David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

Will the Novel Die?

I can’t find any current piece of journalism to use as a springboard for asking whether the novel will die. But considering that the question gets asked every 14 seconds somewhere on the blogosphere, I’m not going to worry. Just follow the trail of rent garments and gnashed teeth and you’ll find someone blathering about it. The question’s on my mind this morning, so that’s good enough for me.

Will the novel die? I won’t keep you in suspense: Yes, the novel will die. It might not happen in your lifetime. But yes, I can say unequivocally that the novel will eventually breathe its last and lay down contentedly in the grave of dead art forms. I’ll be very conservative and estimate 50 years.

And you know what? It’s not that big a deal.

Ever since the advent of television, people have predicted the demise of the novel, and other people have smugly sat back and declared that since it hasn’t happened yet, it won’t happen at all. But I think a lot of these defenders of the novel have a fundamental misunderstanding of what a novel is, not to mention a fundamental misconception of its importance.

First off, we have to consider the question of what it means to be a dead medium. A dead medium is simply one which does not produce a significant number of new works of art. When a medium of expression dies, that doesn’t mean that the jackbooted Art Police storm into your house in the middle of the night to burn every instance of it they can find. Life ain’t Fahrenheit 451. If the last novel rolls off the printing press tomorrow at 9 a.m., we’ll still have hundreds of millions of novels lying around to enjoy until they crumble into dust. And unlike, say, the 8-track tape or the HD-DVD, there’s no specialized equipment necessary for reading novels.

Nor do the Art Police threaten anyone with imprisonment who dares to create art in a dead medium. Vinyl is a dead medium for music, and yet there are still people producing vinyl records. Polka is a dead art form, and yet you can still find people not named Weird Al Yankovic creating polka. Given the importance of the novel to Western civilization, I’m sure that printers will continue pumping the things out in special limited editions long after the masses have stopped buying them in mass quantities.

You might think that I’m mixing up the terms medium and form here. The medium of the novel is that 8″ x 12″ hunk of pulped wood, while the form of the novel is the 120,000 words of prose that gets inked onto the surface. But the point I’m trying to make here (as Frank Lloyd Wright and Marshall McLuhan made long before me) is that those two things are inextricably tied together. The medium of the novel is its form.

We haven’t always had novels. No, in fact, while recorded human history has been going on for five thousand years now (depending on how you define it), the novel has been around for less than five hundred (depending on how you define it). Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle never read a single novel in their lives; I don’t think Shakespeare could have read more than a handful of them.

The fact of the matter is that the novel itself is an art form that evolved to take advantage of a certain new technology, namely the printing press. Why do books tend to be no larger than around 8″ x 12″? Because that’s about as large as you can make a book and still be able to hold it comfortably in your hands and transport it from place to place. Why does the print tend to be around a point size of 12? Because that’s about as small as you can make text and still have it be readable at arm’s length. Take those limitations and you’ll find that you can’t easily pack more than 200,000 words into a single novel.

So the novel is, in fact, a device that’s both created by and limited by certain factors of human physiology. These same limitations govern any art form. Ever wonder why most films are less than 180 minutes in length? There are certain issues surrounding the economics of movie theater chains and the technical specs of film projectors, but the real reason is even simpler. 180 minutes is about the amount of time that human beings can comfortably sit and pay attention to a film without having to either eat or hit the bathroom. Tack in an intermission or two and you can extend that timeframe for a while. But until we’ve got gastrointestinal and neurological programming that allows us to drastically extend the amount of time between bathroom breaks and naps, you’re never going to see, say, a 26-hour movie.

If you don’t believe that the printing process hinders creativity, consider this: most novelists don’t even write in print anymore. The vast majority of us compose our words electronically on computer screens. What you’re reading when you pick up a novel is a transposition of our art; you’re reading some publisher’s translation of our words onto an 8″ x 12″ hunk of pulped wood with a glossy piece of laminated artwork wrapped around it. Not only do novelists have little to do with the production of that hunk of pulped wood, but we’re often actively discouraged and prevented from having a say in it. We hand in Microsoft Word files. We don’t pick the cover artists, we don’t do the typesetting, we don’t design the little artsy doodads that drape over the chapter numbers.

The point I’m making is that there’s nothing magical about the size, shape, and length of a novel. There’s no divine law which states that the perfect size of a story is between 80,000 and 150,000 words. That just happens to be the number of words that will comfortably fit in your hands using standard twentieth century printing technology. It happens to be what the twentieth century publishing, distribution, and retail business was set up to deal with.

But now? With electronic media, you can fit an infinite number of words in your hands. You can hold Robert Jordan’s entire Wheel of Time series in your sweaty mitts if it’s digitized on a laptop or an Amazon Kindle.

It’s true that reading in digitized format is still kind of an unwieldy affair. You don’t find people reading novels on the subway with their laptops because it’s a pain. You have to boot the things up, you have to plug them in every few hours, and God help you if you spill a can of Dr. Pepper on them. I have yet to see an Amazon Kindle in the flesh (so to speak), but my impression is that Jeff Bezos hasn’t quite cracked the code on this one either. And, honestly, I don’t think he — or anyone else — will crack the code. Sorry, folks: I’ve been saying for years that there just isn’t enough money in novel publishing to support a dedicated e-book reader. The economics just isn’t there. (I won’t waste time going into the reasons for this, since Charlie Stross has done a fine job of it already.)

No, the novel will move onto the laptop computer — or whatever the laptop computer becomes in the next 20 to 30 years. Think about it: the MacBook Air fits in a manila folder. The MacBook 2020 will fit in a manila folder, and might just be foldable and solar powered too. Laptop screen text has finally gotten to the point where it’s easily readable just in the past few years, with the advent of LCD screens and font smoothing technologies like ClearType. In another fifteen years, onscreen text will be more readable than print text — plus you’ll be able to read it in any kind of lighting, resize it at will, and project it onto large surfaces.

Very soon we’re going to have a medium for distributing the written word that’s not only easier but better suited to the task than books. So let’s dispense with the silly, sentimental arguments you often hear about why storytelling is never going to go electronic. “You can’t replace the feeling of a holding a book,” “I don’t like reading on a screen,” and “I can’t read an e-book in the bathtub” are some of the sillier excuses you hear all the time for why printed books are going to survive until the end of time. I’m sorry, but “I can hold my entire library in my hand,” “I can download new books at will,” “I can search my entire library in a nanosecond,” “I can instantly send books to my friends,” “I can translate and define words on the fly,” and “I don’t have to devote an entire room of my house to holding my books” are going to trump reading in the bathtub any day of the week.

(Besides which… do you really think your laptop computer is going to be subject to being shorted out by a splash of water for very long? Dude, I’m willing to bet that your grandkids — if not your kids — if not you — will have no problem accessing their computers underwater.)

To sum up: the written word is going electronic. Permanently. Soon. Once that happens, storytellers will have no need to shoehorn their stories into these 8″ x 12″ hunks of pulped wood and ink. And once we’re not restricted to the medium of the novel, we’ll be leaving the form behind.

The death of the novel doesn’t mean the death of storytelling. It doesn’t mean that nobody’s ever going to put an Aristotelian structure of fiction into 120,000 words. On the contrary, it’s going to mean that storytelling will finally be unleashed. We’re going to see fiction strap on blue tights and a red cape and really soar.

Personally I think that’s going to be fun to see.

* * *

An interesting side point: You don’t see many people whining over the (imminent) death of the CD. At least not in artistic terms. There are plenty of people bemoaning the economics of the music biz, but I haven’t heard anyone claim that the art itself is suffering for it. Why? Because music continues on. We recognize that what we enjoy about the music is the actual notes; all the other stuff (the liner notes, the cover art, the videos, the arrangement of songs in 10- to 12-song chunks) is extraneous.

I wonder how long musical artists will continue to produce 3- to 5-minute songs. The length of the typical rock song is no accident; it happens to correspond rather nicely with the amount of music a 45 RPM record will hold. When the 33 1/3 RPM record became the dominant force in popular music in the 1960s and artists were suddenly freed from the constraints of the 45 RPM record, you saw the birth of the so-called “concept album.” I suspect popular music is still around 3 to 5 minutes in length for two reasons: because broadband technologies still make it prohibitive to download anything much longer than that for a large number of consumers; and because musicians are still under the influence of commercial television and feature films. A five-minute song is the perfect length to play behind movie credits or in between commercial breaks.

So what would the “normal” length of a piece of music be, freed from any technological constraints? Keep in mind that we still have physiological restraints of memory and basic human restlessness to consider. I suspect, based on little more than gut instinct, that 12 to 15 minutes might be a more natural length of time for a piece of music.

Which leads to the question of how long the “normal” story will be, freed from any technological constraints. Hard to say, and I’m not really even willing to hazard a guess.

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  1. […] also: David Louis Edelman’s response to this perennial battle cry. from John @ SF Signal    Posted in Books   […]

  2. Jason Pettus on March 18, 2008 at 9:46 am  Chain link

    This was a great, thoughtful essay, David; thanks for sharing it. By the way, even your estimate of novels being around for roughly 500 years is optimistic, with the answer changing (as you say) based on how it’s defined — for example, novels as we know them (one storyline, following a three-act structure, published as one big manuscript) didn’t really start becoming popular and widespread until the Victorian Age, when authors such as Charles Dickens found that they were starting to sell more copies of their bundled serial stories than the original serialized forms themselves. In that sense, then, you could argue that novels are in actuality less than 200 years old, certainly helping to illustrate your point that artistic forms are constantly morphing and changing, to suit the needs of that particular generation.

  3. Geoffrey Allan Plauche on March 18, 2008 at 10:07 am  Chain link

    You might find this amusing:

    Novelists Strike Fails To Affect Nation Whatsoever

  4. David Louis Edelman on March 18, 2008 at 10:39 am  Chain link

    Geoffrey: Ah, yes, I did see that Onion article. It hit a little close to home, but — well, it’s pretty much true.

  5. Bob Nolin on March 18, 2008 at 12:29 pm  Chain link

    What is the “natural” length of a piece of music? Interesting question. Think about classical music, which was constrained by what? Pretty much the same thing movies are limited by, as you point out: the need to pee and eat, the length of time we’re willing to sit quietly in the dark and listen. Symphonies tend to last under an hour. Half as long as a typical movie. Interesting, no? The other observation I have on this is the Grateful Dead live in concert. I’d love to know what the “average” length of a song performed live during their 30-year tenure is. I know it’s much longer than 3:05. More like 7-8 minutes, I’ll bet, with many songs stretching out past 15.

    Some great points you make here, David. Just thought I’d add a few arguments in your favor. Looking forward to the new book!!!

  6. David Louis Edelman on March 18, 2008 at 12:53 pm  Chain link

    Bob: Thanks for that… I was actually thinking about the “natural” length of classical music the other day too. It occurs to me that yes, symphonies last typically less than an hour, but most symphonies have several movements. How long is the typical movement of a classical symphony? 10-15 minutes?

    And that’s just Western music. I wonder about Eastern music, African music, etc…

  7. Doug Warren on March 18, 2008 at 1:31 pm  Chain link

    To me the novel has been dead for about 5 years. Whn I got my first PDA and realized that Project Gutenberg had so many books in the public domain available free, I have never looked back. I have become so accustomed to reading from my PDA that reading a mass market paperback or hardback seems clumsy now. As you mentioned that once you can have a work the length of the WoT in one handy device that fits in your pocket, the war is over.

    One of the best features of reading on my PDA is the ability to read during the night without a light on to disturb my wife. The backlight has become her nightlight.

  8. Neratin on March 18, 2008 at 1:49 pm  Chain link

    But I think a lot of these defenders of the novel have a fundamental misunderstanding of what a novel is, not to mention a fundamental misconception of its importance.

    I think your definition of novel is flawed, because publishers have solved the problem of the 200k words limit long ago, by serialization. For example, Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (1.5m words) was published in 13 volumes. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (about 450k words, without appendices) was originally published in 3 volumes. I think we can both agree that these books are novels.

    And that was ages ago… sci-fi, fantasy and horror novels are now typically 2-3 times thicker than they used to be, and they are still called novels. Moreover, the longest single volume novels have circa 500-600k words. Of course, e-books make even longer texts technically feasible, but if novels really die one day, it won’t happen because everyone will be writing million words long monsters or truly never-ending stories.

  9. Warren on March 18, 2008 at 4:08 pm  Chain link

    You address the bodily functions distraction point for movies and music, but this doesn’t really apply to printed media where a bookmark allows you to pause consuming the media for days. Yes ebooks will eventually replace the physical format of the current novel. I don’t see where that will change the length of the usual novel. The distribution curve on the length of the average written fiction will spread as the length is not arbitrarily confined to wood pulp. The distinction between a short story, a novella, a novel, and a serial novel will become harder to find.

    What does not change is the ability of the author to produce a coherent engrossing compelling story. Some authors are clearly better/worse at this than others, irregardless of the length of the work.

    Also, what does not change is the desire of the author to gain some income from the work. For most authors, it is better/safer to create ~one work a year and gain a steady income from regular readers than a gigantic novel every 5 years. Would anyone have assisted in completing the Wheel of Time series if the first 11 hadn’t been published already and generated a fan base? Therefore the effective productivity and willingness to wait on income serve to limit the length of the work produced.

    The flip side of this may be a resurgence of the serial novel (eg: Asimov’s Foundation series – 1951-1953). That is still limited at the upper limit of the author’s ability to maintain a coherent engrossing compelling story.

  10. Nancy Jane Moore on March 19, 2008 at 7:27 am  Chain link

    A very thoughtful, and thought-provoking, essay. I like your perspective on the technology issues in particular. I haven’t been impressed by the ebook readers out there — none of the options seem to be as useful for books as an iPod is for music — but as someone who just moved 41 boxes of books 1500 miles and is still trying to figure out what to do with them (I didn’t move the bookcases), I love the idea of having my whole library on my laptop. Not to mention a search function: I get so frustrated when I’m searching through a book, trying to find that perfect quote or to go back and read an earlier section I read too fast the first time.

    As things shake out, most writers will benefit. As you point out, the length of publishable fiction will become open-ended. And publishing itself will have to change, just as the music business is changing now. Perhaps editors will become more like music engineers, working by the project to put something together. Publishers and/or agents might become those who manage the fan base for the writer. I’m thinking about what you said in conjunction with Kevin Kelly’s essay on The Technium about developing 1,000 true fans.

  11. Gray Rinehart on March 19, 2008 at 10:01 am  Chain link

    And, of course, why are they called “novels”? Because at one time they were new.

    Your conclusion (“To sum up: the written word is going electronic. Permanently.”) brought to mind a conversation I had many years ago about the impermanence of storage media.

    We as a race have gone from chiseled stone and stylus-impressed clay (very long-lasting, but bloody difficult to tote around with you) to paper (moderately long-lasting, much easier access) to electronic media: very easy to access, but which at the time (the early days of desktop computers, using only magnetic media) seemed the most short-lived. Optical media and the spread of data through multiple nodes have improved the chances for electronic storage to last awhile, but they are still dependent on technological underpinnings (e.g., input-output devices, power). Those of us who harbor some fear of collapsing civilization, therefore, will be likely to hold onto real books for a long time.

  12. Ken on March 19, 2008 at 5:01 pm  Chain link

    Hi David,
    Really thought provoking article there. I know a lot of writers who are fearful of technology, but I think we should be embracing it. I’m releasing my next book online for free as well as in print format. I know I’m not the first to do that (by a long way) but I’m interested to see what happens.
    Thinking about music it is interesting to me that Radiohead, a British band, who have spent their career striving to break free of the limitations of record companies and 5 minute pop songs, released their latest albulm for free online. Well, not quite for free, they asked people to pay whatever they felt they wanted to for the download. many people payed only a penny! But I think that is liberating, and it becomes more about sharing the work of art than earning money off the back of it.
    Sorry about the ramble! :)
    Cheers,
    Ken

  13. Mads Backer on May 8, 2008 at 4:42 pm  Chain link

    Nice article mr ederman, but still i am unable to scrounge up your criticly acclaimed novel infoquake in any kind of ebook format!?

  14. David Louis Edelman on May 8, 2008 at 5:05 pm  Chain link

    Yeah, I hear ya, Mads. I don’t believe that Pyr has ventured into e-publishing yet for any of its titles. The most they’d let me do is post the first seven chapters and the appendices. That’s something like 35,000 words, which is nothing to sneeze at. But, you’re right, still not the whole book in e-format.

  15. lee on May 10, 2008 at 6:13 am  Chain link

    Oh-my. It does not surprise me in the least that you would confuse your topic and the advancement of culture. Yes, people will continue to read novels, forever. You are wrong about that. Be it in hand or on a computer screen, and I hate to bust your ass about this, but decent computers fit in your hand these days, novels will continue. Leave it to a paint by #’s sci-fi cat to boil down a novel to its physical form. People don’t read novels for their ease, it is not television that requires attention, people read novels for insight, for style, for composition, to stimulate their own imaginations.
    Check your facts about novels as well man, hundreds of years, try thousands, pal. Get into Easter culture, they invented the passable novel, not us. All in all, you write well, but I think you are ultimately constricted by your own mind, man. So thanks for the opinion, but youre just another one of those assholes that paints a picture the way they want to see it, not the way it is, or will be. Thanks for the article.
    lee

  16. David Louis Edelman on May 10, 2008 at 2:03 pm  Chain link

    Lee: I don’t mind in the least that you disagree with me… but do you have to call me an asshole in the process? (And “a paint by #’s sci-fi cat”… what the heck does that even mean?)

    Anyway, I think you’re confusing my prediction of the death of the novel with a prediction of the death of storytelling. The novel is simply a format — roughly 60,000 to 150,000 words of linear story, generally with an Aristotelian structure. You can have a book that’s not a novel. You can have written stories that are not novels.

    The first novels as we know them were written in the 1500s. Doesn’t matter if there were others who also thought up the idea earlier — the concept didn’t kick off until the invention of printing. The Romans invented the steam engine, after all, but nobody picked up on the concept for another 1500 years.

    My prediction is a simple one: as we move away from printed reading material to electronic reading material, the vast majority of people are going to move on to a number of other formats not limited by size and thus marginalize the 60k-to-150k-linear-prose-narrative novel. Am I wrong? Could be. Probably neither of us will be around long enough to know.

  17. […] Link (via Futurismic) Posted in Articles | […]

  18. Promoting and sharing | Once upon a mellow noon on May 16, 2008 at 4:32 pm  Chain link

    […] Share This icons on their posts. I just played with it, taking Edelman’s fascinating post “Will the novel die?” and sharing it. Stumbling, deliciousing, tankrailing – I couldn’t digg it, because I […]

  19. […] Excerpt from entry Will the Novel Die?: I can’t find any current piece of journalism to use as a springboard for asking whether the […]

  20. Lyn Hawks on August 24, 2008 at 9:44 pm  Chain link

    David, thanks for these thoughts. Your historical perspective of influences on the novel’s structure gives me some relief. I was told long ago that a novel should be less than 300-400 pages and like the neophyte I was, I never bothered to clarify number of words (I assumed, double-spaced pages, but there are other variables, as you know, in MS Word). Sometimes I find myself defining my novel-in-progress too much by word/page count rather than by the characters, arc, and spirit. Here’s how I set myself up: my writing process is such that I generate a ton of words on the first draft, so I’m now stuck wading through them and figuring out what it is I’m really trying to say. With daily tenacity I’m excavating for the essence. It’s already a hybrid of two genres, a lyger, so why should numbers serve as my absolutes? They best serve me for my writing calisthenics (as in, I’ll cut 825 by the next blog post, etc.).

    Now I’m off to tell my musician husband to create the bluegrass equivalent of “Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys” or a Grateful Dead song. :-)

    Best,

    Lyn

  21. Haiden Goodman on December 2, 2008 at 11:43 pm  Chain link

    I may be a minority here, but if I can’t have a hardcopy of something (be it a novel for my stories, a CD for my music, Blu-Ray Disc for my movies) I won’t pay for it.
    I can’t stand just downloading an album on-line.
    I truly hate it.
    That being said, I have very little idea why that is.
    I love mp3 players, and hardly ever use CDs except for ripping the music onto my computer, but I still can’t bring myself to just download an album.

  22. Icecycle on June 25, 2009 at 3:29 am  Chain link

    Twas HTML that killed the beast, the bi-planes did a damn nice job with the bullets though.

    I just found this and thought it was pretty perceptive (coming in so late to the party hurts; the ashtrays are full and the glasses are empty.)

    We will chip.
    (My wife hates this; number of the beast and all that; but.)
    When it becomes available; a chip in the head will be real time, broad band internet.
    (And in the year 9999 on December 31, somebody’s head will explode; we never learn.)

    I still read books; I sit out in the car late at night and light up (hey! we are PC here, nobody smokes in our world) sip some vodka and coffee, and read the newest nurse novel.

    Damn, I just realized, no one has wrote a nurse novel for years.

    OK, you are right, you are right. The novel is dying as we speak; first they came for the nurse novels, then (I hope) they will come for the sparkly vampire novels. . .
    Oh that thought went south in a hurry.

    I guess I will just have to go off and buy one or more of your books.

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