Let us not quibble about definitions. Writers and readers know what I mean. These are the novels that offer an experience that cannot be slotted into any genre category, stories that move the mind and the heart, and explore the human condition by authors whose need to tell these long stories of the imagination is a sacred calling.
We who write these kinds of novels think of them as an art form, and think of ourselves as artists. There are lots of us out there and, hopefully, lots of consumers of our artistic endeavors out there as well. However we are judged, parsed, sliced and diced by critics and readers, we will continue to ply our art.
Many, perhaps most of us, were introduced to this art form by parents, friends, relatives, school curriculums, inspired teachers, librarians and others to whom novels were important to absorb, engage and admire, and to fill our lives with imaginative stories that gave pleasure and knowledge.
The type of novel I am writing about has always been considered an endangered species, although I never knew why. Lately, however, as the juggernaut of technology and the hazards of contemporary life have kicked in, I am beginning to understand the threat and it is alarming.
Overshadowing everything is the reality of time. In order to read the traditional long form novel, a minimum of 70,000 words, one must prepare to devote many hours to truly savor the contents. The competition for our attention and our time is fierce. Reading a novel competes with a vast array of time gobbling activities and attractions that vie for our engagement.
The Internet has forced many of us to compress the way we communicate. The young are now addicted to brevity and abbreviation, and many turn away in frustration when confronted with anything to do with longer forms of communication. Faced with this reality, many authors might take such compression seriously and in self-defense concentrate their talents on short stories and novellas.
I am a heavy practitioner of these shorter forms as well and love reading them, but I hope they don’t become so commonplace as to supersede the novel. We would be greatly bereft if we did not have the long novel by the great novelists who composed them e.g. Tolstoy, Dickens et al.
Visual communications and the astounding revolution in digital imagery have vastly multiplied the ways stories are delivered. Note, I’m not saying it is a better way but it is easier and far more passive than the process of reading a novel. What is delivered, in my opinion, offers a two dimensional experience that is less insightful and thought provoking than a well executed novel that has been created in the imagination of the author. I can hear the click of weaponry and am heading into my foxhole post haste.
There are, of course, current attempts to combine the visual with the words. Risking yet another bullet in my direction, I do not think a moving visual image enhances a novel. In fact, I believe it detracts from the flow of language that the author has composed.
A non-moving drawing does not have the distracting qualities of the moving image. This is not to say that there is not a place for the moving image. I have been a movie fan all my life, and have sold film and movie rights to twelve of my own works to the industry. When I find a movie that interests me, I certainly pay my admission and enjoy the experience. It has its wonders, to be sure, but it seems more fleeting and passive than emersion in the long novel.
There is another menace looming on the horizon that endangers the novel. The changing mores of higher education that place utility over culture, meaning that the asinine practice of sending graduates into the market place with high student debts makes it almost mandatory that the courses they take have a practical application in the market place.
Facing such a harsh reality, students may shy away from taking literature courses and altogether eschew a major in English literature because such a degree does not lead to the kind of employment that will earn enough to pay off their debts. I was an English major who reveled in his college courses and was willing to try my hand in the very competitive writing business, but this might no longer be considered a viable option in the face of the changing marketplace.
Then there is the harsh reality of shrinking funds for public libraries, another potential downside for the novel. As a once Chairman of the Board of Trustees of a public library, I know how hard it is to convince government funding agencies to increase library grants in the face of other community commitments.
Then, of course, there is the reality of the publishing business, which is greatly diminishing its advances for this type of novel if they publish them at all. Worse, the catalogue list for adult fiction offered by the traditional publishing houses is shrinking precipitously. The prospects of making a living writing such novels have always been dim. It is now more difficult than ever.
This does not mean that new novels of the kind we are discussing will not be published. Self-publishing will assure that such novels see the light of day but the problem is in marketing. The chances of a breakout for a serious novel to attract a large audience is a tough slog, especially in an environment where the public reading appetite is for the erotic, escapist and sensational, and fits a genre in a variety of categories that are currently attracting wide audiences.
And yet amid all this gloom and doom, I will bet the barn that more serious novels are being written by battalions of wonderful writers who revere the form and are following their artistic dreams in the hope of finding readers. The problem for them and all of us scribblers in this realm is getting the attention of a distracted populace, many of whom have ignored or never experienced the deeper insights into the human condition provided by long form serious novels.
Still, there are pockets of interest springing up everywhere via book clubs, social networks and blogging. These various reading circles may not intersect but there will be many serious novelists who will be more than satisfied with attracting a smaller but devoted and passionate audience for their work.
Perhaps, too, through the mysterious miracle of word of mouth they will make that longed for breakthrough to a wider readership.
The one great hope for future generations of writers and readers of serious novels is the success of a category that is showing remarkable buoyancy, the young adult novel. Stimulated by the remarkable success of the Harry Potter series, this category has given young people an appreciation of the reading experience that could augur well for the adult non-genre novel.
The big question is that once these young readers mature and are faced with the extraordinary economic and social pressures of adult life in an increasingly competitive world, will they find the time and energy to enter the imaginative world created by the authors of serious novels or will they bring their reading habits to briefer escapist genre stories that help them flee the difficulties of the real world?