By Elena Harshaw

The British Novel! These three words elicit some of the strongest feelings of intelligence, respect, canon, “firsts” and most of all, legacy. Some of the most influential literary figures over the centuries have one thing in common; they are not only associated with British tradition, but aided in defining the nation’s cultural identity. Art, in general, and more specifically literature, is continually seeking to break new ground, evaluate and re-evaluate its place within society and carving out pathways for the new to take us into uncharted territory. And yet, there is a continual and counteractive movement towards the past that somehow manages to cast a shadow over the new. Why has the novel become less significant? Why is “the novel” so closely associated with the span of the 18th and 19th centuries and then comes to an abrupt halt? After mulling the question of the novel over the course of an academic semester and applying reactions to readings, I have concluded that this question is a very big one. There are more questions than answers and all considerations point to one overall thought: the novel is not dead, but more in a coma-like state. Here are my top reasons why this is so:

image via Wikipedia
woodcutting of a printer, 1568; image via Wikipedia

5. People are hyper-busy creatures today. Taking the time to read a novel as a form of leisure has dwindled down over the years. Why read a novel when you can get quick snippets of just about anything by the click of a mouse?

4. Where is the groundbreaking stuff? Austen, the Brontes, Dickens, etc.—they put the novel on the map. They set the standard and will always be referred back to in study for that reason. Literary movements can be tracked from the Enlightenment period on and all evidence ground-breaking shifts in literature that mirror shifts occurring in society. And yet, post-modernism is producing fewer and fewer ground breakers.

3. Our relationship with literature has changed. This goes beyond whether we read or not and moves into why we read or don’t read, how we read and what we read. Less and less do we turn to literature to step outside of our circumstances and seek out valuable insight into dealing with social issues of the day. It is like realism to the highest degree. There are no longer representations of events, but rather access to actual photos and news footage of real life. Perhaps the retrospective relationship with literature will look back and comment on our response to responses?

2. Too many voices. This partially coincides with #4 and is to point out that there are too many voices out there! With the advent of mass communications through social media, blog posts, self-publication, e-books, etc., people are inundated by an onslaught of opinion. While having a medium for people to interact and voice themselves is generally a good thing, the counter to this is that genuinely “good” stuff gets drowned out.

1. Technology; love it/hate it? The progression of technology has a direct parallel to the regression of the novel. This one advancement coincides on some level with every point on this list and has become the face of our time period and its effects on literature and our relationship with the novel.

E-reader from Aptara
E-reader from Aptara

No one can say for sure why the novel is less important today than yesterday. It’s not one thing; it’s a number of things and the question raises far more questions than answers. Is everything retrospective? If so, what will they say? And who will be the “they” be?  Will the literary think-tankers of the future discover something about us that we are too up close and personal to see yet? What if the stamp that this generation is making on the novel will, in fact, be less about the words and more about the way in which those words were conveyed? Would that be ok? Or, would that be a failure in which we saw the novel as comatose and “they” will perceive that it was already dead?

Elena Harshaw is a recent graduate of Widener’s English program. She is also one of the newest inductees to Widener’s local chapter of Sigma Tau Delta, The International English Honor Society.  She finds great joy in frequenting local playhouses and navigating her way through the lengthy list of literary greats.  Elena plans to pursue an M.A. in English in the Fall 2013.  This is the second 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.