The future of the novel?

“In the final keynote speech at the 2012 Edinburgh World Writers’ conference, China Miéville asks what the future holds for the novel in cultural, political and digital terms – and concludes with a demand for salaried writing.” The Guardian reprinted his speech in toto, but I thought I would pull out a few highlights because there’s been a lot of conversation about this already. I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says here, but there are some important points that touch on the key issues that are keeping the publishing world reeling at present.

A starting point for Miéville is the multiplicity of futures before us, not ‘the future novel’ but futures and novels. One of the pointers toward those futures is the (slight) improvement facilitated by the web and social media, the greater availability of non-English authors in the monolingual world:

And translation is now crowdsourced, out of love. Obscure works of Russian avant-garde and new translations of Bruno Schulz are available to anyone with access to a computer. One future is of glacially slowly decreasing, but decreasing, parochialism.

We need new voices all the time for, as Miéville argues, one of the aims of books (in whatever format) is that they provide “an expression of something otherwise inexpressible.” And in more ways, too. That the norms of literary fiction have been loosening up he finds encouraging (me too):

The culturally dominant strain of English novel has for years been what Zadie Smith called “lyrical realism”: the remorseless prioritisation, with apologies for repeating my favourite heuristic, of recognition over estrangement.

People are more willing — and there is less cultural baggage to persuade them that it’s ‘bad’ or ‘low’ to do so — to explore beyond the bland worlds of mimesis. Yes, in part this means lit writers appropriating speculative fiction tropes (and not always tying themselves in knots to claim otherwise) but also that there’s a greater opportunity for mainstreaming of speculative fiction. While the mechanisms in place (awards, jiggered best seller lists) strain against change, the ability of readers to find new authors and books via social media without those curatorial aspects often dispenses with high/low, literary/genre binaries.

His comments on the ‘ebook revolution’ as some still call it, will doubtless be of interest to many. I got a chuckle from his gentle poking at the fetishising of print:

We are, at last, leaving phase one of the ebook discussion, during which people could ritually invoke the ‘smell of paper’ as a call to cultural barricades. Some anxieties are tenacious: how will people know what a splendid person I am without a pelt of the right visible books on my walls, without the pretty qlippoth husks? A hopeful future: that our grandchildren will consider our hankering for erudition-décor a little needy.

While the bells and whistles possible in ‘enhanced’ ebooks still motivate some to claim a new shape for the ‘book’, I’d agree with Miéville that “In fact what’s becoming obvious – an intriguing counterpoint to the growth in experiment – is the tenacity of relatively traditional narrative-arc-shaped fiction.” The upsurge in ebooks is because they deliver the ‘book’ experience as simply as print books do (on a related note, see Craig Mod on creating a book platform and how narrative continues to shape the experience).

Miéville gets excited about the possibility of a ‘remix’ culture analogous to that in music:

The worst anxiety is not that the interfering public will ruin your work if they muck about with it, or that they’ll write a terrible novel, but that they’ll improve it, or write a great one. And once in a rare while, some of them will. How wonderful that will be.

I’m not sure that narrative works the same way; the novelty of literary mash-ups (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies etc.) wore off quickly. While sometimes I skip over bits of a book, abridgements always make me feel cheated. I think there’s a lot more juice in the extra-narrative elements that Kindle allows: highlighting and sharing text, seeing what other people have highlighted, creating organic discussions from those resonances. That may well be where the interactivity element comes — as well as fan fiction, adaptations to other media including music.

Of less appeal to many writers will be Miéville’s opinions on the ‘devaluing’ of writing by piracy, self-published ebooks and whatnot. He’s all right with that on the whole, as it’s part of a larger problem of devaluing most really important things:

One of the problems, we often hear, about online piracy, ebooks and their ephemeral-seeming invisible files, is that they ‘devalue writing’, that our work is increasingly undervalued. Well, yes. Just like the work of nurses, teachers, public transport staff, cleaners, social workers, which has been undervalued a vast amount more for a whole lot longer. We live in a world that grossly and violently undervalues the great majority of people in it.

He has a suggestion: “What if novelists and poets were to get a salary, the wage of a skilled worker?” Of course that instantly raises the question, “But who decides who qualifies as a writer?” A thorny issue to be sure, when people seem ready to claim that status as soon as they’re put a blog post online or published a story through KDP. If everyone’s a writer, is anyone really a writer? Miéville has a hopeful outlook, but it’s clear there are a lot of central issues yet to be resolved. Whatever the futures bring, we’re still facing a lot of surprises — and opportunity.



  1. Reblogged this on thomasmcdermottimmortal.

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