There’s a moderately interesting discussion up on the New York Times site about the nature and future of The Novel. I both love and don’t-much-care-about this sort of discussion. I love it because it’s a conversation by folks who have things to say about something in which I’m interested. I don’t much care because I think it’s silly to worry about The Death of The Novel or The Death of Poetry or The Death of Culture. Even Snooki and Twitter can’t kill art, and I have a great faith in the abilities of art and artists to adapt and grow and morph and keep on doing what they’ve always done. I also have a sort of Pollyanna faith in history—I think humans bumpily, slowly messily, sometimes brutally do generally manage to improve/progress even as we cycle around on ourselves. I forget just at the moment which great philosopher(s) described history as an upward-moving spiral, but that’s always resonated with me. So I find myself disinclined to pay much attention to prognostications and declarations of The Death of this or that. Except, of course, for potential nuclear disasters, climate-change disasters, and other things of that magnitude. Those can cut the nice spiral off pretty effectively, at which point the Death of the Novel won’t much matter anyway.
In some ways, the most interesting thing about the NYT discussion about the novel is that everybody who wrote (Jane Smiley, Matt de la Peña, Robin Sloan, Thomas Glave, James Gunn, William Deresiewicz) was right. They all offered reasons for the survival of the novel. Nice, smart reasons (Smiley: Empathy. de la Peña: sadness and challenge. Sloan: longevity. Glave: novels change readers. Gunn: Genre’s, especially Sci-fi’s, ability to address issues. Deresiewicz: flexibility and sturdiness.) that the novel is vital and will continue to be vital.
I figure that it was a nifty thing that there was a YA novelist and a pro-Sci-Fi writer in the lot at all—the NYT has made some progress in expanding its understanding of What’s Worthy.
The whole thing, of course, got me thinking about why I read and what I read. I’ve always read for reading’s ability to take me out of where I am and into places I would rather be. Or just get me out of wherever I was. It was a great day for me when I discovered that my parents actually believed I couldn’t hear them because I was reading so intently. It might have been true some of the time—I wouldn’t know, would I?—but it was a mighty convenient fiction when I was 12 and not in the mood to wash the car/weed/do dishes. Of course, I always ended up doing that stuff anyway, but I did get to postpone it a bit. Any control will do when you’re 12.
I used to read very widely—fiction of many sorts and degrees, non-fiction, poetry, magazines. Especially in high school and college, of course. But I have always really been, at heart, a genre floozy. A little swash, a lot of buckle, and I’m there. I adore the endless variation-on-a-form of fantasy, romance, mystery, sci-fi just like I adore the endless variation-on-a-form of wedding gowns and Old Master portraits. Westerns and spy novels, too. Pretty much any genre other than horror and whatever it is that Tom Clancy is (testo-tech?). And poetry. I still read some serious fiction and a little non-fiction, but I have not a lot of patience for some of the bottomless grimness of current literary fiction (Boyle, McCarthy) and its general under-editing (Franzen). It may be a flaw—an indicator of some essential triviality in my nature—but I do have a need to be able to connect to/cathect with some characters in a book (which may explain my troubles with Dostoyevsky). Almost happily, I’ve hit the blissful stage of almost not caring about whether my credentials as An Intellectual will stand up to much scrutiny. Almost.
And poetry. I do read that. Probably not as much as I ought to, but consistently and in not inconsiderable quantity. And on some possibly questionable level, I think poetry is even less likely to die than the novel, and for good reasons, but mostly because I think it has a deeper relationship to whatever it is that makes us human. This is me, folks, skirting a huge debate…
Which covers what I read. But the why is maybe the most interesting part of the question, I think. Because I suspect that, for all the lovely other reasons (information-gathering, spiritual questing, fantasy-wandering, understanding, empathy, sex, fun, study, whatever) that we read, the one that I understood when I was 12 is still the core: we read to get away from the world in order to be able to be in the world, to inhabit limited and (in some sense, even if only formal) ordered worlds in order to be able to live in and pay attention to the larger and un-orderable world. I really don’t think it’s a whole lot more complicated than that.