Working Corpses and Self-ish Considerations

by: Chris Campanioni

A thoughtful, and necessary response to the outlandish claim, “the novel is dead”…..

It’s diatribes like this that give authors a bad name. Will Self – who is a good enough writer, good enough to know better – is merely repeating the stereotypical lament of any artist, no matter the medium: woe is me….I’ll be appreciated for my art, long after I’m dead. Or more simply: I’m not appreciated at all.

Self’s essay, published in The Guardian on May 2, encompasses parental anecdotes, cliched nostalgia, and irresponsible, hypocritical attacks on academia. Instead of incisive commentary about today’s publishing world, he bemoans the changing landscape of readers and writers and the narrative itself, and how we choose to consume it. And Self alone is not to blame; The Guardian, too, is responsible, ultimately deciding to publish this monstrosity, even giving it the (cute?) headline:

“The novel is dead (this time it’s for real)”

In case you haven’t read The Guardian article yet, here is Self’s defeatist and grim take on his own role as an educator:

“The creative writing programmes burgeoning throughout our universities are exactly this; another way of looking at them is that they’re a self-perpetuating and self-financing literary set-aside scheme purpose built to accommodate writers who can no longer make a living from their work. In these care homes, erstwhile novelists induct still more and younger writers into their own reflexive career paths, so that in time they too can become novelists who cannot make a living from their work and so become teachers of creative writing.”

One has to wonder what his students, particularly the student whose doctoral thesis he supervised, must think. Instead of relishing the opportunity – really, the privilege – to shape young people’s perspectives in the classroom, Self seems satisfied with lambasting the undertaking he himself is sentimental for. “The future of the novel,” he says, “is a specialized interest.” But where is the interest here, even – and especially – from the author?

The fundamental problem with Self’s long-winded argument is that it is flawed at the outset by his own admission that he was “affronted” by the paltry amount of money he was originally offered to publish his first novel. Self, through and through, seems overeager to make the distinction between “the novel” – literary fiction – and everything else, including the bestsellers that line stores like Barnes & Noble but mostly, the ones found within the virtual halls of Amazon. If money is the issue, if money is the concern, why is Self even engaged in a mode of expression like the novel? A better question would be to ask why he even bothered making the distinction between literary and genre fiction in the first place.

All art, I argue, originates in pleasure. If it doesn’t, it isn’t art, it’s just a business endeavor, a job, a “buy”-product. Maybe that’s the distinction Self should be making, except then, he wouldn’t be strictly a careless essayist, he’d also be a hypocrite, since what he wants – at least, what he is really lamenting from the start – is the money that used to follow any old hack who had a writing credit on a hit song.

But to return to that flawed argument, if the end of the novel really arrived post – Finnegans Wake, then many of us would be living (and reading) lies. Nothing against James Joyce; he is one of the masters of an art form I endeavor to contribute worthwhile and compelling material to, but Self seems obsessed with dead, white, Irish males. Where is Edith Wharton, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf? Where is anyone from Latin America, or any number of authors with African roots? Where the hell is the whole canon of post-Colonial literature?

If the novel is dead, it’s only because readers – Will Self included – might not take the time to read these great authors and their classic works. If the novel is dead, it’s only because Self, and perhaps like-minded others, might not get out enough; might not get out and see what wonderful ways narrative is being re-shaped and re-imagined today, whether it be through video or through ever-evolving textual innovations that combine various media and mediums. Grieving over the changing climate of the novel is like grieving over the constant ebb and progression of language: it doesn’t make sense, and Self risks looking as antiquated as the authorities who desperately tried to salvage Standard British English at the turn of the century. The novel is not dead; old ideas are dead.

From 2006 to 2011, the number of books published by independent, art-driven, innovative presses grew by 69 percent. Each of these publishers, including countless literary magazines and journals, have an objective, an aesthetic, and a desire, and I am betting that making money is not the be-all and end-all mission of that majority. One of the reasons why I chose Aignos Publishing among a crowded field of presses is because I trusted its commitment to diverse voices and works. I trusted it to publish a series of novels that, at their core, are concerned about issues like media representation, cultural diversity, and silencing in all its forms.

#WeNeedDiverseBooks …We also need to stop perpetuating the myth that the novel is dead, that poetry is dying, that art doesn’t “matter” anymore. It does. It always will. Art is the most dangerous form of resistance to any dictatorship, to any oppressive regime, precisely because of its beauty, which is power, and vice versa. Art lives. And it will always live, because it dwells inside each of us.

Well, maybe not Will Self.

1 Comment

  • The fact that Self suggests authors who are not professional writers (and thus incapable of writing a “serious” novel) are somehow contributing to the downfall of our race’s collective abilities to tell stories is plain nuts. People were telling stories around fires, passing along oral histories steeped in lesson and morals long before he walked the Earth and they will continue to do so long after he is gone. You don’t need to be a professional to create good art just like you don’t need to be a chef to make a delicious omelet. Your perspective on this tired argument is well received, and I appreciate the way in which you balanced your candidness with fact. It seems to me like Will Self is the type of novelist who writes books with the sole purpose of making the reader feel inadequate…and it’s that sort of mindset that will see the novel’s downfall before anything else.

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