For the third Worlds Literature Festival Salon, Marcel Möring gave a provoking introduction, rousing writers in defence of the literary novel.
His terms were clear. The novel is under attack. This form which is the story of how it all began is us and we are it. Novelists listen to the heartbeat of time, and so their work is urgent. Novelists need to give people not what they want, but instead what they might least expect. They need to make art.
Möring states that the novel has come to a standstill and that novelists just seem to have accepted this.
He finished by rousing the assembled writers. Let us be bold and daring. Let’s risk it all and get back to the point whereby we ourselves are shocked by literature. Let’s mess with time and place and the idea of the text. Let’s be free and experimental. Let’s make art.
Novelists are the mothers and fathers of narrative invention. They have an obligation and must try to go where no man and no woman has gone before.
There was general agreement from the writers gathered that there is indeed a crisis in the novel form. The market has become constricted and now publishers are not taking a chance on experimental forms of novels, writers are being herded towards the familiar.
Has the European novel sold its soul and become a commercial tool of bog-standard storytelling? It might have. Yet is this just an Anglo-American disease? The novel in English may be doomed, but this doesn’t necessarily hold for all novels.
Those writing in other forms noted Marcel’s insistence on the novel being the ultimate literary form. Maybe the most interesting literature is happening outside of the novel now. Would that be such a bad thing?
A poet noted that of course it’s worthwhile to look for something new in the novel; poets are constantly searching for the new. If novelists become really experimental and break down all of the boundaries in the novel, maybe they’ll end up writing poetry!
Then the writers talked about how great literature needn’t be experimental. Some of the best modern literature comes from reportage, which is not known for experimentalism. Also, many people do not want the experimental in their novels. They just want the writing to be high quality, the construction excellent, such as in the work of Annie Proulx and Johnathan Franzen.
There is more than one way of being brave. You can break boundaries in other, non-experimental ways – by being emotionally honest, by opening up the raw. Why this insistence on a new form? Making a novel experimental can also be a way of being inauthentic – you can hide behind form.
The idea of Modernism was explored. Isn’t the classic Modernist form outdated? Don’t we need to find our own way of writing for this time we’re living in, rather than harking back to the experimentalists of the early 20th Century? People discussed Will Self’s Umbrella, the room divided about how relevant the novel’s Modernist style is now, whether or not it’s pastiche.
The writers considered whether today we have to find our own Modernism; a style more relevant to the time we’re living in. And noted that writers shouldn’t just break up form for the sake of it; the experimental works best when it comes out of necessity.
As a riposte, Möring listed all of the interesting ways of writing that novelists could be employing, that are being underutilised. Diary style, in the style of the Talmud, interviews… Modernism aside, we are not being inventive enough, surely.
There was general agreement that novelists are indeed under great constraints commercially – they are certainly being herded towards the safe and this is indeed having an effect on form.
Yet there was also frequent mention of the wealth of individual presses and brave editors who are doing great work and publishing more interesting fiction. Good books continue to travel in the most surprising ways. There is also a gratifying resurgence in revivalism; Richard Yates, Paula Fox, John Williams were all cited as examples of great writers who have been re-earthed recently with the writers concluding that it is at least reassuring to note that if your challenging, brave book doesn’t make it the first time round, there’s always a chance that it will be brought back to life later on.
Listen to a podcast of Marcel’s provocation below: