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Friday, April 28, 2006

Novel Ideas

The novel isn't dead, says Peter Costa. But its readers may well be. He goes on to discuss the two-year-old National Endowment for the Arts study that "showed that literary reading is in dramatic decline with fewer than half of American adults now reading literature. Alarmingly, but not surprisingly, the steepest rate of decline, a whopping 28 percent, is occurring in the youngest age groups."

His reason for despair: "Entire cultural epochs were captured in novels: Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms; Updike's Rabbit Run; Steinbeck's The Winter of Our Discontent, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Joseph Heller's Catch-22; and others come to mind.

"These books helped us understand our world and ourselves. Reading does that."

Yes, reading does that. But what Costa doesn't point out is that, more and more, those who read to understand the world and ourselves don't turn to novels -- as in the 19th century -- but to non-fiction. Witness the increase in popularity of books devoted to explaining science, in travelogues, in works on Islam, on women's lives, on American hegemony, and so much more.

Where does that leave the novel? Realism may be the supreme genre, as James Wood untiringly points out, but a 19th century realism that outlines the parameters and rules of an emerging society seems to have run its course. Perhaps the great virtue of the novel -- one that cannot be replicated by other media -- is in the creation of empathy, in making the reader identify with disparate characters, living under circumstances vastly dissimilar to his or her own.

Then again, the one development ignored by Costa and other theorists is already taking shape: in the near future, every published novel will deal with secretive Catholic societies and attempts to trace the lineage of Christ. Happy reading.


  • Makes sense, what you say about the empathy. Look at the way blogs have taken off!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:06 PM  

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