Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Death of the novel and why writers write

Clive Hicks-Jenkins, image
from the rear cover of The Foliate Head
(UK: Stanza Press, 2012)
    For some reason or other (people do argue about why these things happen, don't they?), I wrote a little short story--one about a fantastic event that caused a woman to begin living a set of experiences that would become her next novel--after reading Will Self's essay, "The novel is dead (this time it's for real.)" I didn't believe a word of it! Well, perhaps I believed he had a teen son who strummed a guitar... I immediately dredged up one of his prior remarks as commentary:
I’ve always enjoyed bullshitting people. I still enjoy it. --Will Self, interviewed by Jacques Testard at The White Review
     I've been equally unbelieving (albeit good-tempered) about some of the responses. After all, when a death is predicted for too long, methinks there may be too much protestation.
    David Ulin, book critic of the L. A. Times, says that Self is wrong (so far we agree, and I perhaps Self does too), and points out that even to have any ideas of lodging a book in historical memory is absurd, given the brevity of life and the deluge of books. In face of such difficulties, the job is "how to evoke experience in a manner that does it justice, that gives dignity to the evanescence, to the ephemerality." He believes that the ultimate vanishing of the evocation and the one who experienced is "part of the point; we’re just creating sand paintings against the void." Ulin concludes,
No, the only reason to write is self-expression, which is by its nature a fleeting conceit. --David L. Ulin, in "Notes on the (non-)death of the book,"
I enjoy his tribute to the shad-fly evanescence of life, but this idea of why we write is wrong. Wrong! Oh, yes, sure, along the way we can say that some evidence of the self (another rabbit hole--what is the self, Mr. Self? Mr. Ulin?) may possibly be expressed or extruded or fingerprinted or some such, but it's not why writers write.
     You have to be very cautious about listening to the claims writers make because they are in the business of making things up. In fact, right now, I might just be making things up. Don't trust me! I might be, like Self, "bullshitting people." I might happen to "enjoy it." However, such a thought never flew into my innocent head until I read Self's claim of the same, so you're probably reasonably safe, if (if only!) I can understand what my own reactions are and not trundle off on some possibly-circular digression.
    Ahem! End of small digression.
    So why do writers (real, sure 'nough writers) write? Because if there is a legitimate reason, perhaps word-twisting and this baggy, odd, changing creature we call a novel really can't die. I will tell you why writers write, and you may laugh at me and go on clicking on links, or you may pause and believe me, as you will. Here is the answer to a hard question (or at least to a much-debated one) in a mere four lines . . .
   Writers write because they find joy in playing with words, hearing them chink together and sing, and feeling them marry and meld with what is told. Writers write because they love to make things and so to bring something with the illusion of life and energy out of nothing. Writers write because to make a story or a poem is an act that is true, beautiful, good, and a singular mirror held up to creation and God, maker of the universe (or the multiverses) out of nothing, and to creation itself. Oddly, all this is true whether a writer believes in these elements--play, word-music, sub-creation and creation, truth and beauty and God and goodness--or not.
     The end. There. Settled.

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P. S. I've been a bit unfeeling to write another post not many hours after posting an interview meant to help get the word out about a brand new anthology, so please pop down to the previous post and take a look, have a read, buy a book, etcetera!


  1. Roland Barthes in "The Death of the Author" (1967) and John Barth in "The Literature of Exhaustion" (1967) argued that the novel was dead. They and the latest species of over-confident and unqualified coroners are wrong. The novel does not die. It evolves. In its evolution, it is not unlike poetry, drama, and other literary endeavors. As long as people write for people who read, which is the key to the whole issue, some species of the novel will continue to exist. Of course, I could be wrong about this.

    1. Barring planetary destruction, I think you are right!

      It has been hard for a lot of people to look past the various unravelings of Modernism and post- and post-post Modernism and see a direction. But that doesn't mean there are no ways to go...

  2. There. Settled. That really is a good explanation. And it's why all the "death of the novel" talk is just a party game, and why it doesn't matter if critics can see no direction forward from here: writers continue to write, striking out in whatever directions they find necessary. The observers will all just have to catch up later, as usual.

    1. Party game--yes, it does seem so and has been so for a long time.

      The powers that be have so much confidence in the marketplace having found the best work, despite 50K novels a year from publishers alone, before we get to those who are in the mass of the self-published. It seems very difficult to asses all that, the numbers being so much higher than in the past, so we just pretend that what the publishers say are lead books are the important ones, and that they are infallible. Then we mainly look at those, and although wide-ranging critics may drag in a few more, one person can hardly establish a writer's importance alone. So the whole thing seems a great, uncontrollable hodgepodge.

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  4. There are probably as many reasons to write as writers. In my own case, writing - or attempting it - gives me permission not to iron.

    As to predictions about the future, I find it best to leave that to those who tend a flock of black sheep.

    1. Permission not to iron? Lee, I give you a permanent pass! No ironing from now on!

      And no doubt some reasons change over time, though some remain. (For example, I have now dismissed you from ironing, and so you will all be happily wrinkled but have more time. You will have to think of a new reason.)

      I expect we're safe in saying that in the future we will run into a bit of turbulence. It certainly looks that way. Alas.

  5. I sometimes wonder if writers write in order to organize and give shape to ideas. Most novels have 'main themes', and I think novelists like to attach ideas and beliefs to situations and characters in order to 'try them out' (?)
    Well… if I were a writer I believe this is what I would be doing!

    The novel evolves but does not 'die'. Of that, I'm sure.

    1. I expect that the novel may well evolve to be something we wouldn't understand as a novel, and that might not even be called "novel."

      Nope, not me. I never, ever, ever think about portraying ideas in a story. Any ideas and themes that are there emerge naturally from the narrative and characters. For me, the story is a sort of bright, exuberant tree that flings itself into the air, and only later do we find out what sort of fruit it has, and what color the leaves turn in autumn.

      But I'm sure there are plenty of novelists who are "idea people." Like late Walker Percy...


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.