One of you--the commenter known as alicia--had taken the time to photocopy something for me, a Malcolm Cowley essay that appears to have originally been published in the seventies. Cowley was a Lost Generation writer as well known for his editing (Kerouac, Faulkner, Sherwood Anderson) as his poems and fiction; the essay in question (she only gave me the beginning) was anthologized in a book called And I Worked At The Writer's Trade.
The first paragraph is quite a surprise, and I'm going to present here in full:
There is no doubt whatever that storytelling has lost the privileged place it used to occupy in the literary world and much of the attention it used to receive from critics as well as readers. In the 1960s there was hardly a book reviewer who had not announced that the novel was dead. If the novel survived, it was in altered forms and with a different audience. Shorter fiction had almost disappeared from the more popular magazines. Somehow the idea had gotten around that storytelling was a primitive skill, a little easy, a little to be despised; that a book or a long poem that told a story was not quite "serious," did not "speak to the age"; and that plot, which is the story element, was a rather shameful concession to the audience.
Well! That all sounds familiar, doesn't it? Cowley goes on to indulge in a bit of darn-you-kids cantankerousness before praising various types of experimental fiction, while pointing out the ways in which the best of them do indeed manage, however unconventionally, to tell some kind of story.
We don't go in much on this blog for doomsaying or condemnations of the publishing industry, which was always imperfect and unprofitable, and will forever be in danger of extinction. I think the reason for our restraint on this subject is our abiding belief that 1) telling a story is an inalienable human compulsion and will always exist in one form or another; and 2) the ways in which a story can be told, from the simple and direct to the complex and oblique, are basically infinite, and infinitely interesting. I suspect I'm a little more confident than Rhian that the novel, or something like it, will endure--she can weigh in in the comments. But since we started doing this, I have felt, very strongly, that people who hold public funerals for written fiction are doing so more to justify their own despair than to identify any actual cultural problem. It's true, as Rhian has said before, that literary fiction lacks the cultural cachet it once enjoyed; but fiction's moment in the sun was brief, and was perhaps never meant to last. The novel is a subtle, insidious art form, and those of us who ply it, by and large, don't expect to be thanked for it.
Nevertheless, it's been nearly fifty years that the novel's been on its deathbed, and perhaps it's time to admit that it isn't going to die. Maybe it got so few hospice visitors that it figured it might as well live?
Alicia, thanks for the essay!