People are always decrying the end of the novel as an art form. Will Self has recently argued this in The Guardian. Self opined about people not being able to read good anymore; then going on to say that he would not participate in Twitter because he did not ‘see [his] future in computer-games design.’* Ideas, apparently, cannot be transmitted in 140-character instalments or over social media in general, because social media is trivial and intelligent people are better than the people who tweet about celebrities etc.
Or not. There’s an interesting Twitter trend at the moment called #bookaday, thought up by Borough Press. For the month of June people are invited to join in the calendar to tweet their book a day, the 1st of June’s topic being favourite childhood book. This sort of thing is more meaningful to people than so called High Art, because people are actually sharing ideas and their own stories. The novel exists as a way of sharing thoughts and feelings with other people. There wasn’t really an idea of High Art until the 20th Century. Women who were addicted to gothic novels in the 18th and 19th centuries were derided as being silly; the novel as a form took a long time to gain respect from serious academic people. As did Shakespeare’s plays. English Literature is sort of respected as a course now (I did an English degree), but it wasn’t always. The fetishisation of literature as something only the most intelligent can think about is descended from the modernists. The idea of the novel as a serious art form is not, in the scheme of things, a long established one. (I wonder if the thought of losing something that is important to somebody, such as the novel, is just a fear of death and not being remembered after death. But I have read maybe too much Freud).
Which brings me to #bookaday. It’s been lovely going through all of these tweets people have made, seeing the books that have meant a lot to them. Love for literature is still alive; love is far, far better than admiration. But all of this High Art talking doesn’t only drive people away from literature, it excludes people who aren’t able to read for long periods of time for whatever reason. I love reading and I enjoy discussing books with people, but books aren’t the only method of communicating ideas. Some of the most interesting people I have met have been dyslexic and/or unconfident about reading. People can get interesting information and stories in other ways, and that is brilliant. With modernism came a hyper-reverence of reading novels that many people still haven’t recovered from. I like books; books are good. But to say that culture is going to shit because people don’t read Joyce anymore (did they anyway?) is to sneer at people. This is not conductive to sharing ideas; this excludes people. Perhaps, as #bookaday shows, the novel is not dead; it is changing, changing into something more interesting. Something less High Art and more honest.