Scott Esposito is responding to a Michael Blowhard post on the future of long prose narrative. I’ve written about this before, but not in the way these guys are. Michael is speculating that the long prose narrative will be history someday — that the novel will have come and gone as a genre. Scott, perhaps not surprisingly, thinks a bit differently. He suggests that the novel is a welcome respite from the high-speed, plugged-in society we’re living in.
I’m going to argue something slightly different: that the novel is already history. The novel is certainly no longer the mass-media entertainment, the way it was in the 19th century. People still buy and read novels, certainly, and occasionally a book comes out that strikes a nerve and really gets people talking — a Harry Potter, or a Da Vinci Code. But even a mega-blockbuster like Da Vinci only sells around 35 million copies worldwide. There are literally hundreds of movies with this many viewers. Even a midlist film like Vanilla Sky grosses over $200 million worldwide, corresponding to roughly 30 million screenings. But by only counting viewers in theaters, we’re barely getting started. There are DVD sales, rentals, screenings on HBO, and finally regular TV. I haven’t been able to locate the statistics, but I do recall reading that Hollywood now makes more on DVD sales than it does on box office. Even an average film has many, many more viewers than a “blockbuster” novel.
What’s the best hope for a novel writer to really hit it big time? Selling the film rights. Many novelists make more on film rights than on book sales — even when the movie never gets made. Novels may be feeders for true mass-media entertainment, but they are no mass-media entertainment themselves.
This is not to say that novels aren’t worthwhile. Of course they are. And just as I enjoy reading the occasional epic poem even though no one writes them any more, so there will always be novel readers. The question is, how long will it be before we have no more professional novel writers? Michael Blowhard estimates that there may now be fewer than 200 full-time writers of extended prose narrative. Is it possible that in, say, 50 years, that number will have dwindled down to zero?
With the ease of self-publishing, especially with the rise of e-books, what we might see is something like an eBay class of writers, making money off of blogads, audiobooks, podcasts, you name it. They’ll be patching together income in drips and drabs, rather than garnering giant publishing contracts. Nearly all of them will have day jobs. Will what they produce look like a novel? Perhaps some of the time, but it will most certainly depend on what makes the most money. Maybe short stories, or series, or something else entirely, will be more marketable in podcast or e-book form than the traditional 300-page novel.
Is this a bad thing? I don’t know. Did epic poetry fans lament the rise of the novel? Change is inevitable, especially when the technology for delivering literature is undergoing a radical transformation. Will literature itself disappear? Maybe if you’re defining it solely as novels. Literature, however, predates the novel. It’s a more encompassing term that perhaps should be expanded to include all narrative forms, including film (obviously literature comprises more than just narrative, but certainly narrative is a significant, if not the most significant portion of all literature).
So the hallowed novel is perhaps doomed to be replaced entirely by flashier stuff — movies, music, video games, podcasts. An abomination? Remember what preceded it: the “literature” of the ancient Greeks was epic poetry, memorized and performed to music. “Drama” was musical theatre, perhaps more like opera or a Broadway show than a “serious” play. Maybe what we’re really doing, with our iPods, our cell phones, our laptops, our PSPs, is simply returning to our roots.