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Literary Review

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On the death of the novel

With the Gen-Y obsessed with graphics, the written word is becoming obsolete in an increasingly virtual, visual world, feels VIJAY PARTHASARATHY.


The time to stand and read...

THEORISTS have long debated whether the novel as a literary form is dying, whether it is relevant anymore and if everything that might be written hasn't already been said. Whatever the merits of the argument, in a sense the novel (and indeed, the book itself) isn't so much dying as it is getting garrotted; its contemporary relevance undermined, not by the author but by a dwindling audience increasingly attracted to visual representation.

Changing environment

We live in the age of fast food and pithy one-liners. For entertainment, we prefer to lean back passively in our armchair, sip on instant coffee and watch reality TV. We also have a dozen sitcoms to choose from; only they are all the same, the torrent of non sequitur gags making Woody Allen seem, in comparison, like a narrative poet. For better or for worse the Internet has permanently changed our perception of our environment, and the world has shrunk more or less to the size of a raisin. Computers have completely altered our idea of leisure. This might sound oxymoronic, but the fact is relaxation has turned into an aggressive sport. A mere two decades ago kids were peacefully discovering Enid Blyton and P.G. Wodehouse, while their parents, hung-over from the 1960s, rummaged through their old Lou Reed and Pink Floyd LPs. The trouble began when Generation-X shifted to a diet of cheesy video games and revolting bubblegum-pop. The transition occurred around the time computers were rendering the cinema hall — forget paperbacks — obsolete.

Not long ago, parents would object to their wards reading comics on the grounds they weren't educational enough, even if the artwork, admittedly, was brilliant. My generation, for instance, grew up naively believing there was a direct relation between reading comics and scoring zero on that grammar test in school. We have since moved on — given the fact kids these days have the attention span of gnats, you would be lucky to get them to scan a Calvin & Hobbes cartoon strip. Kids write text messages that read like machine language code. Gen-Y is obsessed with graphics; its passion is online gaming. Who needs books, when you are having fun blowing each other's brains out on screen: nothing beats that for recreation, right? Just you wait until we get to Z and run out of alphabets.

Parents ought to encourage their kids to read but there is the economics to consider. (Vegetables, naturally, rank higher than a Harry Potter in the shopping list — yes, even spinach.) Book fairs haven't really succeeded in bringing down prices, while libraries and second-hand rummage sales will always offer a limited range. On the other hand, computers have become affordable and the World Wide Web ensures information overload is just a button away.

The problem with the prevailing culture of instant gratification is that resources are, in a sense, squandered. Nobody is denying that running a Google search is a spectacularly efficient way of prioritising information. The thing is many of us no longer bother to chew on entire texts, so to speak; we are satisfied with bits and pieces. Intellectual property rights and copyright laws regulate the publication of books online, so access to books online is restricted to classics and first chapters of contemporary fiction. While researching material online, there is always the temptation to refer to an abridged summary; innumerable sites provide sample essays on a specific aspect of the novel in question. This holds equally for both a second-grader doing his homework and a research student working on a post-doctoral thesis.

At one level, the Internet has contributed significantly to the dissemination of information; at another, it contributes to the process of dumbing down and makes us superficial.

Different experiences

Reading a book is an altogether different experience. Every text, like David Lodge says in his hilarious novel Small World, is engaged in a kind of continuous, intellectual striptease that hints, baits and seduces but never really concludes. All meaning is layered and varies according to personal interpretation.

Now, if only we had the time.

Ultimately, however, you suppose books will survive in one form or the other. Already they are manifesting as multiple strains everywhere — on the big screen, at reading sessions, as radio plays — and showing the kind of tenacity you would associate with a virus. Paper might slowly be going out of fashion, and not just for ecological reasons; but fiction itself has diversified into sub-genres. Movies like "Lord of the Rings" introduce people to Tolkien's works and the novel can only benefit as pop culture seeps through society. That is until, of course, "One Large Burger with Extra Cheese, Please" is rated above anything Shakespeare wrote, and comes to be regarded as the finest sentence constructed in the post-postmodern tradition.

After all, what's in a verb?

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