Vonnegut, the Novel, the Object

December 6, 2007

I was at a symposium some years back with my friends Joseph Heller and William Styron, both dead now, and we were talking about the death of the novel and the death of poetry, and Styron pointed out that the novel has always been an elitist art form. It’s an art form for very few people, because only a few can read very well. I’ve said that to open a novel is to arrive in a music hall and be handed a viola. You have to perform. [Laughs.] To stare at horizontal lines of phonetic symbols and Arabic numbers and to be able to put a show on in your head, it requires the reader to perform. If you can do it, you can go whaling in the South Pacific with Herman Melville, or you can watch Madame Bovary make a mess of her life in Paris. With pictures and movies, all you have to do is sit there and look at them and it happens to you.
—Kurt Vonnegut, in his very last interview (via Iain Tait).

Vonnegut is of course, as ever, spot on. The novel as we understand it today hasn’t been with us very long (Wikipedia has a wonderfully dense page on the subject, I prefer Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) as a reasonable birth date), yet it is the point on which all debates about the future of literature turn; specifically, it is what we usually mean when we talk about “the book”.

It’s also what we mean when we discuss the ebook. Take legendary book designer Chip Kidd‘s response to the Kindle:

PEOPLE DON’T WANT TO READ BOOKS ON A SCREEN. Why is that so hard for someone as obviously smart as Jeff Bezos to accept? The reason the iPod took off is that music was never meant to be a “thing” in the first place. It was born as pure sound, and pure sound is what it has returned to. But books were always physical objects, and the printed book as a piece of technology has yet to be improved upon. [Source]

Well that’s just bullshit, frankly. Books are not born as ‘things’ either, but you can understand a designer of physical things choosing this side to shout about. Many books have already stopped being ‘things’ and migrated to the virtual: Wikipedia, for example. Wikipedia is not a book, but it was, really: it’s form comes from a book, from all encyclopædias, but it has evolved off the page. Likewise many, many STM titles, likewise many journals, likewise much poetry and short fiction. But the novel as object has a stranglehold on our imaginations.

Which is fine. Novels are great. And right now, there is no device which betters the traditional book in delivering it. Except, it saddens me that a designer of Kidd’s stature can’t see that the page is a screen. The uniqueness of the novel lies in that effort, that performance of the reader that Vonnegut talks about, not in a mode of reproduction. Bar a small number of extreme experimentalists (I’m thinking B.S. Johnson, and similar), the physical book has shaped the novel for the last 300 years – we are approaching a point where this will no longer be true. And I think that’s pretty exciting – elitist, performative novel-lover that I am.

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