Cultural influence of novel declining in digital age, says Booker Prize shortlisted author

  • Posted: April 12, 2017

The importance of the literary novel in western culture has declined significantly in recent decades.

This is according to Man Booker Prize shortlisted author Will Self who was speaking to a full audience at an event organised by the UCD Clinton Institute for American Studies in the Royal Irish Academy.

Self said the importance of literature as an art form is continuously being challenged by internet-based technological innovations and multiple forms of digital publishing.

“I think the perception when I was growing up was that the literary novel was like the culture’s DNA….There was a sense very much of literature as this thing,” he said.

Self is professor of Contemporary Thought at Brunel University, where he has carried out research on the impact of digital reading formats.

He said there had been an “epical shift” to knowledge technologies over the last four or five years and “frankly I don’t know why anyone else isn’t talking about it”.  

He said anyone over 45 years old has what Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan described as “Gutenberg minds” that were “formed by the book”. 

“So internalised is your understanding that the book represents your repository of knowledge…But for younger people it simply isn’t like that any more.”

He said that some had optimistically pointed out to him that sales of digital books had levelled off in recent years and that sales of paperbacks were making a comeback.

However, he noted that the profits earned by the publisher of his books, Penguin Random House, from paperbacks over the last two years came almost exclusively from what he described as spinoff books written by internet vloggers.

“I think the point is not that people are reading books on other platforms, they are reading other stuff. They are reading tweets, they are looking at images.”

New digital technologies that people now use as mediums to read books contain hyperlinks and images that distract people from the reading experience, whereas traditionally what people read was contained entirely between the covers of a book.

Finally, he said there had been very few novels published since he left university in 1979 that had provoked truly profound reactions and intense public debate in western societies.

He named Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, published in 1988, and the more recent Submission (2015written by French novelist Michel Houellebecq as only two of the novels he could think of that had brought about what he described as “water-cooler moments” over the last four decades.

Will Self is a prolific English journalist, novelist, political commentator and satirist, and television personality.

Prominent as an outspoken left-wing public intellectual, he is also a regular contributor to The GuardianThe New York Times and The New Statesman.

His 2012 novel Umbrella was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. His 2002 novel, Dorian, an Imitation, was longlisted for the prize.

The title of the lecture was ‘The Last Trump: Fiction in the Age of Uncertainty’.

The Royal Irish Academy is an all-Ireland academic body that promotes study and distinction in sciences, humanities and social sciences. It was founded in 1785.

By: Jamie Deasy, digital journalist, UCD University Relations