Vox: Jeff Sparrow
The book and the novel are not the same. The book has a much longer history, and has survived through a variety of forms. Even if you define the book as an exclusively paper artifact (and I’m by no means convinced you should), at present, it’s by no means dwindling — the last statistics I saw suggested that more books were being published in Australian than ever before. The vast majority of them were not novels but they were books nonetheless.
Will the production of books on paper decline? Yes but it’s by no means as simple a process as people think. You only have to shift the geographical focus to realise that, say, the rise of China is producing a vast population now able to read — and, at least, in the short term, they’re far more likely to be reading in print than on screen.
I suspect the real question is about the state of the novel. Even then, though, we need to be clear what we mean. Is the novel doddering and ineffectual? Well, I don’t know the exact figures but let’s remember that very few twentieth century novelists achieved anything like the sales of Harry Potter or Twilight.
Of course, the success of JK Rowling doesn’t cheer most writers up because their anxiety is really about the cultural heft of the literary novel, not the social significance of a YA Text.
On that specific issue, yes, it’s probably true that the novel will never again be as culturally important as it was during the mid-twentieth century. But, then again, these narratives of decline tend to take as their point of comparison the period of prosperity between the Second World War and the early 1970s, a time in which literary publishing did very well. The problem is that the long boom now seems not such much the norm as an anomaly, as we shift back into a cycle of slump and stagnation much closer to the first half of the last century. If literary publishing is struggling, it’s not really so surprising — whole sectors of the world economy are in crisis.
In any case, literary forms rise and fall but they’re never totally eclipsed. Novels still find readers, just as poems do, and it’s hard to make predictions of the specific audience of any particular cultural form in advance.
Will there be an e-form that dominates? Maybe. It’s notable that the digital revolution has led to an explosion of reading and writing, confounding the expectations of many that the future belonged to voice commands and video interfaces. Who would have picked that the telephone would be largely replaced by texting?
Nonetheless, I suspect that the search for ‘one art form to rule them all’ is a bit of chimera, since, at least to date, the digital scene seems to be as much about diversity as anything else.
In any case, does it really matter? In some ways, one doesn’t really have a choice in these matters. Yes, you can — and should — be looking out for new ways of communicating to new audiences but you also, over time, accumulate skills with particular forms. There’s something to be said about not chasing novelty but instead trying to do the best with the skills that you have.