Apparently, according to the novelist Will Self over on The Guardian, the Novel is dead.
By “novel”, he means the sort of serious literature of yesteryear, not the, er, pulp fiction so popular today, because, let’s face it, it’s so much less taxing to read. Although he agrees that many fine novels have been written in the last century, he suggests that they are “zombie novels”, the form dying some time about when Joyce published Finnegan’s Wake, but refusing, quite, to die properly. I’ll admit here that I haven’t read any Joyce. And I’ll agree, there’s a lot of dross out there, atrociously written and badly plotted.
But I think that this misses the point of why people read. We don’t read to be ‘challenged’. Why should we? I don’t know about you, but I read (fiction, this is) because the story interests me, or because I like the writing. Because my curiosity has been piqued. I don’t see why it is the job of a novel to make me think. If you can’t think for yourself before you read a novel, then how is a work of serious fiction going to help? And if we can’t cope with difficult literature, then what does that say about our education?
I have nothing against Literature. But why does ‘difficult’ seem to mean dull? I gave up on the Waverley novels after about three because whichever one I was reading then was, frankly, exceedingly tedious and I had Wagner’s Ring Cycle waiting in the wings. I don’t cease reading easily, but I haven’t yet returned to Scott.
What I look for most, though, is what my friend Katie and I have started calling the ‘Castle-factor’. A sense of fun and not-taking-itself-seriously. It doesn’t have to be poorly-written or a bad story. It doesn’t have to be romantic or comic or any other label that books get. It doesn’t even have to be a murder-mystery such as Castle (allegedly) writes. It just has to have something which appeals to my sense of humour or mood on the day that just tickles my interest. It’s tricky to define. Especially since I have quite a broad sense of the ridiculous. But a book doesn’t need the Castle-factor for me to try it. It just helps.
Reading is a terribly personal thing, and what I take away from a novel is likely very different to what you do. Which is one reason why I do so hate analysing fiction.
Besides which, if the story and the writing are good enough, you’re probably not going to notice if it’s Literature or not. You’re going to be too lost in the world.