ESSAY / The death of everything: In the interactive age, the impending death of the novel is a critical commonplace. But the narrative impulse, says Malcolm Bradbury, is irrepressible

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The Independent Culture
The belief that there is a serious malaise at the very heart of literature is not new. The arts have been failing for ever, with poetry, drama and now fiction dropping off the bough for centuries. Revived by yesterday's award of the Booker Prize for Fiction, the old argument resumes. Novels are nowhere near as good as they used to be 10 years ago, 50 years ago, 100 years ago. Maybe, in fact, the form is dying at last, as so many have predicted - passing, perhaps, into the hands of disappointed politicians, stand-up comedians or catwalk models, or disappearing entirely off the page and into the screen.

Nothing stimulates literary discussion more than a sound sense of malaise, and malaise has been around for most of my writing life. I am also an academic, and it is well known that in academic literary circles there are many theories (in fact, there is little else). It was in the Sixties that these theories began to acquire an ever-increasing sense of morbidity. First there was Post-Modernism, the theory of what John Barth called 'the literature of exhaustion', where everything was a quotation from everything else, manifesting 'the usedupedness of literature'.

Then, after Post-Modernism came Post-Mortemism. This took the form of the Theory of the Death of the Subject, the Theory of the Death of the Author, and the Theory of the Death of the Book. The Theory of the Death of the Subject, which owes most to Michel Foucault, could be neatly summarised in a phrase of Saul Bellow's: the more It, the less We. The theory of the Death of the Author came from Roland Barthes, who is, as it happens, dead, but wasn't when he wrote it. The Theory of the Death of the Book was propounded by, above all, Marshall McLuhan, whose book The Gutenberg Galaxy predicted the replacement of print-based culture by a screen-based global village, where we would all happily watch Noel Edmonds' House Party until Armageddon came.

Anyone who moves in literary circles, or has simply heard a literary critic speak, will know the power of these theories. You have only to go to the subject catalogue of any library to see the long list of books on the Death of the Subject. The Author shelves of any bookshop display to us what a vast number of authors have written on the Death of the Author. And both the libraries and the bookstores are filled with books dealing with the Death of the Book.

Persuasive and indeed exciting as these arguments are, I find that in the end I share very few of them. I have found it more exciting to teach creative writing rather than literary theory, partly because it amounts to a kind of resistance to them. I believe I am keeping an organic farm, not running an abattoir. I am not utterly hostile to these arguments - indeed, I find elements of them powerfully convincing. Something is happening to the author, the book, and the reader. Something is changing the novel.

When I began to publish, 30 odd years ago, writers mostly wrote with pen and ink. Now there are few who do not use, or are not used by, a word processor. Novelists largely shared a solemn, serious notion of the literary novel, and a sense of a significant historical tradition. That notion of the literary has dissolved into something else - a far more open, permissive, plural idea of culture. The writer of the early 1960s was still in love with the book: its print and typography, its looks, its splendid physicality. This has not died completely, but as the pen gives way to the screen, and the manuscript to the floppy disk, the idea of the book dissolves into one branch of a larger entity: media.

The book is changing. It has been said that 90 per cent of the scientists who ever lived are alive today. I suspect that may well be true of writers. Almost everyone you meet is a literary wannabe. Once there were Malthusian checks on creativity. Books were expensive, literacy and self-expression restricted by class and culture. There were only a limited number of garrets, a small selection of willing patrons. Now creative expression has become part of the post-modern culture of identity formation and the desire to make a statement.

Creative writing itself serves a need, gratifies the growing human desire to express and assert. And those who pursue it are witnesses to something very important: the fascination of story, the endurance of the narrative imagination. The age that thinks it has attained to the Death of the Author and the End of the Book is an age haunted, more than any other, by genres and myths and images and narratives. It consumes fiction, whether on book or screen, in ever greater quantities.

Today, if the newspaper supplements are any guide, we live in an age of culture. It is a multiplex notion. It incorporates the Whistler retrospective and what Hugh Grant's girlfriend is or isn't wearing. It includes Craig Raine's History: The Home Movie and the Chippendales. It's eclectic, multi- generational and (if the term is possible) multi-gendered. It's the Late Show every minute, the Last Night of the Proms every night. Its higher manifestations grow ever harder to distinguish from its lower ones, except, perhaps, in the amount of prize money.

But, even in the age of ever multiplying imagery, the word has not died, and the book has not disappeared. Someone once said that if the match had been invented after the cigarette lighter, people would have called it an improvement. The same is surely true of the book, which may have changed, but shows every sign of surviving the technological revolution. The movies may be fine, and interactive TV a human blessing. But the book, which you can slip into your pocket, mark up, riffle through back and forth, throw over your shoulder, read on the beach or in the bath, tear, wipe up with, go back to, store elegantly: the book is still with us.

And so is the serious novel and the serious author. It may well be that, here in the trough of the Nineties, the fictional excitement has damped a little, especially compared with the revival (Amis, Barnes, Ackroyd, Winterson, Rushdie, Mo, McEwan, etc) of the early Eighties. It will pass. There's a millennium to pass through, a new age of story to encounter. Mythologies and narratives are changing, not least because we live in a multimedia world.

But the novel is no less resourceful than the book itself. It creates extraordinary realms of imagination, it investigates life, charts culture, and stimulates dream and desire. It reaches out to the new stories human beings constantly tell about the world and themselves. And it does it by reaching deeply into the theatre of our own minds and hearts, as few technological fictions can ever do. As a writer and a lover of fiction, I am not in black. And I do not think I am attending a funeral.

Malcolm Bradbury's latest book, 'The Modern British Novel', is published this month in Penguin ( pounds 8.99)

(Photographs omitted)

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