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Debating the Death of the Novel

Jewish ‘anti-novelists’ Renata Adler and David Shields give notice

Ruth Margalit
April 08, 2013
(Vol.1 Brooklyn)
(Vol.1 Brooklyn)

On a finally-not-freezing Friday night at the Strand bookstore, off New York’s Union Square, a few dozen people piled into the “Rare Books” section on the store’s secreted third floor. With cloth-bound books, leather armchairs, and warm uncirculated air, the “Rare Books” floor looks exactly like you would expect – that is to say, like your grandparents’ living room.

The occasion was a conversation between novelists Renata Adler and David Shields with Daily Beast books editor, Lucas Wittman, on the current state of literature. An hour into the event, one got the sense that “novelists” might actually be the worst possible way to describe both Adler and Shields; anti-novelists may be more apt.

Adler, who is 74, with long hair swept to one side in a signature braid and large dark eyes shrouding a delicate face (she is said to have once resembled a “Jewish Jean Seberg”), is perhaps most famous for being a lacerating reporter and film critic of The New Yorker for over four decades. (She then wrote a spill-all memoir about her time at the magazine titled Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker.) Less known until recently was the fact that she is also the author of two novels – Speedboat, published in 1976, and Pitch Dark, published seven years later – which had been out of print for years. They have now been reissued, by NYRB Classics, and are basking in a late renaissance due, in part, to Shields, who called attention to them in his own works. They were sold at the event alongside Shields’ own recent book, a self-described “collage” – part memoir, part criticism – titled, somewhat misleadingly, How Literature Saved My Life.

Misleading, that is, because even though there’s no doubt that Adler and Shields live and breathe literature, they have both come to despair of it. “The rules have changed,” Adler rued the current state of the novel. “Somehow, the writer became the main character.” She was, of course, preaching to the choir: Shields has in recent years become a torchbearer of sorts for a group of contemporary writers who call for a more immediate and unmediated engagement with the reader, and who reject fiction as an obsolete craft.

“Forms evolve,” he muses at one point in How Literature Saved My Life. “Forms are there to serve the culture, and when they die, they die for a good reason – or so I have to believe, the novel having long since gone dark for me.”

Language – the way it represents life but also, inevitably, changes it – is a recurring theme for both writers (Shields confessed to having read Adler’s Speedboat “easily two dozens times”). Novelistic devices such as plot and narrative, they seemed to agree, were no longer viable in a world that condenses life to 140 characters, or to a single, sepia-filtered snapshot.

Consider, then, the eery prescience of Speedboat, with its depiction of a party scene:

“The host, for some reason, was taking Instamatic pictures of his guests. It was not clear whether he was doing this in order to be able to show, at some future time, that there had been this gathering in his house. Or whether he thought of pictures in some voodoo sense. Or whether he was bored. Two underground celebrities—one of whom had become a sensation by never generating or exhibiting a flicker of interest in anything, the other of whom was known mainly for hanging around the first—were taking pictures too.”

“Communication is warped,” Shields summed up Adler’s work in admiration, laying the ground for what he calls “the anti-narrative narrative.” Adler nodded in agreement. But, sitting in a packed bookstore on a Friday night to celebrate the re-issuing of two novels, participants had to wonder: Is the novel really dead?

Ruth Margalit is an Israeli writer living in New York. She is on the editorial staff ofThe New Yorker. Her Twitter feed is @ruthmargalit.