by Pete Mazzaccaro
What you might notice is that the Book Festival is several degrees smaller in scale this year than it has been in the past. The reason is that the organization sponsoring the festival has spread out events throughout the year. Instead of a focused weekend of authors and lectures, the Book Festival Committee hosts authors on an almost monthly basis at events around Chestnut Hill.
The lineup for this year’s festival may be limited, but the main events seem worth it. A panel on “the writing life” hosted by our own Hugh Gilmore, featuring local novelists Kevin Grauke and Katie Hagele.
The fact that Chestnut Hill can continue to support a festival based on writing is no small miracle. In fact, what can possibly be more anachronistic in this day of iPads, e-books and on-demand video than a festival dedicated to writing, words and reading.
In May, the well-known English author Will Self published a long think piece in The Guardian on the death of the novel. “This time it’s for real,” reads the piece’s headline. Self observes that the novel’s place as the primal narrative form – one that responds to and dictates public discourse – is long over.
“I believe the serious novel will continue to be written and read, but it will be an art form on a par with easel painting or classical music: confined to a defined social and demographic group, requiring a degree of subsidy, a subject for historical scholarship rather than public discourse,” Self wrote.
Self’s column struck a chord with me. I had been arguing the same with several writer friends of mine, just much less authoritatively and elegantly as did Self. In fact, the days of “The Important Novel” seem to have been over for quite some time. They’ve been replaced in print by fantasy books and genre fictions.
Serious narratives now are mostly nonfiction – memoirs and long-form works of reporting. It’s hard to imagine a novel that could tell a story of its time like “Catcher in the Rye” or “The Naked and the Dead.” It’s even hard to imagine another “American Psycho.”
This is not the work of e-books or Twitter, either. If anything it’s the prominence of the long-form cable TV show. In the last 15 years, we’ve had TV shows that can definitely rival the novel for long, narrative tales that capture truths of our time. “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” are early series that exemplify how good long-form, narrative television can be. The recently concluded “Breaking Bad” did the same, not only offering audiences a long, compelling narrative with substance, but engaging an audience in common themes, something that novels haven’t done for a long time.
Like Self, I don’t believe the novel is dead, and don’t believe it’s not worth pursuing. It’s still a powerful tool for the execution of a single author’s vision. And it can engage the imagination like no other form.
And perhaps a writer is out there who will be able to be the voice of his or her generation, capture the here and now of our times and distill it into flawless prose. Until then, though, I think we’re stuck with “Game of Thrones” and “The Walking Dead.”