The novel is dead: long live the box set?

Saturday 13 October, 14:0015:30, Barbican LibraryArts and culture


The death of the novel has been announced many times. The American novelist Philip Roth, who died earlier this year, predicted that readers of serious novels are destined to become a tiny, inconsequential cult. Others contend the novel has simply exhausted itself. Will Self argues the novel has lingered in a zombified form since modernism, its last great wave of creative innovation. And yet both Roth and Self have been gainfully employed as novelists. Book clubs are more popular than ever. The Booksellers Association claims that the long-term decline in independent bookshops has been stemmed. Has the death of the novel been greatly exaggerated?

Or is it just a matter of time? The Publishers Association reports that spending on novels dropped by 23 per cent between 2012 and 2017. Even more ominously, it is argued that the novel has finally met its match in what’s been called a new golden age of television. Far from being fleeting and superficial, the epic, multi-season TV drama allows for the long-term development of characters such as Breaking Bad’s Walter White – whose Dostoevskian-scale moral descent has become proverbial – through complex plotlines that keep us hooked, season after season. Indeed, Ofcom reports that Britain is now a binge-watching nation, with 40million viewers watching episodes ‘back-to-back’.

In the past, the novel seemed unique in its ability to explore the inner lives of fictional characters, giving us deep human insights that its storytelling rivals – plays, feature films, conventional TV dramas – could not equal. Has that now changed – or is there still something about prose on the page that goes deeper than anything that can be shown on screen? Academic Peter Boxall sees the cultural and technological shifts held responsible for the novel’s decline as the very reasons we still need it – to help us navigate the disorienting changes we’re living through.

Does the survival of the novel require a return to the radicalism of the modernists, and if so, might the novel take a leaf out of long-form television’s book? David Simon, creator of The Wire, famously declared ‘Fuck the casual viewer’, preferring to delve deep into narrative rather than worry about ratings. Or is it too late for the novel to make a comeback?