Novel Matters

Hi Writers,
Today, Granta magazine’s once-a-decade Best of Young American Novelists issue hits newsstands.

The LA Times featured an article on the Granta list this Sunday “In these new American stories, the world speaks,” by Scott Timberg.   

There’s a lot for writers to mull over in this piece, about the emerging ethnic diversity of our young novelists, and whether novel writing is becoming a luxury for the privileged classes who can afford creative writing programs, etc.

But what really got my attention were the remarks from Lorin Stein, an editor at Farrar Straus & Giroux:

“The readership has fractured, and reads less, and spends more time e-mailing. And it makes less sense to talk about novelists now — the really creative writing is being done in other genres such as the personal essay, reportage and criticism.”

“The novel has become like landscape painting,” he said. “It’s the ‘top’ genre, but not, in real life, the main one.”

Wow, I hope this isn’t true. But looking at this list of young novelists, I can’t say they’re exactly household names.

As a lifelong reader of novels, this strikes me in a personal way. From the age of seven I’ve had my nose in a book. Beverly Cleary gave me a safe world to escape to during my parent’s divorce. JD Salinger and Carson McCullers made me feel less alone through my angsty teen years and Kurt Vonnegut helped me form a worldview. Novels were essential to my upbringing and influenced me far more than newspapers, magazines, movies, MTV and Oprah combined.

Is it possible that, as Stein implies, novels are no longer culturally relevant? That they’re the “landscape paintings” of the literary world and nonfiction has taken their place? Can we get everything we need as human beings—culturally, emotionally, spiritually—from nonfiction? And what novels mattered to you?

Keep Writing,

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6 thoughts on “Novel Matters

  1. NightFall

    Hi Maria.

    I have no idea what was Lorin Stein’s intention but I do not believe it to be true. There are all kinds of people and of different tastes, but I think novels will continue to exist. For centuries, there have always been stories. And look at how far it has attracted? A lot of Movies now are being made because of books!

    There may be a lot of critisism writing, fashion, etc., but novels in my opinion will always exist. There are novels for all types of people, I believe, and to think novels are no longer in or will vanish is, not only not true, but only limiting one’s brain capacity. (I don’t know if it makes sense but it just crossed my mind.)

    No matter what profession people might have, there are always those who gives others a hard time. Once, I was even insulted by a librarian. He asked me what the title of my story is and when I told him, he said it wasn’t something he would read. I then told him, "That’s because you have a different taste." Which is true. People have different tastes. Surprisingly, he agreed to that.

    (Sorry if I posted this twice. I don’t think it went through the first time.)

  2. Keetha

    Ouch! I can’t imagine this is accurate. Or at least, it’s certainly not for me. I read at least a novel a week. While I enjoy emailing friends, reading blogs, and watching TV, books have always been my favorite escape. Sure readership is fractured but to some degree, it has been that way for many years. When televisions first became commonplace in homes, newspaper editorials said they’d be the death knell of publishing. I belive the car was supposed to, as well.

  3. Roger

    I feel the novel should be an important part of any culture, for it gives a lot of people a chance to visit lands, they may not otherwise become familar, because of lack of travel opportunity. A great novel, such as the American Classic, Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, gives the reader a chance to escape the hectic world around him or her; relax and just float down the Mississippi River, without a care in the world. Besides, when reading a good novel, you have a chance to do some thinking; opposed to watching a movie, with the camera doing most of the work. May the great American novel abide with us for generations to come.

  4. bob

    As a boy I had a friend who’s life was a horror show. His father was an alcoholic. His home was a cesspool infestested with roaches, and his mother abandoned him to decay in this misery. He was fractured to the bone with barely a heartbeat of hope, but he had books and Novels to sustain him through the inflicted insanity. I beleive he gave me my first novel to read. I can’t recall what it was at this moment,(he shared many) but it gave me courage and perspective in my average easy going life. If a novel has the kind of power to help someone to rise above this; to spit in the face of fate for one poor soul. Then the novel itself is a landscape of beauty and purpose, apt to conquer the ruin of lost readership and those with a finger on their own pulse.

    I hope he found peace in his life.

  5. Tom Bentley

    Nonfiction can’t give us Huck’s evolution as he follows the course of the river in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, can’t give us Raskolnikov’s soaring stabs of madness and insight in Crime and Punishment, can’t give us the beguiling, torn-but-composed voice of Susie in The Lovely Bones. Nonfiction can give much, but when you hunger for a crusty, dense loaf of bread, even a savory soup won’t do.

    I do agree that readership is fractured now, and that there is a circus of new diversions now, far from fiction’s fields, but the novel is still relevant, even if its form and face are changing. I know a number of readers in their twenties who are still intrigued by a novel’s beat, even if their iPods host compelling beats of their own. So, give us Nausea and give us Specialty Topics in Calamity Physics–it’s all good.

  6. Thomas Stazyk


    The whole issue is circumscribed by major cultural shifts involving technology, entertainment and the way people choose to spend their time. People read less because reading requires you to be an active rather than passive participant. You have to use your imagination and the last thing you want to do when you are reading is multitask. Television, internet and cell phones all encourage cultural ADD. So we shouldn’t be surprised that novel readership is declining. But the decline is being accelerated by what is being published today. For example, I wonder if Kurt Vonnegut could/would be published if he were just starting out today. His work doesn’t neatly fit standard genres, he’s cynical and mean and realistic. None of that would make a publisher happy today. But I think it would make people read. The reason that the novel is losing its impact is because what is being published just doesn’t interest most people. Onanistic, self absorbed stories about family reconciliations, searching for one’s roots or (belatedly) growing up just don’t interest people in the real world. It could be, that like American car manufacturers, novel publishers are engineering their own demise.


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