With over 5,000 new novels being published in America every year, you’d think we would have tired of all variations of the phrase, “The novel is dead or, at least, dying.” The form has apparently been on its death throes at least since Henry James’s essay, “The Art of Fiction”…. in 1884. (Either the novel’s got a better immune system than anyone will admit, or it’s the hammiest death-scene actor of all time.) Alas, Ben Marcus has taken it upon himself to revive the debate, and to conflate it with another hoary old chestnut, “Is experimental fiction better for you than realist fiction?” (Here’s an excerpt.) His essay, in which he evidently takes on Jonathan Franzen and realist fiction, appears in October’s issue of Harper’s. (Franzen is also the author of a “Whither the novel?” piece back in 1996, also for Harper’s.)
I say “evidently” and “apparently” because I haven’t read Marcus’s essay, nor do I plan to do so. These debates are as dull, useless, and simple-minded as the “red-state/blue-state” dichotomies. Really, there should be a macro on every writer’s computer that spits out a 500-word treatise on these subjects with a single keystroke. (A pop-up window saying “Delete? YES or Maybe” should appear as soon as you punch in that macro.) In Slate, Jess Row shows more patience–barely–for this stuff than I do. God bless him for it.