It is a truth universally acknowledged that for every writer there must be a reader. That literature holds a perennial place in society is undeniable, regardless of time or history. However, this timeless quality of the novel is ceasing. When considering this unfortunate paradigm, one can turn to Oscar Wilde who said: ‘Literature always anticipates life. It does not copy but moulds to its purpose’. If we are forgetting the significance of the novel, perhaps that is more telling of our modern existence.
Let us look back to the early 20th century: novelists were in their element, they were the cream of the crop, the grand fromage. Virginia Woolf and others in the so-called Bloomsbury Avant-Garde dominated popular culture and their work inspired many of the subjectivities that we now refer to as modernism. As individuals, writers were the ‘influencers’ of Western society – their impressive intellectual and academic abilities seemed to place them above the average Londoner, with Eliot, Lawrence and many others retaining a celebrity status that is still relevant today.
This prompts us to question how our values appear to have changed so much in just a century. As children, it is not uncommon for the act of reading to now be considered a chore – something to be tolerated until a parent will allow you screen time. It is almost sad to consider the difference between idols of the early-modern period and the fame that is now afforded to such young Tik-Tok stars. The art of the novel was one that provided space for thinking, for the slowing down of thought: it prevented impulsion, allowing for emotion to be channelled into a physical and tangible craft. For readers, the saying ‘patience is a virtue’ was one so intrinsically embedded in the act of reading itself that nobody even considered the current understanding of ‘instant gratification’.
But then again, children’s authors are arguably the most prominent in today’s society. Think about Roald Dahl, David Walliams, Jacqueline Wilson and so-on. Their stories continue to provide our children with a space for fictional unreality, teaching them important lessons about the way in which the world works, whilst allowing for creative and impassioned expansion. Even over the last couple of decades, a story’s hold on children has not lessened; we are just seeing its influence in new ways – let us remember the newest adaptation of Matilda the Musical, now set for screens.
And, of course, it is impossible to disregard the cultural phenomenon that was Harry Potter. These novels set a precedent for all children’s literature, actively advocating for difference, change and greater understanding about those that do not immediately fit the mould. However, in recent years, J.K. Rowling herself has become a source of contention, making claims against communities that place her in direct opposition to the free-thinking that is promoted by her books. She actually forces us to remember that the novelist and the novel can be separated – that they are not one and the same.
There is something so beautiful about the art of writing. The act of putting words to paper, or in the modern sense, words to screen, and expressing beauty in a way that has been done for centuries. As Haruki Murakami has said: ‘the novelist will claim that truth and reality are entrenched in precisely such unnecessary, roundabout places…thus it is natural that we find on the one hand, people who believe that there is no need for novels and, on the other, those who maintain that novels are absolutely necessary’. When we consider the question that titles this article, it does force us to wonder about the necessity of a novelist. The novelist has a role that is multi-functional: they serve both as a prophet for greater cultural anxieties, as the catalyst for fundamental change, but equally provide an outlet or escape – the novel itself delights in sheer unnecessariness.
Let us now look closer at that word ‘vocation’. It is one that implies a career, financial stability, and employment. And yet, to be a novelist you often have to sacrifice these rather cushy notions of constancy, perpetually living with the risk of failure. In this modern society, the government are increasingly removing funds from creative arts in schools, and redirecting them towards other subjects which they consider to be ‘more important’. There is very little to be gained personally by writing anymore, with very few writers actually ‘making it’, at least on the level of celebrity. Writing, nowadays, is done for the pure and unmitigated love of it.
If we once again consider Oscar Wilde, in his infamous novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, it was said that ‘those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope’. As long as there are writers, there will always be somebody to read. Beauty can be found in a myriad of places, and the novel is one of them. It is not yet a dying vocation, yet it is one thatmust be actively protected against a world that is continually evolving, and maybe not for the better.
Written by: Ella Dayer
Edited by: Uta Tsukada Bright