I wrote this post a few years ago and never published it. At the time, I was thinking a lot about the point of novels and fiction. We’ve had about three ‘revivals’ of the short story announced in the press since I wrote it, but short stories are still not loved by publishers. I also suspect people are reading fewer novels now than when it was written – although they may be buying more, given the number of cheap paperbacks and Kindle offers that are available. Meanwhile, I now rarely read novels, finding myself more interested in creative non-fiction. Reality Hunger.
BS Johnson’s novel, Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry is very short. It stretches the definition of novel, coming in at about 20,000 words. Johnson pre-empted this with a meta-fictional intervention from the eponymous Christie Malry:
“…who wants long novels anyway? Why spend all your spare time for a month reading a thousand-page novel when you can have a comparable aesthetic experience in the theatre or the cinema in only one evening? The writing of a long novel is in itself an anachronistic act: it was relevant only to a society and a set of social conditions that no longer exist”
My reaction to long novels these days is to feel affronted: who does this writer think they are? I don’t know how anyone has time to read long novels. The average UK work week is 41.4 hours. Add in time to sleep, cook, read weblog posts, update twitter and facebook, and play video games, it’s a wonder anyone reads novels. Considering that most people read 2 words per second, an average-sized 80,000 word novel takes about 11 hours. How long does it take most people to read an epic?
The time available to read is also dissected into smaller gaps, periods of dead time when it’s hard to do other things: flights, waiting rooms or the daily commute. I always wondered why people didn’t turn to short stories – after all, a half-hour commute is long enough to read a decent short story. Or you could get stuck into a couple of poems, and gaze out of the window while digesting them. Why do people stick with novels?
I found one possible answer in a round-table discussion, where Ra Page claimed “People read novels on the bus because it’s their little bit of down time, and they want to link those moments up and bring them together to make a longer experience.” If Ra Page is correct, people want novels to give a their day-to-day life a structure.
This was something else that obsessed BS Johnson. Jonathan Coe’s book on Johnson, Like a Fiery Elephant, quotes a letter in which he says, discussing his films, “I would like to make an audience think about WHY they demand a story from films but not from life.” We burrow into novels to find something lacking from our routine.
A major problem with restricting reading to these dead moments is that such moments are suited for certain types of novels: novels you can fall asleep to without losing the plot; or novels that can be followed despite the annoying conversations around you. Such books need to be simple, so they can be interrupted at any point and resumed with little effort. And if that’s true, then great novels are something that can only be enjoyed by students, the sick and the under-employed.
Maybe the novel is no longer suitable for the world we live in. I still enjoy reading, when I have time, but I’m aware that I might be one of the last generations to see novels as an essential part of life. New technologies are eroding the audience for the novel. They have to compete with movies and video games and mobile internet technologies – and I’d be hard pressed to state that novels are an intrinsically worthier method of entertainment than computer games or social networking.