Diary: The Novel is dead! Huzzah!
Everyone has a novel in them, like a fart or a tumour, says Martin Rowson
They say that good things come to those who wait. So 30 years doesn’t seem that long to wait for the collapse of neo-liberalism, given that its final failure was so complete and comprehensive.
But something I’ve been waiting for for years is The Death of The Novel. This has been promised over and over again, by academics and the higher hacks, but still seems no closer. Thus The Novel continues its 300-year-old hegemony as the acme of human creation. This means that we carry on venerating novelists, expected to endure the dreary opinions of people like Martin Amis or Ian McEwan, unquestioningly accepting that, because they can occasionally turn a slick phrase, they must be wiser than us. Worse, the obvious rewards – swag, reverence, invites to smart parties – inspire everyone else to seek the status of these shamans, so everyone – and I mean everyone – is now assumed to “have a novel in them somewhere”, like a fart or a tumour.
Forget the fact that most novels sell about 400 copies – if they’re extraordinarily lucky; or that there’s more than enough books already to fill a lifetime of constant reading. The real bugger about The Novel is the widely held myth that it’s “realistic”. Well, it is in the sense of a recent Guardian film review, which commended a movie for its “hyper-realistic black and white photography”. That may well be true, but only if you’re colour blind. But mostly our idea of “realism” in novels as well as movies – maybe even “reality” itself – is just another highly artificial construct designed to help us maintain a superior air of earnest misery.
And yet The Novel is one of the flimsiest receptacles for “reality” imaginable. This was realised early when, in 1759, an obscure Yorkshire vicar called Laurence Sterne successfully skewered The Novel with The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. For those of you who’ve never read, or tried and given up, Tristram Shandy maintains the reputation Dr Johnson gave it: “Nothing odd will do for long; Tristram Shandy did not last...”
This judgement is odd in itself. The book has never been out of print; more to the point, its oddness lies in its slavish fidelity to recreating reality as it truly is. Tristram Shandy, to the joy of admirers from Hazlitt and Nietzsche to Salman Rushdie and Her Majesty’s late Inspector of Prisons Judge Stephen Tumim, is a long, rambling, digressive, funny, filthy, sentimental dirty joke, but the best joke of all (which Tristram sadly acknowledges in Volume III, when he still hasn’t got to his own birth) is that it’s both impossible and ridiculous (if enormous fun) even to attempt recreating reality in The Novel.
Another thing I’ve been awaiting is someone to reissue my 1996 comic book adaptation of Tristram Shandy, out of print for 12 long years. And the wait was worth it. SelfMadeHero, a small, young publisher specialising in graphic novelisations of the Classics, is bringing it out again in May. For though I may still have a long wait for the final Death of The Novel, it’s always reassuring to recall that Sterne gave it a delightful duffing up 250 years ago.