Asked to explain “Why the novel matters”, my first question is: “Well, does it?” As soon as I typed that sentence, I then thought that the second logical question would probably have to be “Has it?” But, after typing that, I opened my browser and went to look at the news because I was a little concerned that tanks might be rolling down the Mall in order to disperse pro-democracy protesters. After all, it was 10 September and the night before Boris Johnson had prorogued parliament – illegally as it later turned out – so I, along with plenty of others, was feeling rather like the chair had just been kicked out from under the feet of this country’s democracy. I feared, because this had been allowed to happen, we were on the way to a future in which anything might become possible. I have certainly read enough Thomas Mann, Milan Kundera, Agota Kristof, Solzhenitsyn and Margaret Atwood to know that the trajectory of anti-democratic leaders who manage to shoulder their way into the seat of democratic power is rarely upwards.
In my moment of media-mediated and media-medicated fright, it didn’t occur to me to reach for my copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, or The Handmaid’s Tale or Doctor Faustus rather than the flashing screen and the – necessarily somewhat undigested – prose produced by journalists in the rolling 24-hour news cycle. Without the distraction of the news feeds, I fear my brain will fill up with imagery that frightens me and leaves no space for the words and stories I have spent my life surrounded by.
“A thousand words leave not the same deep impression as does a single deed,” Henrik Ibsen once wrote. But this is not how the quote has come down to us. “A picture is worth a thousand words” we say, courtesy of a 1921 ad campaign run – ironically – in Printer’s Ink magazine. I don’t believe either version though, because, while pictures undoubtedly feed the fire up into a momentary blaze, I am a novelist and, as such, I have spent the vast majority of my adult life teaching my brain to function beyond the confines of my fear, even when in the momentary grip of it. And, as a novelist, I cannot buy into Ibsen’s claim that the deed is greater than a thousand words because I believe that the word is a deed as well. So even though I was scrolling down through news websites again while writing this, I noticed how I found myself returning to a thought that has occurred to me several times over the past few weeks.
This is a thought about a different Boris – an infinitely greater one, Boris Pasternak. As a novel, Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago (1957) is a record of a time and place, a portrait of ideology on the move and an examination of the difficulties of pursuing the personal life in the midst of social and political chaos. To this end, it is filled with dramaturgically implausible coincidences whose purpose is to illustrate what the author himself described as “the unrestrained freedom of life”. In other words, it is writing which is not simply dedicated to the recounting of a series of events, the explanation of political positions or the illustration of authorial observations – although all of these are present too. In Doctor Zhivago, the novel is a mouth which speaks not only of the world as it simply is – or was – but also of what lies beneath and above and beyond what the eye can see and the ear can hear. It succeeds in becoming more than the sum of all its moving parts. This ability to capture “the unrestrained freedom of life” is the stuff of which great novels are made.
After Doctor Zhivago’s rocky road to publication it received all manner of responses. “Trouble” said the KGB. “Genius” said VS Pritchett. “Melodramatic” said Nabokov. “Winner” said the Nobel Prize committee. But for me, in the midst of the chaos of this very different time, its importance lies in its ability to understand and communicate the infinite loneliness of the individual experiencing their world change in an instant and realising that it will never change back. So, between gulps of the frantic, sensationalist news items of the day, the thought of this novel, populated by its difficult, awkward people and their inconsequential loves and hates, brings me – briefly – comfort. It speaks to my anxieties about the direction the world is taking, my feelings of powerlessness within it and to my only surviving hope which, ironically, is exactly the same as my fear: that eventually and inevitably, everything must change. Pasternak used many more than a thousand words to make his point but I doubt a critic exists who can persuade me that the achievement of Doctor Zhivago does not constitute a deed.
This may sound like a gratuitously personal plea for the importance of the novel. But the experience of a novel is always personal first. The analysis of its literary, linguistic, sociological, political and historical value only ever comes into play after that. This is the secret power of the novel. No matter how the internet and social media attempt to make reading a team sport, with endless polls and rating systems, blogs and forums for attack and defence, ultimately the writer alone does the writing and the reader, alone, does the reading. As a result, the novel becomes the conduit for an intimate act of communication between them and no matter how fraught, that pact is binding.
Of course, our relationship with reading is also changing. Where 19th century readers had long dark evenings with little to distract them from a weighty tome, we in the 21st century are inundated with entertainments and constantly harassed by our own hyper-contactability. In 2018 the novelist Will Self caught a hail of Twitter-whipped opprobrium for stating in an interview that “the novel is doomed”. I will confess to some private hilarity at seeing so many writers react with outrage to the rather melodramatic headline, while plainly having failed to read to the end of his sentence, which was “… to become a marginal cultural form”. I was equally depressed by how few were willing to challenge this statement beyond the level of “that’s because no one reads his books”.
I do not agree that the novel is doomed to become a marginal cultural force – but I can see why writers whose first successes came in the pre-digital age may think so. Gone are the days of the great advances and the pages and pages of serious, in-depth analysis the print media once used to offer to the novel and to the book-by-book progression of a novelist’s body of work. Publishing houses have become less willing to risk what small welcome their marketing departments feel they can reasonably expect. The literary press has regularly failed to champion work or writers who do not fit with current ideas about appropriate subject matter, form and – most embarrassingly – even length! And the mainstream prize culture, with all the power it has to focus reader attention, has far too often shown itself more preoccupied with appointing celebrity judges whose lack of a basic understanding of what it takes to write a novel has led to the under-representation of the adventurous, the confronting and the downright imaginative.
This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the novel and the great space its invention opened for us. All the heavens and the earth belong to you, it tells us. Go out and have a look, then come back and tell us what you’ve found. This remit still exists. Just because it’s now harder for a writer to find fame and fortune, that does not mean the novel no longer has a significant role to play in our culture. Instead, I think it might be wiser to accept that our literary culture is finally catching up with the notion that it no longer revolves around the same old centres of power. Rather than this being an occasion for wailing and the gnashing of teeth, there is great potential for richness in the room this change makes – albeit reluctantly – for other voices to be heard.
The novel’s job has never been to be at the centre or the margins or, frankly, any specific place. The novel’s job is simply to be whatever it is, with as few worldly encumbrances restraining it as possible. The novelist’s role is to facilitate this. And this is not to say the novelist must hold no opinions or take no stands. It means that whatever position they are starting from, they must understand that – no matter how great their technical skill – they remain a conduit through which all they have managed to accumulate within themselves will mix and change before it can be poured. The novelist must never deceive themself with the idea that they are in charge: the novel is. And this is not always an easy role to accept when the demands of the industry and the readership and the ego are so great.
The novel demands to be written outside the bounds of the self. It disregards what we would like to say, and be, and appear to be. Tolstoy complained that with Anna Karenina, he sat down to write a condemnatory tale about a woman incapable of self-restraint but that she herself would not permit it. She demanded the more difficult, socially unacceptable and errantly human truth about herself be heard instead. Luckily Tolstoy’s talent proved equal to the challenge and knew he had to follow where she led.
This is why the novel matters, why it always has and why, in dark times, it matters more than in cheerier ones. By its nature the novel cannot be a rush of lights and pictures and noise. Even novels attempting to respond quickly to volatile situations are necessarily at least one step behind the moment and therefore, less prone to falling into the trap of serving the zeitgeist. Bad novels do that, of course, but I am not interested in talking about bad novels – their writers are usually more than capable of speaking about them, volubly and voluminously, themselves. The novel’s disjoint with its author’s times is not a failing: its great strength lies in its very laggardliness. Because the novel must be in the world but not of it. It can hear the noise of the world but should not join in with the making.
It is surely no coincidence that the modern novel as we recognise it came into being during the Enlightenment. This was a time when the previously undisputed relationship between man and God finally came under heavy fire. We were faced with the prospect of “knowing ourselves” and “making ourselves” rather than simply being the selves, and living the lives, which had been ordained from on high. Is it any wonder that, in dealing with the chasms which opened not only in society but within the individual, we found much that was wanting?
As the layers of control and comfort were peeled away, there arose a deep need for the type of writing which could do more than simply contain our history or advise us on the best way to live. A type of writing that could instead reach inside us and speak of what it found. A type of writing that, while not relying on old religious assurances, was able to encompass the belief that we are more than the sum of our physical parts, our social standing, our race or sexuality, our education, professional success or failure. That we are more than the roles we have chosen or had thrust upon us; more than our bank balances or recreational habits.
This is the place where the novel begins and what we are always looking for whenever we turn the first page. Each novel carries within it the acknowledgement of where we do and do not meet; what we think and do not think; what can be imagined and what can be only known.
This was a new approach to writing then and, what is more remarkable, it is still new now. The novel remakes itself as required. As a form it came down from the mount, smashed the commandments etched in stone and took up residence with the people it was meant to instruct, learning from them and the world around them. It grows and changes, becomes what it needs to be. It is not priggish about itself and, although society and politics have often attempted to influence its progress in one direction or another, it continues to do what it will.
Occasionally, the novel’s innovations seem to cause its critics to carry on in the manner of conservative Catholics in 1965 after the Second Vatican Council declared that the Mass would no longer be celebrated in Latin. The vapours collectively suffered in the press by Anna Burns’s superb Milkman winning the Booker Prize in 2018 would seem to be a case in point. Readers were told, in no uncertain terms, that this was a “difficult” book, with the implication that they should think very carefully before paying the equivalent of the price of three or four hazelnut lattes for it.
What most interested me about this – having also had the “difficult” label slapped on my own work – was that actual readers remained nonplussed by this hysteria and went out and bought it in droves. While sales figures are a poor indication of quality or of the longevity and influence of any given novel, in this instance they would appear to have revealed a division between what readers are told they should be interested in and what they are interested in. As both a reader and a writer, this turn of events delighted me almost as much as it did not surprise me because, in occupying both of these roles at various times, I have come to understand the compact between them.
What the novel must do is its own work, with complete disregard for the requirements of the market or fashionable notions about particular kinds of accessibility reigning supreme. And that work is probably best defined as just getting on with the story it wants to tell, in the way it wants to tell it. A novelist cannot write a hit or a flop or a moderate success. The world outside of the novel’s creation will decide all of that. A work’s success or failure is a purely private matter which takes place in the transaction between the writer and reader. A novel succeeds when, in its nakedness, it obliges us to admit that we may admire where we do not like, understand where we would favour judgement, doubt where we may prefer to be certain, or regret where we would far rather sit in simple triumph instead.
The novel matters not because it is a comfort – although perhaps sometimes it is. Not because it assures us that we are not alone – although we may sometimes find that welcome knowledge there too. Not because it inspires us to be better versions of ourselves – although I can think of a few people I wish would crack open their George Eliot a little more regularly. It matters because in a world ever increasingly bounded by imperatives handed down by others about acceptable ways to think and speak and live and be, the novel, and the journey we take with it between its covers, allows us to be free.
Eimear McBride won the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize in 2013 for her novel “A Girl is a Half-formed Thing”. A version of this essay was delivered as the New Statesman Goldsmiths Prize lecture on 2 October