Novelist - History - The Novel and The Global Market of Texts: 20th- and 21st-century Developments

The Novel and The Global Market of Texts: 20th- and 21st-century Developments

Given the number of new editions and the place of the modern novel among the genres sold in bookshops today, the novel is far from the crisis predicted by John Barth. Literature has not ended in "exhaustion" or in a silent "death". New technologies continue to be rapidly adapted for the writing and distributing of novels. In 1968, four years after the introduction of the first word processor, the IBM MT/ST, the first novel was written on it – Len Deighton's Bomber, published in 1970. Printed books have not yet been superseded by new media such as cinema, television or such new channels of distribution as the Internet or e-books. Novels such as the Harry Potter (1997–2007) books have created public sensation among an audience critics had seen as lost.

Novels were among the first material artefacts the Nazis burnt in public celebrations of their power in 1933; and they remained the very last thing they allowed their publishers to print as World War II ended in the devastation of central Europe: fiction could still be employed to keep the retreating troops in dream worlds of an idyllic homeland waiting for them. Novels were in the pockets of American soldiers who went to Vietnam and in the pockets of those who protested against the Vietnam War: Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf and Carlos Castaneda's Journey to Ixtlan (1972) had become cult classics of inner resistance. While it was difficult to learn anything about Siberia's concentration camps in the strictly censored Soviet media, it was a novel, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) and its proto-historic expansion The Gulag Archipelago (1973) that eventually gave the world an inside view.

The novel remains both public and private. It is a public product of modern print culture even where it circulates in illegal samizdat copies. It remains difficult to target. Totalitarian regimes can close down Internet service providers, and control theatres, cinemas, radio and television stations, while individual paper copies of a novel can be smuggled into countries, defying strict censorship, and read there in cafés and parks almost as safely as at home. Its covers can be as inconspicuous as those of Iranian editions of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses (1988). An Orwellian regime would have to search households and to burn every retrievable copy: an engagement of dystopian dimensions that only a novel, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (1953), would envisage.

The artefact that constituted one of the earliest flashpoints in the current cultural confrontation between the secular West and the Islamic East, Rushdie's Satanic Verses (1988), exemplifies almost all the advantages the modern novel has over its rivals. It is a work of epic dimensions no film maker could achieve, a work of privacy and individuality of perspective wherever it leads into the dream worlds of its protagonists, a work that uniquely anticipated ensuing political debates, and a work many Western critics classified as one of the greatest novels ever written. It is postmodernist in its ability to play with the entire field of literary traditions without ever sacrificing its topicality.

The democratic West depicted itself as the advocate of literature as the freest form of self-expression. The Islamic fundamentalist interpretation of the same confrontation has its own historical validity. This interpretation sees a conflict between Western secular nations and a postsecular religious world. In this view, the West has severed its religious roots and begun to idolize an arrangement of secular "pluralistic" debates. "Literature", "art", and "history" – the subject matter of the humanities – have become a Western substitute for religion. The Islamic republic eventually demonstrated how far the West had created its own inviolable if not sacred spheres in this development: Westerners can become atheists, they can admire any "blasphemy" as "art", but they cannot act with the same freedom in the field of history. Holocaust denial is criminalised in several Western nations in defence of secular pluralism. The Islamic nations protect, so goes the rationale, at the heart of the conflict a different hierarchy of discourses.

In a longer perspective, the conflict arose with the worldwide expansion of Western literary and cultural life in the 20th century. To look back, around 1700 fiction had been a small but virulent market of fashionable books in the sphere of public history. By contrast, in 19th-century Europe the novel had become the center of a new literary debate. The 20th century began with the Western export of new global conflicts, new technologies of telecommunication and new industries. The new arrangement of the academic disciplines became a world standard. Within this system the humanities are the ensemble of subjects that evaluate and organise public debate, from art and literature to history. Former colonies and modern third world nations adopted this arrangement in their educational systems in order to pursue equal footing with the "leading" industrial nations. Literature entered their public spheres almost automatically as the arena of free personal expression and as a field of national pride in which one had to search for one's historical identity, as the Western nations had done before.

A number of literatures could challenge the West with traditions of their own: Chinese novels are older than any comparable Western works. Other regions of the world had to begin their traditions as the Slavonic and Scandinavian nations had done in the 19th-century's European competition: South Asia and Latin America joined the production of world literature at the beginning of the 20th century. The run for the first black African novel to be written by a black African author is today a topic of research in postcolonialist literary studies. The race was fueled by Western theories of cultural superiority: 20th-century critics such as Georg Lukács and Ian Watt saw the novel as the form of self-expression characteristic of the "modern Western individual". The worldwide spread of the novel was monitored and mentored by such Western institutions as the Nobel Prize in Literature. The list of its laureates can be read as a chronicle of the gradual expansion of Western literary life. Rabindranath Tagore was the first Indian poet and novelist to receive the prize in 1913, Guatemalan Miguel Angel Asturias received it in 1967, Japanese Yasunari Kawabata in 1968, Colombian Gabriel García Márquez in 1982; the Nigerian Wole Soyinka, honoured in 1986, became the first black African author to receive the award; the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz became the first novelist of the Arab world to do so in 1988; Orhan Pamuk, honoured in 2006, is a Turkish novelist.

The contemporary novel defends the significance it had won by the 1860s, and it has stepped beyond, into a new awareness of its public outreach. Nationwide debates can become international debates at any given moment. Today's novelists can address a worldwide public, with international institutions, prestigious prizes, and such far-reaching associations as the worldwide association of writers P.E.N. The exiled author, who is celebrated by the international audience while he or she is persecuted at home is a 20th-century (and now 21st-century) figure. The author as keeper of his or her nation's conscience is a new cultural icon of the age of globalization.

Back in the early 18th century some 20–60 titles per year, that is between one and three percent of the total annual English production of about 2,000 titles, could be reckoned as fiction – a total of 20,000–60,000 copies on the assumption of standard print runs of about 1,000 copies. In 2001 fiction made about 11% of the 119,001 titles published in the UK consumer book market. The percentage has remained relatively stable over the past 20 years, though the total numbers doubled from 5,992 in 1986 to 13,076 in 2001. The press output and the money made with fiction have risen disproportionately since the 18th century: According to Nielsen BookScan statistics published in 2009 UK publishers sold an estimated 236.8 million books in 2008. Adult fiction (an estimated 75.3 million copies) made 32% of this market. Children's, young adult and educational books, a section comprising best-sellers such as the Harry Potter volumes, made another 63.4 million copies, 27%. The total UK consumer market is supposed to have had a value £1,773m in 2008. Adult fiction made roughly a quarter of that value: £454m.

A vibrant literary life fuels the market. It unfolds in a complex interaction between authors, their publishing houses, the reading public, and a literary criticism of immense diversity voiced in the media and in the nation's educational systems. The latter provide through their branches of academic criticism many of the topics, the modes of discussion and to a good extent the experts themselves who teach and discuss literature in schools and in the media. Modern marketing of fiction reflects this complex interaction with an awareness of the specific reverberations a new title must find in order to reach a wider audience.

Different levels of communication mark successful modern novels as a result of the genre's present position in (or outside) literary debates. An elite exchange has developed between novelists and literary theorists, allowing for direct interactions between authors and critics. Authors who write literary criticism can eventually modify the very criteria under which theorists discuss their works. Literary recognition can also be gained when novels influence thinking about non-literary controversies. A third option remains with novels that find their audiences without the help of critical debate. Even serious novels can become the object of direct marketing strategies along the lines publishers usually reserve for "popular fiction".

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