The link below is to an article that takes a look at the history of the ‘death of books.’
Will Self has declared the novel is “absolutely doomed” – ironically, in an interview to promote Phone, his latest outing in the very medium he is condemning to death. Even casual readers will note that this isn’t the first time that the reigning Eeyore of British literature has announced the imminent passing of our most popular literary form.
Since 2000, Self has used the occasion of the release of his own books to repeatedly argue that the novel is destined to “become a marginal cultural form, along with easel painting and the classical symphony”. During his promotional duties for Umbrella, Self asked whether we are evolving beyond the need to tell stories, while in 2014 he announced the declining cultural centrality of the novel due to the digitisation of print culture in an article to promote Shark.
Self’s obsession with killing off the novel might be more about ego than revenge, but his repeated attempts to plot its downfall form part of a much wider lament. For centuries, writers have been proclaiming the imminent passing of the novel form. More than 60 years ago, JB Priestley called it “a decaying literary form” which “no longer absorbs some of the mightiest energies of our time”. More recently, Zadie Smith complained of novel-nausea, while David Peace has asked how it is still possible to “believe in the novel form” because “storytelling is already quite ruined by the individualism of Western society”.
Reading beyond the exhausted sentiments and sensationalist headlines provided by self-harming novelists, what these sentiments collectively highlight is not the death of the novel at all, but the decline of “literary fiction”. Self’s explicit cultural fear is that a serious kind of novel – novels such as his own – that confront us with “difficult reading” are destined for relegation to the realms of classical music and fine art. What Self’s repeated attempts on the life of the novel actually articulate is a deep-seated fear of the devaluation of literary fiction and its dethroning from a position of economic, popular and critical dominance as a result of the new contexts provided by a social media age.
Prophesying the imminent demise of the novel at the hands of digital technology has become popular in contemporary critical discourse, especially as the form entered the new millennium. Self is one of many authors who have publicly debated the challenges of writing novels in a digital era.
Andrew O’Hagan recently argued that the intense personal perspective offered by platforms such as Twitter and Facebook means that the novel has nowhere left to go in offering an inside account of the lives of others. The crux of both O’Hagan and Self’s sandwich-board arguments ultimately lie in a belief that future readers will be unwilling to disable connectivity and engage only with a physical form of text in relative isolation from the hyper-networked society around them.
But the “death” of literary fiction does not have to come at the expense of the rise of the popular – or of the digital. Smartphones and streaming can sit alongside literary awards and “difficult” novels and offer us vital insights into, and ways of representing, contemporary experience. The novel is perhaps the most hospitable of all forms and opens itself willingly to new voices, languages and technologies. And not all writers are hostile to the impact of the digital on literary form – in their use of social media to tell stories in new ways, both David Mitchell and Jennifer Egan have proved that the novel has an innate ability to ingest and adapt to a rapidly changing world.
Importantly, the novel also presents us with perspectives and experiences different from our own. In its contemporary concern with the trope of an “other” who transgresses the boundary of the domestic home, the 21st-century novel offers a vital consideration of the implications of a post-Brexit Britain. The novel disrupts and challenges, and in turn elicits responses from readers to, the contemporary concerns it presents.
Understanding the world
The etymology of the word “novel” lies in the “new” – and all evidence suggests that the form will continue to evolve – and ingest, rather than ignore, the new languages of the contemporary. The novel – whether in the form of literary or “popular” fiction – helps us to understand the world in which we now live and informs our attempts to navigate both the past and the future. As well as its long-argued innate value, this capacity of the novel to help us negotiate the changes of the present is also key to its survival – and evolution – in the coming century.
As a case for its vitality, Self’s pervasive campaign against the novel couldn’t be more helpful. In repeatedly citing the death of the novel, Self and his band of merry naysaying novelists whip up resolve and resurrection of the form in a context of challenge and change. In doing so, their comments remind us to value this familiar, yet continually innovative form that continues to adapt, ingest and shape-shift, remaining relevant to each generation of readers – and writers.
Literary snobbery and Modernist nostalgia aside, Self’s headline-grabbing soundbites encourage new understandings of wider shifts in novel writing and reading in the 21st century. With writers continually sticking more nails in its half-open coffin, the novel seems destined to remain stuck in critical debates that remain wilfully oblivious to its sustained success in the new millennium.
Emerging from a long winter of discontent, perhaps it is the strange fate of the novel to exist in a permanent state of imminent demise and doom, with an innate awareness of itself as the one genre that literature simply cannot do without.
The inevitable and universal nature of death has made it a popular topic of children’s literature. While death has appeared in these stories for centuries, death in young adult novels has become much darker and more complex.
The recent controversy over Netflix’s adaptation of the novel Thirteen Reasons Why, which depicts the aftermath of teen suicide, shows that dealing with death in kids’ fiction can be fraught. While some defended the show’s graphic depiction of suicide, others argued it was gratuitous and dangerous.
This raises the question of whether children’s literature and young adult fiction is still a safe place to discuss death. At the recent Emerging Writer’s Festival panel, Sex, Death and YA, young adult literature was celebrated for exploring such complex themes. While there may be a trend toward darker themes in literature written for a young adult audience, there is still room for hope.
Putting death on the page
When early works of children’s literature broached the topic of death, it was usually to show how the protagonist copes in the aftermath of the death of a family member or friend. In many of these early works, depictions of death were softened for the reader, occurring outside the text. For instance, Mary’s parents in The Secret Garden (1911) die “off page”, which acts as a plot device to facilitate Mary’s arrival at Mistlethwaite Manor, where she discovers the secret garden. Charlotte’s Web (1952) softens the blow by making the characters non-human – in this case a spider.
Modern young adult novels are different. These texts not only depict young adult protagonists dealing with the aftermath of a loved one’s death, but also the trauma of witnessing it. Such as in the case of The Outsiders (1967), when the 14-year-old protagonist Ponyboy is present when his best friend Johnny dies in hospital and when Dally, a member of Ponyboy’s gang, is killed by the police.
In recent years, young adult novels have featured their protagonists doing the killing. The characters in books such as Harry Potter (1997), The Hunger Games (2008) and Tomorrow When the War Began (1993), struggle not only with the inevitability of death and the pain of losing loved ones, but also with the guilt and ethical dilemma of having to kill to survive.
Life after death
There has recently been an influx of novels that present death from the perspective of the protagonist. These novels show characters who are terminally ill, presenting a rarely explored viewpoint in young adult novels – the perspective of dying. In books such as Sonya Hartnett’s Surrender (2005), Jenny Downham’s Before I Die (2007) and John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (2012) the protagonist portrays the fear and pain of dying, the challenge of accepting one’s own mortality and the guilt of leaving their loved ones to cope after their death.
Other recent novels come from the perspective of someone who is already dead. They speak to the reader, and sometimes even their own friends and family, from beyond the grave, such as in Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall (2010) and, although technically not a young adult novel, in Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, which has been widely read by young people.
In the beginning of Jay Asher’s 2007 novel Thirteen Reasons Why it is made clear that the protagonist, Hannah Baker, has taken her own life. As the novel continues, Hannah’s story and the reasons for her actions are disclosed through a series of tapes, 13 in total, all recorded before her death.
The Netflix series also demonstrates the shift of how death is portrayed to an adolescent audience. While Asher’s novel leaves the method of Hannah’s suicide largely undisclosed, the series, released ten years after the book, portrays the suicide in excruciating detail.
Talking about death
There are many children’s picture books, such as The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers, and Harry & Hopper written by Margaret Wild and illustrated by Freya Blackwood, that talk about death to help parents discuss the concept with young children, possibly for the first time. When talking to kids about loss and grief the Victorian government’s Better Health Channel recommends the use of “storybooks” to explain death, stating that, “It is important to recognise children’s feelings and speak with them honestly and directly about death and grief”.
Why is the honest and direct depiction of death in young adult novels often so controversial? Perhaps it comes from a desire to shelter young readers from topics such as war, terrorism, and human mortality – topics that young adult readers not only read about in the news and on social media, but experience. Or perhaps it is because depicting death is seen to be void of hope. But possibly the idea of hope has also shifted, away from a fairytale notion of happily ever after and towards a reality that acknowledges the existence of darkness and light.
There is little research on the possible benefits of discussing death with young people. For those who are yet to be affected by the death of a loved one, reading about it from the perspective of another young adult can offer a way of building resilience. For those readers who have experienced the death of a family member or friend, being able to read about the experiences of others can offer consolation. Death is an indisputable part of adolescent lives, and books can provide a place for them to reflect on its influence on life.
In a 2013 Monthly essay Eric Beecher warned of a looming “civic catastrophe” for Australia if the decline of newspapers continued as it had been in the preceding years. The Australian’s report on a Fairfax plan to dump print and go digital-only, as yet unimplemented but convincingly detailed in the leaked 2013 document prepared by management consultancy firm Bain & Co, suggest that such a move is, if not a certainty, highly probable in the foreseeable future.
News Corp’s only substantial competitor in the print journalism sector may be on the brink of giving up the ghost, as has long been speculated even by its natural supporters such as Beecher. If it does, hundreds more jobs will go, along with the many hundreds of experienced, skilled journalists and editors already shown the door by the company.
All of this comes in the wake of the UK Independent’s announcement last week of a move to exclusively digital publication. As with Fairfax, calamitous declines in print circulation at the Indy – a poster title for innovation and editorial independence in days long gone – have made such a move entirely rational from the financial perspective of its Russian proprietor.
Many newspapers in the US have made the transition from print to digital, in the hope of fixing the broken business models of the analogue age.
Many of us have already given up on newspapers, and won’t miss print if indeed it dies out as a mass media platform. We access our news on iPads, or mobile phones, or laptops, and find ourselves turning actual, real pages to read our journalism only in those rare – and becoming rarer all the time – situations where there is no internet access.
And by those digital means of communication and sharing we have access to more news and journalism than any previous generation ever did. I read more news, not less, because of the online revolution.
Also, I read the news from the UK, the US, indeed from wherever in the world I choose, just as easily as I could once buy the print edition of The Guardian in my old home town of Glasgow. More easily, since I don’t even have to leave the house to enter the globalised public sphere of fact-based content available to me and every other human being on the planet with access to an internet connection and a networked device.
My problem now is not that of accessing quality journalism – as many pessimists predicted it would become as a result of news industry turmoil – but how to filter and sift the vast quantity of journalism which is available to me from around the globe on an hourly and daily basis, so that I can manage the flow of useful information and make some sense of the world.
Fairfax’s newspapers may be dying, then, like those of The Independent and other companies which through bad management and poor decision-making blew the digital challenge. But news and journalism thrive as never before.
Returning to Beecher’s dire warnings of “civic catastrophe”, will we miss newspapers when they finally disappear?
Someone once cheekily speculated that, on current circulation trends, the death of newspapers would come sometime in the first quarter of 2034. Personally, I believe that print will survive as a niche medium, like vinyl records, for as long as there is a demand for the tactility of words stamped on dead trees. And for a long time yet there will be those who refuse to join the online era, or who cannot for various reasons.
And there will be content for which, for one reason or another, online dissemination is not optimal, or which does not need the internet to circulate. Print continues to expand in media markets such as India and many African countries, where digital infrastructure and online culture remain underdeveloped. Paper has its place, and will keep it for a while yet.
And as long as the resources and professional values required for what we think of as “quality” journalism make the transition to digital platforms, then we have little to fear from the death of newspapers in themselves.
It was Rupert Murdoch who declared something to the effect that “we are not in the business of printing words on dead trees”. Content is king, and newsprint is just a carrier medium, now passing into history like hot metal presses and lithographs before it. Journalistic content can be produced to just as high an editorial standard online as off, and the fetishisation of print misses the point.
The real concern about the future of Fairfax and other dysfunctional former print behemoths – as articulated by Beecher in his 2013 essay – is that in their rush to maximise profits they abandon this thing we call “quality” journalism, and the journalists required to produce it, to the detriment of the diversity and independence of Australia’s political culture.
New digital entrants such as the Guardian Australia, Daily Mail Australia and The Conversation, or local editions of Gawker and Buzzfeed, are picking up some of the slack created by an already hollowed-out Fairfax. But the domination of News Corp’s titles in the Australian news media environment can only become more pronounced if Fairfax’s decline continues to the point where its print titles disappear entirely.
The Murdoch empire has invested more, and adapted better to the digital challenge than its main competitor. It deserves credit for that. But it cannot be in the interests of Australian democracy that any private proprietor – left, right or neutral – should be so editorially dominant as News will become if Fairfax disappears as a significant news producer.
The death of Fairfax as a serious producer of journalism, should that outcome transpire, will undoubtedly leave a gap in the Australian public sphere; what we might call a “diversity deficit”. A major question for Australian civil society in the coming years will be how to fill that gap and ensure the survival of healthy media pluralism.
By now most people familiar with books and authors will know that Tom Clancy has died. Tom Clancy wrote the Jack Ryan series of novels, including ‘The Hunt for Red October,’ ‘Patriot Games’ and ‘Clear and Present Danger.’ He was perhaps the author I favoured most and he will be sadly missed.
The links below are to articles that report on the life and death of Tom Clancy.
For more visit:
– http://www.npr.org/2013/10/02/228485169/tom-clancy-dies-left-indelible- mark-on-thriller-genre
– http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2013/10/02/228457438/tom-clancy-master-of-military- techno-thrillers-dies
The link below is to an article reporting on the death of Seamus Heaney.
The link below is to an article that reports on what happens to digital content purchased from Apple, Amazon, etc, upon a customer’s death.
The link below is to an article concerning the death of Gore Vidal.
Living in the digital age it is now important to consider all things digital in regards to inheritance. Have you asked the question of yourself – what will happen to everything digital that belongs to you? What will become of your ebooks upon death?