OK, it’s story time! Right at the beginning of literary criticism, the Greeks wrote plays. They then wrote about those plays. One of the longest-surviving works (and now the most famous) is Aristotle’s Poetics, which discussed Tragedy plays and Comedy plays. Sadly, only the section of his work discussing Tragedies remains (pun always intended), but we can get the rough idea of what he was going for with Comedies by the comparisons he makes. For a long time, this was how the world worked. There were two genres of fiction, and all narrative fiction was either Comedy or Tragedy.
Fast forward a few hundred years, to the early decades of the 18th century. In the annals of high literature, the poem and the play and the rhetorical long-form still hold sway. Novels are schlock, the dross of literature, entertainment for the simple of mind, or those with too much time and no Higher Pursuits to occupy it. WOmen and servants, mainly. However, things started to change around 1720 when Daniel Defoe published ‘The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders’. He was not the only one writing at the time, but this book serves as a good example of the new trend (read: It’s the only one I’ve read).
Moll Flanders was among the first novels where characters were more than caricatures. It was the first novel where the characters had full names, rather than just one, and names that sounded real, rather than veiled references to virtues or character traits. It wasn’t enough to break perceptions overnight – we still had the whole period of Gothic literature to go through, after all – but it got things started.
Eventually, novels got their place in high literature, and we got our ‘Beloved’ and our ‘Huckleberry Finn’, and also our Finnegan’s Wake, for better or worse.
Since the novel gained its place as worthy literature, it has been a medium juggernaut. Poetry is all but dead in popular consiousness, relegated to niche audiences (in Australia and as far as I can see, America and the UK, at least – I can’t speak for peoples on the Asian continent, or even for most of Europe). Short stories are the hardest medium to sell in traditional publishing at the moment, and plays and theatre are niche entertainment and school studies.
Even visual media never really shook the novel from its perch. Moveis are the biggest visual medium now, and they have done nothing to slow the rate at which novels are read, despite the alarmist claims of TV-addicted youths unable to enjoy wholesome activities due to the draw of the vicious gogglebox.
At the same time, though, it feels a bit like the novel is losing ground. Visual media are starting to gain ground – two sections in particular. TV shows and video games. TV shows are gaining popularity. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve overtaken the movies now, eroding the one real advantage that novels had over movies.
Movies have time constraints – novels do not. And neither do TV shows. In theory, of course. For a while, only novels could tell suck extended stories. Then novels could tell stories you didn’t have to wait a whole week to read instalments of.
Now, we have Netflix, and all bets are off.
It is now a habit of the teen and young adult crowd (though they aren’t the only ones who do it) to binge-watch entire seasons in a matter of days. You know, like reading a few chapters of a book every night before bed.
Video games, too, are hitting the edge of that transitional period where our culture accepts them as capable of thematic complexity. We used to have Mario, Zelda, PacMan. Now, we have Life is Strange, Papers Please, and Journey. This might even be more dangerous to the novel (if we choose to frame this as a “bad” transition), due to the sheer number of tools available to video games – as well as the tools of visual media, it has interactivity and mechanics, and everything that goes along with them. And it, like the TV show, has the capability to be either episodic (Life is Strange, The Wolf Among Us, among others), or a huge epic to play a bit of every night until one is finished (Skyrim, Mass Effect).
The novel won’t ever die entirely, but we may well be in the middle of another big medium shift. Don’t expect bookstores to empty overnight. But we may not be far from the day when novels have to share centre stage with some costars. They may even share niche status with poetry and short stories, in time.