The Novel and the Death of Literature

  • Jeremy Green


During the past decade, a number of critics, novelists, and essayists have announced the end of literature. For the literary theorist J. Hillis Miller, “[t]he end of literature is at hand. Literature’s time is almost up”; he goes on to explain that “[t]he printed book will retain cultural force for a good while yet, but its reign is clearly ending.”1 The essayist Sven Birkerts, who has made a career out of elegizing the book, claims that “[t]he stable hierarchies of the printed page … are being superseded by the rush of impulses through freshly minted circuits.”2 And according to the critic Alvin Kernan, morbid symptoms of the “death of literature” can be traced throughout the institutions of publishing, the university, and the law.3 Marshall McLuhan’s flamboyant assertions about the end of the print era, elaborated in The Gutenberg Galaxy and a string of other volumes published in the 1960s, have acquired a new currency in the last years of the twentieth century.


African American Woman Literary Reading Cultural Consensus Cultural Authority Literary Fiction 
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  1. 1.
    J. Hillis Miller, On Literature (New York: Routledge, 2002), pp. 1, 10.Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    Carla Hesse, “Books in Time” The Future of the Book, ed. by Geoffrey Nunberg ( Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996 ), p. 29.Google Scholar
  3. 6.
    See, e.g., Robert Alter, The Pleasures of Reading: In an Ideological Age (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989);Google Scholar
  4. Andrew Delbanco, Required Reading: Why Our American Classics Matter Now (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997 ).Google Scholar
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    Harold Bloom, How to Read and Why (New York: Scribner, 2000), pp. 21, 29.Google Scholar
  6. 8.
    Harold Bloom, The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages ( New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994 ).Google Scholar
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    William Gass, “In Defense of the Book: On the Enduring Pleasures of Paper, Type, Page and Ink,” Harper’s Magazine (November 1999): 49.Google Scholar
  8. 10.
    For useful surveys of this work, see Tony Tanner, City of Words: American Fiction, 1950–1970 ( New York: Harper & Row, 1971 );Google Scholar
  9. Steven Weisenburger, Fables of Subversion: Satire and the American Novel, 1930–1980 ( Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995 ).Google Scholar
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    Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse: Fictions for Print, Tape, Live Voice (New York: Doubleday, 1968) made experimental play with the format of the book for metafictional purposes, while also attempting, as he later noted in The Friday Book, to ensure the author’s inclusion in anthologies of fiction (63).Google Scholar
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    “Inconclusion: The Novel in the Next Century,” in John Barth, Further Fridays: Essays, Lectures, and Other Nonfiction, 1984–1994 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1995), pp. 349–366; first published Conjunctions 19 (1992).Google Scholar
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    The classic study is Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction ( New York: Oxford University Press, 1967 ).Google Scholar
  16. 22.
    David Remnick, “Into the Clear: Philip Roth Puts Turbulence in its Place,” New Yorker (May 8, 2000): 86. References to this article will be given parenthetically.Google Scholar
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    Philip Roth’s highly successful first book, Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959), was followed by the Jamesian Letting Go (New York: Random House, 1962), a novel that gives some of the flavor of the academic ambience and excitement surrounding the New Criticism.Google Scholar
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    Roth models Silk on Anatole Broyard, for many years the editor and leading reviewer for the New York Times, who passed as white throughout his career. The details of Silk’s life in the Greenwich Village of the 1940s are apparently inspired by Broyard’s posthumously published memoir Kafka Was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir (New York: Vintage, 1993). See also Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “The Passing of Anatole Broyard,” Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man ( New York: Random House, 1997 ), pp. 180–214.Google Scholar
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    “Cultural capital” is Bourdieu’s formulation to describe the internalized knowledge-or competence-necessary to participate in the appreciation and understanding of works of art and literature. It is acquired through education both informal and formalized, and thus maps (in more or less complex ways) onto social class. See Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. by Richard Nice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984), p. 2 and passim.Google Scholar
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    David Denby, Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World ( New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996 ), pp. 31–32.Google Scholar
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    Carole Maso, “Rupture, Verge, and Precipice: Precipice, Verge, and Hurt Not,” Break Every Rule: Essays on Language, Longing, and Moments of Desire (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 2000), p. 161. Subsequent references will be parenthetical.Google Scholar
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    Virginia Woolf, Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown ( London: Hogarth Press, 1924 ).Google Scholar

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© Jeremy Green 2005

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  • Jeremy Green

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