by Emma Ricciardi

I don’t think any of us would deny that novels are still written, still put onto best sellers list, and still read by millions of people around the world.  However, as English majors, we have to do a lot more work than watching someone buy Fifty Shades of Gray from Barnes and Noble to determine whether or not the novel as a form is “dead.”  Throughout my career at Widener, I’ve noticed a distinct pattern in the books my professors assigned us to study.  For English teachers, the books are old and written by authors generally considered to be the best.  I see less of books written in the past, say twenty years, than I do of people like Charles Dickens or Flannery O’Connor.

State Library of Victoria, Creative Commons
State Library of Victoria, Creative Commons

Of the books that we do read published more recently, they tend to be “historical fiction” type books.  For example, the last four novels we have read in my 1945-Present British novel course were not set in the time of the book’s debut, but in the past.  Atonement, our most recent book published in 2001, is set before, during, and after WWII.  There seems to be a general consensus, then, in English that older is definitely better.

On the other hand, my experience as a Creative Writing major paints a different picture.  The novels I read for these classes are almost all from this century, or sometimes the ‘90s.  I can only explain this odd dichotomy between the two majors by looking at what each major considers worth teaching.  In English, we teach analysis, theme, character, style, etc.  One of the benefits (and some might also say curses) of studying “classic” novels is the scholarship.  If I want to write a paper analyzing the interpersonal relationships in Pride and Prejudice, I can be sure to find someone else out there who has done the same.  While this makes it more difficult to come up with new and original topics, it does give us a grounded base off of which to begin discussions.

Another benefit is knowing the exact historical context of the novel.  While not all methods of criticism bother with context, a book written during the Second World War can’t help but be steeped in the thoughts and attitudes of the time.  By reading and analyzing “classic” novels and novels set in historical periods, we again have a base to start off of and something to draw on.  For an English class, a novel is most valuable for what we can say about it and sometimes with things in our present, we can’t see the forest for the trees, so to speak.  We can’t pick out what’s most important, what’s most shaping, to people today because we’re still living it and still figuring it out.  We can’t see what novels will be most influential or most important for a generation because it’s still happening right now.

In Creative Writing, we teach the same things, but for a different reason.  In writing, we don’t just analyze the use of flower imagery throughout the book to explain why the main character is obsessed with gardening, but also to analyze the craft put into the book.  In writing, we are much more concerned with the novel as writing than the novel as novel.  Writing styles, conventions, and tastes change with time and to be successful as writers today we need to know what works in modern fiction and what doesn’t, what sounds too archaic and what new things are writers trying out.  Does this mean that reading Dickens wouldn’t benefit us?  Not at all.  There is a lot we can learn from the traditional English canon.  However, the emphasis in our studies comes from modernity and being a writer now, not during Shakespeare’s time.  I can confidently say from working on our two school literary journals that no matter how hard you worked on that rhyme scheme, a Shakespeare-esque sonnet with tortured grammar will not impress us as much as a well written free-form.  When we read things that sound too much like the authors we study in English, we mark it as too contrived, too old, not relevant.

We can’t pick out what’s most important, what’s most shaping, to people today because we’re still living it and still figuring it out.  We can’t see what novels will be most influential or most important for a generation because it’s still happening right now.

So back to the question; is the novel dead?  Well, depends on who you ask.  Ask a scholar who devoted her life to analyzing every word in Les Miserables and she might say that novels are dead.  Ask a teenage who really likes the Harry Potter series and he might say that novels most certainly aren’t dead.  The form of the novel has not died.  Go into any book store and you’ll see shelves upon shelves of new novels, science fiction, romance, memoir, all being published by authors now.  Are the novels of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf dead?  Yes.  They are dead because time has moved on and a new form of novel has arisen.  The question we should be asking isn’t whether the novel is dead or not, but which novels today we’ll still be reading in ten, fifty, maybe even a hundred years.  I do not doubt that things published today will survive to be studied by harried English undergrads in the year 2112.  The real question is what novels will define our generation and why?  By reading and discussing modern novels now, we will shape what becomes the future of novels.

Emma Ricciardi is a senior English/Creative Writing major; she has also studied in Japan.  She has served as an editor for Widener’s two literary magazines and is active in theater both on campus and in the region.  Emma plans to attend graduate school for library and information science after finishing at Widener.  This is the first in a three-part series of posts this month by students in ENGL 361 (Fall 2012) exploring the state of the novel and novel-reading in society today.