Thoughts on the Novel

The winning of the Nobel Prize in Literature by Orhan Pamuk in 2006 (posting 2011/06/08) adds his name to the increasingly lengthy list of laureates from non-Western countries. What’s going on here?  

There may be an element of policy on the part of those who award the prize; one cannot help noticing that the ranks of female winners are expanding at much the same rate. But I can’t help thinking that the golden years of the novel in western Europe and Russia coincided with the advent of a readership that was educated, enjoyed sufficient leisure to be able to read long books for pleasure and, quite possibly, lived in houses large enough for a part to be devoted to quiet reading. Similar developments in other parts of the world in recent decades have opened the possibility of novel reading to a vast new public, so it’s not surprising that fiction of excellent quality is being generated there. 

But there may be something else under way. Traditional forms of literature are becoming less important in the West. This can be seen in all kinds of ways: the claims of new media and the writings of hitherto excluded groups for places in English courses hitherto based on a great tradition, and the use of illustrations to accompany book reviews in the press that are often as large as the reviews themselves (sometimes accompanied by a picture of the book being reviewed, suggesting that you can judge a book by its cover.) How many people follow the work of favourite novelists these days? And the Internet and social media that are becoming so central to the ways in which society operates don’t lend themselves to narrative; their users are confronted by a potentially infinite number of sideways jumps rather than a sustained story-line. Hence the mind-set that accompanied the reading of novels, as well as much historical writing, is being supplemented, and perhaps to a degree replaced, by another. At the moment the threats these tendencies present to established forms of literature, in particular the novel, are strongest in the West, but they will certainly spread.

So there are good reasons for winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature to come from non-traditional areas. Perhaps in decades to come they will be exponents of non-traditional forms as well.

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