It seems likely that most discussions on the future of the novel (or in this case, “The Novel of the Future”) are now doomed to begin with Sir V.S. Naipaul’s famous death-knell for the novel. Of course, since that statement, His Crustiness has gone on to write more novels, which, infuriatingly enough, are difficult to find fault with. The novel is dead, long live the novel. Or at least that was the prevailing sentiment at the Jaipur Literature Festival, during the panel discussion “The Novel of the Future” featuring Howard Jacobson, Zoë Heller, Nadeem Aslam, Lawrence Norfolk and Linda Grant, moderated by Anita Anand. While there were a few hiccups along the way, (Anand clean forgot to introduce Grant the first time around, and then her cellphone buzzed on the mike) the sheer miscellany of styles and opinions at the table was a joy to behold.
Take Aslam for instance. His latest novel The Blind Man’s Garden was released only last month. His Wiki page states that he “prefers extreme isolation while working”. Taking a dig at these authorial habits, Anand deadpanned to the audience, “As those of you who attended Nadeem’s last session know, he’s quite hardcore.” She was referring to Aslam’s solo reading session about an hour earlier, where the Pakistan-born British author revealed that while writing The Blind Man’s Garden he had taped up his eyes for three weeks to better understand how a blind man felt. When asked whether, in his opinion, the novel was an exhausted form, he replied, with the air of a patient teacher repeating a nursery rhyme to an error-prone child, “I’m a writer. I don’t honestly see myself as someone who’s a part of the publishing world. What happens to my work outside my study is secondary. I can tell you that I definitely have more novels that I plan to write, so the novel’s not exhausted in my study.”
When I was 18, I carried around Women In Love or Sons and Lovers in my pocket in the hope that it might help me with the ladies. Later on, I carried around Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but that conveyed a different message altogether.
Grant (who won the Orange Prize in 2000 for her novel When I Lived in Modern Times) spoke about re-reading A.S. Byatt’s 1985 novel Still Life. “It’s set partly at Cambridge. In the book, a student is told by a senior academic that the novel is dead. People have been writing this form’s obituary for a long time now. The fact of the matter is, longform storytelling has shifted to TV serials like The Sopranos and The Wire, and soap operas.” Grant had hit upon a particularly intriguing example here, simply because The Wire has been deemed quite novelistic in its complex, detailed approach to storytelling. In an interview, the creator David Simon himself used the term ‘visual novel’ to describe the show, with each episode to be considered a chapter. The Nobel-winning author Mario Vargas Llosa famously wrote a glowing review of the show in 2011.
Jacobson, unsurprisingly, drew the loudest bursts of laughter and unabashed applause. The Booker-winning author of The Finkler Question was deliberately and delightfully over-the-top, thoroughly entertaining the full house which had gathered to witness the ‘beauty pageant for writers’, as Anand put it. “If you’re a writer, let alone a novelist, you should never say that the novel is exhausted,” Jacobson said. “All that ever means is that you’re exhausted! My last novel Zoo Time has a character who’s a writer, and he says that the novel is finished. What he means, of course, is that he’s finished. The novel has always had problems, because novelists have had problems. And I think we should glory in the fact that we’ve had problems.”
Heller and Jacobson also pointed out a crucial angle to the debate; about the steep decline in the quality and quantity of readers, in the Western world in particular. Heller (who is British, and now lives in New York) spoke about this tendency, saying, “I think what’s happening right now in the West is sort of the global future. My kids are among the more literate children around, they do read and they don’t watch too much television. When I see them, I realise that their capacity to immerse themselves in a novel is clearly diminished. Their capacity to commit to a different syntax, to completely surrender themselves to a fictional world has diminished. I was reading Little Women to my daughter and she said, “I don’t know, Mum. It has really long sentences and they all keep worrying about their gloves!”” Heller and Anand also said that India and the rest of the subcontinent was the place where a new generation of informed, serious readers was making its presence felt. Jacobson mentioned that he now got better reviews in countries like India and Australia, as opposed to the US, where people had “lost their sense of adventure”.
Norfolk chipped in about the deleterious effects of television and how it has ‘dumbed down’ popular culture. “We need to teach our children how to put on the psychological armour to shield themselves from the ‘deferred price’ they pay for watching TV. And that deferred price is the subconscious choices they make afterwards, whether it’s the kind of soap they’d prefer or the kind of people they’d like to be around.” This last bit was particularly apt, one felt. After all, if the written word was the great influence of an earlier age, today it’s the information we get off screens; off our mobile phones, our laptops and our iPods. And this influence is manifested in all sorts of ways and places. Jacobson recalled his youth, when carrying around a novel still conveyed (or so he thought) a certain desirable erudition. “There was this poll done recently, among school kids in Britain. 75 per cent of them wouldn’t admit to reading a novel, or anything at all for that matter, because it’s not seen as sexy! When I was 18, I carried around Women In Love or Sons and Lovers in my pocket in the hope that it might help me with the ladies. Later on, I carried around Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but that conveyed a different message altogether.” Did it work, Anand asked mischievously. “No, but my point is that one assumed it might!” Jacobson roared back.
The panel also couldn’t resist speaking about the fastest-selling novel of all time, something of a cultural phenomenon these days. Linda Grant acknowledged the burgeoning popularity of the erotic novel, particularly among women. “I haven’t actually read 50 Shades of Grey“, Jacobson declared cheerfully. “But I did recently read a copy (an imitation) of 50 Shades. And the second chapter of 52 Shades of Cream, or whatever it was called, had a passage which just took my breath away. It says, and I quote, “She stirred in the bath as she saw him walking in the bathroom, and she couldn’t believe her eyes because of the magnificent package he was carrying.” Maybe it’s the age difference, but for people of my generation, ‘package’ meant something you got in the mail, maybe a friend’s new book or something.”
And then, surprise surprise, Jacobson ended the talk on an unusually melancholy note, saying, “If there is a sizable number of people (compared to readers of 50 Shades) willing to read that stuff in the future, we are finished!” Aslam was a touch more hopeful, expressing his faith in the traditional novel, saying, “As long as the death of a loved one causes you to grieve, as long as there’s a certain innate empathy in human beings, and as long as there are governments around the world who lock people up arbitrarily…as long as things like these exist, the novel will survive, and with its current form intact.”