write that “the opinion is now an established one.” So why plough this stony soil?

Self offered a mixed bag of arguments, delivered with customary polysyllabic brio, if not always with the utmost lucidity (you can read an abridged version over at the Guardian). The structure of the lecture was casually discursive rather than strictly logical, but I made out essentially three main lines of attack: I’ll begin with the least interesting, and work my way up.

The least persuasive plank of Self’s case also happens to be the oldest and most widely discussed. This is the argument sketched out by Ortega nearly a century ago: the form has exhausted itself, the ore has all been worked out of the mine. Curiously, Self appeared to dismiss this line of argument early on only to wheel it out later. He began by assuring us that what he meant by “death” was distinctly not that “serious novels will either cease to be written or read”, but rather that they were losing their “centrality in the culture” (of which more anon). Yet Self went on to say that “the form should have been laid to rest at about the time of Finnegans Wake.” Conceding that “many fine novels” have been written since Joyce’s formal high-water mark, Self claimed these were nonetheless “zombie novels”, instances of “an undead art form that… wouldn’t lie down.”

But is One Hundred Years of Solitude, to pluck an example at random, really what can be described as a “zombie novel”? Is Gravity’s Rainbow? Is Lolita? If these count as zombies, one shudders to think what that makes you and me. The ease with which one can cite such counterexamples must give us pause. Self’s metaphor may be amusing but it is also glib. Doubtless if and when the novel really does expire, it will do so partly under the weight of its own belatedness; that is, it will do so partly because it will seem impossible to do anything new with it. But far more plausible are those threats which arise from the changing material conditions of the novel’s production and reception.

The title of Self’s lecture nods to these conditions in its reference to “technological supercession”. The phrase belongs to the euphemistic lexis of the twenty-first century management consultant (along with “restructuring” and “tax-efficient”), which makes it sound strikingly up-to-date, but the argument is in fact an old one, as Self recognises. He draws on Marshall McLuhan’s 1964 Understanding Media, which stressed the transformative psychological impact of new technologies: the printing press, the telegraph, television. For McLuhan, the characteristics of the new media themselves, rather than the content they transmit, are what really matter: as he famously put it, “the medium is the message.” Likewise, Self argues that “all the opinions and conceptions of the new media amount to nothing set beside the way they’re actually used.”

These are hyperboles, but one need not swallow them whole to agree that media are far from neutral. The regnant medium of the present day, and of the foreseeable future, is of course the internet, and Self neatly captures its endless ability to distract. Before broadband, “the impulse to check email, buy something you didn’t need, or goggle at images of the unattainable was there—but at least there was the annoying tocsin of dial-up connection to awake you to your time-wasting.” With broadband, “it became seamless: one second you were struggling over a sentence, the next you were buying oven gloves.” If, as seems likely, we end up doing most of our reading on “devices linked to the web”, the ability to sustain the kind of concentration demanded by serious fiction will be severely tested. Self believes most of us will fail that test, and hence the novel will lose its “cultural primacy and centrality”: it will die.

Yet if “cultural primacy” is to be the measure of the novel’s well-being it is hard to see how Self could have considered it anything other than haggard in his own lifetime. One suspects the change he registers owes less to a changing reality than it does to his simply gaining a better sense of perspective. Nevertheless he makes a valuable point: the environment for engaged, immersive reading has scarcely been less propitious. The observation is not new, but it continues to gain force. In George Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891) it is the commercial press that is indicted in the person of the unscrupulous literary entrepreneur Whelpdale:

“What they want is the lightest and frothiest of chit-chatty information—bits of stories, bits of description, bits of scandal, bits of jokes, bits of statistics, bits of foolery… Everything must be very short, two inches at the utmost; their attention can’t sustain itself beyond two inches.”

And here is Lionel Trilling in 1946 (in his essay ‘The Function of the Little Magazine’), adding “the radio” and “the movies” to the mix:

The emotional space of the human mind is large but not infinite, and perhaps it will be pre-empted by substitutes for literature—the radio, the movies, and certain magazines…

But it was the Leavises (F.R. and Q.D.) who made the subject their own. In her pioneering 1932 study of English reading habits, Fiction and the Reading Public, Queenie Leavis worried that the “frivolous stimuli” of commercialized culture were not only shrinking our attention spans but pathologizing the isolation necessary for fully engaged reading. Her husband’s enormously influential pamphlet of two years before, Mass Civilization and Minority Culture, made the same point, warning ominously that “the future holds rapid developments in store.”

Self’s lecture unconsciously echoed these concerns:

I’ve come to realise that the kind of psyche implicit in the production and consumption of serious novels… depends on a medium that has inbuilt privacy: we must all be Ambroses.

We must all be Ambroses—committed solitary readers—if the novel is to survive. Really? In the same essay I quoted above, Trilling suggests that “now and then” (he cites the nineteenth century) “periods do occur when the best literature overflows its usual narrow bounds and reaches a large mass of people”, but that “generally speaking literature has always been carried on within small limits and under great difficulties.” Trilling suggests that if the concept of a golden age of literature is not entirely mythical, such phases of “overflowing” have at least tended to be the exception rather than the rule; if literary culture is now a “minority culture”, this is not an aberration but a return to the historical norm. The fact is that “most people do not like the loneliness and the physical quiescence of the activity of contemplation, and many do not have the time or spirit left for it.” Self is thus both too pessimistic and not pessimistic enough about the novel’s future. Too pessimistic because Ambrosial solitude has never exactly been all the rage, and because magnificent novels continue to be written; not pessimistic enough because the novel has long ceased to occupy however central a place it once possessed in the culture at large.

If there is a loss to be accounted somewhere, then, it is not so much the novel’s as it is its missing readers’. The novel lives on even as the appetite for it wanes. The distractions of modern life must bear heavy responsibility for the hollowing out of its public, but they have been assisted by brave new educational orthodoxies. This, I think, was the most interesting story Self had to tell.

The hallmark of our contemporary culture is an active resistance to difficulty in all its aesthetic manifestations, accompanied by a sense of grievance that conflates it with political elitism. Indeed, it’s arguable that tilting at this papery windmill of artistic superiority actively prevents a great many people from confronting the very real economic inequality and political disenfranchisement they’re subject to…

Self nails a cultural iconoclasm that distracts from genuine political and economic injustices, and that all too often deprives as it claims to enrich, narrows horizons in the name of broadening them. One need not be Harold Bloom to lament the encounters lost, the thrills untasted, the challenges ducked, in consequence.

Fiction and the Reading Public chronicled the relentless public denigration of what was then quaintly known as “highbrow” literature, a campaign waged by real-life Whelpdales with their commercial interests firmly in view. But the Leavises could hardly have imagined that such attitudes might be promoted by the academy. Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s strenuously confused Contingencies of Value (1988) advanced from the perfectly reasonable proposition that literary value is not timeless to an outright rejection of evaluation as therefore pointless. Similarly John Carey’s What Good Are the Arts? (2005) crudely dismissed discussion of value as mere snobbery. In a damning review of that book, Terry Eagleton—no swivel-eyed reactionary—drily questioned whether “this applies to condemning genocide as well as commending Dante.”

At one point Self made the claim that “we are still solidly within the modernist era.” It was a telling remark, because if Self is a kind of displaced modernist this is both his weakness and his strength. On the one hand, as his own fiction demonstrates, he remains beguiled by the conventions of the modernist novel—which are just as much conventions as those which govern any other kind of novel—and this misleads him into discounting everything short of Finnegans Wake as some sort of hopeless anachronism. On the other hand, he sees the hollow asperities of much postmodern critical posturing for precisely what they are.

It was disappointing, therefore, that Self concluded on a note of resignation rather than provocation, perhaps in an effort not to seem too self-pitying. Consider what he might have said instead. That in a world saturated in stereotypes, and ruled by a concept of utility as thin as a dollar bill, the novel still speaks out for “variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty”, in Trilling’s memorable phrase. That it still has the capacity, as one of its greatest practitioners, Henry James, magnificently put it, to help us “really to see… in the face of the constant force that makes for muddlement.” To assert as much is not to claim anything so na√Øve as that reading novels makes us better people. It is to insist that novels are one of the few means we have by which to appraise the texture of our own lives. That is one reason, at least, why their survival should matter to us.

Fergus McGhee is reading for a second BA in English at Harris Manchester College, Oxford. He is ORbits Editor at the Oxonian Review.