Four Writers on the Future of Books

Gillian Reagan | February 15th, 2011

On Saturday Feb. 12, at Powerhouse Books, the cavernous store and publishing house located under the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge in Brooklyn, four writers were sitting on a couch, invited to discuss “the future of the novel.” More than 100 guests still wearing their winter coats, crossing their leather boots, waited for an answer. The writers didn’t have much to say.

“Maybe we are a bit silent when you ask what is the future of the novel is because you’re speaking about all novels,” said German-language writer Andrea Grill, who has published two novels, Tränenlachen in 2008 and Zweischritt in 2007, and will release a volume of poems in the coming months. “Most of us, we’re just sitting with our one novel as we’re working on it.”

Peter Weber, another German-language author, argued against pondering the future of an invention of publishing houses — not writers. “A novel is a concept of the editors,” he said. “You’re focused on your own project, not so much focused on trying to figure out how the novel will survive.” And, anyway, who says the novel is on its deathbed? “It’s a puppy,” Weber said.

The event was part of the Festival Neue Literatur, which flies in German-language authors for a series of conversations with American authors.  Even moderator Paul North, a Yale professor who studies Western intellectual history and will publish his first book, The Problem of Distraction, this year, said asking whether the novel has a future is an “annoying” question.

Perhaps the real question is: should we be asking writers to invent the “future of the novel?” Maybe editors, agents, publishers, marketers, researchers, and maybe even Steve Jobs, too, are better equipped, in some ways.

Rivka Galchen, a writer who the New Yorker recently called one of the 20 Writers Under 40 — “young writers who capture the inventiveness and the vitality of contemporary American fiction” — said trying to force a draft of the next iteration of the novel might be like trying to make fake meat taste like the real thing — somehow bringing together a bunch of artificial taste to make a patty of mashed soy beans seem like a steak.

“I sort of think like if you’re cooking something, you might as well let the tomatoes tell you what to do rather than try and trick them into seeming like something that they’re not,” Galchen said. “If it’s a book, it should be a book. If it’s language, it should be made out of language. It’s not a movie. It’s not sort of like a television show. It’s not a piece of music. You always hope your book will just start writing itself and that the sentences that are already there, instead of like forcing you to come up with sentences, so you’re not in control, and trying to force some bean curd into a bad beef burger.”

Of course, some writers are experimenting with “beef” burgers-good and bad. There are novels composed by text-message, iPad books, video blogs, books that have podcasts, iPhone apps, and soundtracks as package. “I’m sure it’ll mutate, I’m sure it already has,” Galchen said. But inventive writers might be working in a cruel, early Darwinian world — a brutal Stone Age where only the fastest, most clever survive. “The answer is like mutated fish, sometimes the mutations are bad and sometimes they don’t work out,” Galchen said.

Galchen accepts that the novel will never “win” against media forces like movies and the Internet might be its savior. How can the novel possibly “compete”? “I would say, maybe by losing,” she said. “Almost everything I’ve liked in my life has lost.”

“I sort of think like if the novel is crashing,” she said, “it’s like a swan song, I think it would be good for the novel. Maybe not the novelist or anyone who wants to make money, but for the novel itself.”

Grill admitted she’s not even considering how she’ll need to evolve in “our contemporary techno-mediacracy,” as the event literature put it — she is focused on one word at a time. “I don’t compete,” said Grill. “I never think of myself as a writer who is producing something that I’m going to sell. I know what I want to speak about through these pages.” And if those words speak to us, perhaps that’s all we can ask for.