First version published @ Ribbonfarm on August 4, 2020.
Though news of the death of the novel―or for that matter, the book or the author―may seem no better than clickbait following countless false reports, it is hardly too early to ask what comes next. In its Western variant, the novel built momentum over hundreds of years to become the dominant literary form of the twentieth century; its popularity and penetration dependent on―if ever responsive to―sometimes vertiginous phase shifts in means, media, markets. In this sense, its history reads like a (living) fossil of the modern era, from mechanisation to globalisation, from the expansion of literacy to the invention of intimacy.
Given the scope, speed and scale of transformations and disruptions we are currently faced with―many of which the pandemic will consolidate or heighten―it would be remiss of us, however, to not imagine other literary forms emerging well within our lifetimes.
[And if the precondition for new forms is, indeed, in new platforms and new media…]
For starters: following the concentration in both publishing and distribution of past decades; a handful of small, aggressively independent presses are now scouting for talent not in the koi-pond of MFAs or residency programs but on social media, where it can be found at its most adventurous and unembellished. Business models vary but are central in the push towards autonomy these presses share. These are not manifesto factories, either, but agile enterprises that are [re]s[e]izing the means of production by taking everything, from their submission software to their bookmaking, into their hands; the way others microbrew beer or cure ham. Nor are these the zines of the nineties: the DIY book has at last hit its stride as a fine art, with objects as impressive as those issued by almost any major house―and better copy. The writers championed by these presses are, furthermore, early explorers in relative peerlessness, encouraged to pursue marginal practices that might be otherwise untenable by one-man editorial orchestras who do not conduct themselves as king or tastemakers―roles still [p]reserved for the establishment reviewer—but rather, as craftsmen and colleagues.
While, naturally, precedents exist in presses like Adelphi or magazines like Sur, there is a significant and telling difference in how the elective affinities at work today may be more exclusively literary than ever before. These are not groups of friends with similar backgrounds who meet periodically at a café or who attended the same colleges. We’re not in Bloomsbury anymore. By and large, these are cadres of strangers from all walks of life―Twitter mutuals―more eclectic in their outputs than entire university departments.
It may be the first time the phonecall is coming from outside the house in this way. Defamiliarisation is no longer solely in the product, but essential to the social literary process. Here’s to the shape of outbreeding enhancement in literature.
Peter Brown. Shot by Ned. 2015. Oil on canvas, 137 x 107 cm.