The Inconvenient Novel


28 October 2021

Let us say, for our purposes here, that things feel faster – that modern life, and in particular our experience of information technology, feels ‘sped up’, and that as a result it can feel not only as if there are more, and more insistent, demands on our attention, but as if our attention itself has become fragmented, or strained.

Let us agree also that even if this phenomenon is not verifiably ‘real’ – i.e., it is more a sensation or a suspicion than an aspect of material reality — we are told it is real so frequently, and in such fearful and hyperbolic terms, that we begin to feel we must guard against it whether it is real or not. Both our attention and our time, we believe, must be carefully invested. When they are not being invested, they must be protected.

This state of self-conscious anxiety about whether we are using our time and attention wisely gives rise to a climate in which any use of, or incursion into, our time and attention must justify itself. Every investment – temporal, mental, emotional, or psychological – must be, quantifiably, ‘worth it.’

‘Reading’ (a word I think should be more actively problematised), particularly the act of reading long-form fiction, fits uneasily into this fretful, pressured environment. In a world that prizes immediacy, convenience, and the measurably transactional, the weeks or even months required to finish a long and challenging novel, not to mention the solitude, the silence, the singularity of purpose and focus, can feel anachronistic, even burdensome. By the same token, however, the very act of that investment can be made to feel vital, and central to literature’s unique appeal. After all, what better way to subvert and resist the overstimulated, time-poor atmosphere of pressure and distraction we all now seem to accept we inhabit than spending quality time alone with a novel?

More and more, it seems, the novel serves as a subject of cultural discussion only insofar as that discussion addresses the novel’s relationship to culture. The result is a bizarre, often extreme contradiction. In one popular and oft-repeated formulation, the novel is ‘dead’, killed by Netflix, social media, and highly immersive video games. In the opposite formulation, it is not only not dead, it is fundamental to our health and humanity.

‘To the onlooker,’ says the BBC education website, under the heading Why Is Reading Good For Me, ‘reading can appear to be a solitary and passive activity. But the simple act of picking up a book can do us the world of good’. Among the benefits listed are increased emotional intelligence; delaying the onset of dementia; improved confidence and self-esteem; better sleep; reduced feelings of loneliness. ‘Reading as little as six minutes a day,’ says the MHFA England website, ‘can reduce stress levels by 60% by reducing your heart rate, easing muscle tension and altering your state of mind […] Reading [is] better at reducing stress than music, drinking a cup of tea, going for a walk and playing video games’. In 2020, responding to retail challenges caused by the global pandemic, Publishers Weekly launched its #BooksAreEssential campaign, which aimed to emphasise ‘the belief that books are essential to the health, well-being, entertainment and education of society and culture, particularly in times of crisis’. ‘Whether you are working in a hospital, teaching your children at home, laid off or furloughed from a job or simply trying to make sense of this pandemic,’ said PW’s editorial director Jim Milliot with no apparent sense of irony or perspective, ‘books are a lifeline’.

What’s striking about these examples, aside from the vagueness of words like ‘reading’ (looking at social media is, after all, an act of reading) and ‘books’ (not all books, one assumes, offer equal health benefits) is that they don’t just reduce reading to the level of the strictly utilitarian, they unquestioningly medicalise it. Or to put it another way, they reduce daily quotidian existence to a set of symptoms effectively ‘cured’ by ‘books’ and ‘reading’. And nor is this phenomenon limited to literature. Everything now must demonstrate its use, and what better way to demonstrate something’s use than to position it against a perceived threat? In this formulation, sleep is an effective inoculation against burnout, meditation a proven treatment for stress, ‘enjoyment’ a ready cure for depression.

I do not disagree that the novel, as a form, gains at least part of its ongoing value from the ways in which it stands distinct from almost all other media (durational, non-networked, resistant to being consumed in an ambient way, etc.). I also understand the instinct, in a culture in which everything apparently has to make a case for itself, not only to defend the novel as a form, but to sell it by touting its benefits. What interests me, though, is why, when I do so, I feel uncomfortable. It is because, I think, something happens to the novel, and indeed all art, when we’re lured into discussing its benefits, when we, even with the best of intentions, render it merely useful.

Let us say that at least part of literature’s value does lie in the ways it moves against the grain of contemporary culture — its slowness, its demand for solitude and silence. Let us say that the act of ‘reading’ does demand, and by extension, hone, a mode of attention distinct from the modes of attention to which modern daily life increasingly habituates us. This is not utility, and nor is it efficacy, it is the opposite – awkwardness.

All art, I would suggest, depends at least in part on awkwardness for its power. The moment we position it as a handy, affordable, convenient, and reliable antidote to the ills of modern networked living, it may seem as if we are celebrating it by affirming its use, but in fact we are negating it by eroding its awkwardness. What we will end up with, if we are not careful, is the literary equivalent of muzak: books which slide effortlessly into the slim and shrinking gaps our lives provide; books which are ‘prescribed’ for specific feelings and experiences; books which are proscribed for specific feelings and experiences.

This, I think, is the source of my discomfort whenever I find myself, like anyone else who cares about literature, making a case for its importance. It’s because I have the distinct impression that, far from helping art to thrive under capitalism, all I’m really doing is complying with the means by which art under capitalism is neutered and rendered safe: by making it convenient; by making sure it exists not in opposition to the prevailing conditions of the moment, but perfectly, frictionlessly in harmony with them. Art that exists only as a cure depends on the ailment for its success, and so can never, as it should, ail the society that produces it. Art that only cures is art that can do no harm, meaning by extension it is art that has no power.

And what possible use is that?


28 October 2021

Contributed by

Sam Byers is a novelist. His most recent book, Come Join Our Disease, is published by Faber.

Contributed as part of Workshop 2