Is the novel dead?

At 28, I’m usually the youngest novelist at any given gathering of authors. It’s not something I brag about, but it’s endlessly pointed out to me that I’m a young turk. And one of the interesting things that happens is that I’m often asked by older authors, and other people, “why are you investing in writing novels at such a young age, don’t you worry that the novel will die off?”

Alternatively, I’m also asked if I’m worried that Science Fiction will ever die out as well. I’ve been hearing these fears ever since I first published a short piece of fiction in the magazine Science Fiction Age when I was 19 and wrapping up my senior year of college.

Do I worry that the novel will die off, and my genre with it? And then I’ll be forced to find a job in a small office somewhere doing TPS reports for some soul-sucking company? No I don’t.

The exact form of the novel may change, but the act of writing words in order to create an experience in a reader’s head offers an advantage in fiction you won’t find in movies: the ability to live in someone else’s mind for the duration of a story. While the form of those stories has moved from spoken sagas, to serials in newspapers, short stories in magazines, to book forms, and who knows what next, the needs of narrative to create a complete virtual reality experience in the mind of a reader will always be in demand, as will be the people who make that happen. The novel is the current mode of this experience, and it’s an effective mode. Distribution problems notwithstanding, people are still compelled to live out the lives of others through printed words. Should the novel migrate to pixels, it will still be recognizably a novel.

And as for Science Fiction side of things. I rather regard Science Fiction as the imagination of humanity (a new affectation of mine that I’m beginning to repeat in interviews to explain my love of it). Science Fiction may die off, true, but if it does, I imagine I will be worried about a lot more than just whether I’m making a living, but whether I want to live in a society that has lost its ability to dream.

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  1. 1. Kate Elliott

    The flip side of that question is: ‘why aren’t you diversifying more?’ which can be addressed to a novelist of any age. In some ways it’s a different question (diversification is usually a good idea ecologically anyway), but it presupposes that the novel is dying or as good as dead, while in fact more people are reading novels than ever before because of increased literacy rates. Which doesn’t mean that new forms aren’t evolving, just that I don’t think culturally we throw away so quickly a narrative form that works so well.

  2. 2. David Louis Edelman

    Well, also keep in mind that you might be the youngest novelist in any group because it’s pretty rare for someone in their 20s to be able to get a publishing contract. That hasn’t changed much in the past 50 years. I don’t know what the average age for a first novelist is, but I’d bet it’s somewhere around 32 or 33.

  3. 3. Marie Brennan

    David nailed the comment I was planning to make. I’m just a bit younger than you, and I know I only made my first sale so early because I decided so early that I was going to be a professional writer. (I made the decision at the age of ten, and started working seriously toward it when I was eighteen.) It takes time to develop the skill, and then time to find commercial success once you have the skill — Paolini and his ilk being radical exceptions, of course — and I doubt it’s ever been common for there to be lots of twentysomething novelists hanging around.

    To be frank, I find the “the novel is dead!” and “science fiction is dead!” doomsayers to be a little irritating. People seem so very eager to declare that the End Of The World Is Nigh, and then those declarations get reported everywhere because they’re much more interesting than someone saying, “thanks, but we’re actually doing just fine.”

  4. 4. David Kirkpatrick

    A disturbing trend that I see is the propensity of publishers to fill shelves with vast swaths of tried and true names and titles that were new 20+ years ago. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” to quote Jerry Seinfeld, but perhaps it isn’t the death of the novel that we should be concerned about but the limited number of new entries into the market. I know, I know– that’s just business, but a concern from the writer’s perspective.

  5. 5. Simon Haynes

    I recently read an article (excerpted on SF Signal, I believe) which gave a load of valid reasons why SF was no longer a genre worth writing in: real life technological advances had made writing about gee-whizz futuristic science irrelevant, etc. I was nodding along with it, since it pretty much repeated some of the arguments I’ve used from time to time.

    Then I discovered the source article was written in the 1940′s.

  6. 6. Josh

    I agree that the novel, or some form of word-stringing storytelling will survive whatever technological incarnation may come about…whether it’s the Rise of the eBook with some ultimate electronic reader, or some other device that streams the words straight into the reader’s head. If people lose their love of stories and the thrill of wondering at the unknown, that will be the day the world isn’t worth living in.

  7. 7. Robert Daeley

    The novel has been done to death with slanderous tongues many times before.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_of_the_novel

  8. 8. Tobias Buckell

    Nice link, Robert.

    Simon, I love that article. I also spotted a guardian UK article called ‘publishing had no golden age.’

    http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/books/2007/08/publishing_never_had_a_golden.html

  9. 9. Jenna Black

    I guess I must have been living in some kind of bubble, because I never heard the rumor that the novel was dying out. Good thing I’m no longer a “young turk,” because I feel pretty sure at my age the novel will outlive me handily. (And you guys are making me feel old!)

Author Information

Tobias Buckell
Tobias Buckell

Tobias is a professional blogger, freelance writer, and author of 2 novels. His Caribbean roots often inform his fiction, but so does his love of technology, science, and the rapidly changing world all around us. Visit site.

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