Because we are too menny?

A couple of weeks back, the novelist Javier Marías wrote an article for the Independent on the subject of why to not write novels (and one reason why you might want to write them). Briefly, the reasons were these: i) because there are too many novels in the world; ii) because more or less anyone can do it; iii) because it’s unlikely to make you rich; iv) because it’s a hopeless way of courting fame; v) because neither will it bring you immortality; vi) because it is not flattering to the ego; and vii) because of the sheer suffering that it involves. As for the sole reason for writing novels, Marías says, “Writing novels allows the novelist to spend much of his time in a fictional world, which is really the only or at least the most bearable place to be.”

I’ve mentioned the torment and suffering before, in a recent blog post, so I won’t go back over that. And there’s a lot that could be said about the rest of the list as well (particularly the peculiar reason Marías gives in favour of writing novels). But what I want to talk about here is the idea that there are too many novels in the world.

The claim that there are too many novels is not unique to Marías. In fact, it is a protest that I stumble across again and again. It is also a complaint that is often made against the teaching of creative writing: some people fear that teaching writing may lead — may the gods prevent such a thing coming to pass! — to people actually writing more books, when it is clear that we already have quite enough books in the world.

However, if you are writing a novel yourself, before you go and burn your manuscript, leaving behind a scrawled note reading “Done because we are too menny…”, it is worth pausing to ask whether it is really true that there are too many books. This is what Marías says:

Not only do those [novels] already written continue to exist and demand to be eternally read, but thousands more entirely new novels keep appearing in publishers’ catalogues and in bookshops around the world; then there are the many thousands rejected by publishers that never reach the bookshops, but which nonetheless exist. It is, then, a commonplace activity, one that is, in theory, within the grasp of anyone who learnt to write at school, and for which no higher education or special training is required.

Leaving aside the fraught questions of what “too menny” might mean, what the criterion might be for judging the optimum number of novels that there should be, and how all of this might be policed, there are several reasons that one might bemoan the fact that novels are too numerous in the world.

The first reason is that this proliferation mitigates against having a synoptic, overall knowledge of the literary world. Sure, you might assiduously read the latest Booker long-list, you might scour the arts pages of the broadsheet press, you might pride yourself on being an industry professional, you might have a sense of trends and currents in the book world: but the sheer volume of words, the impossibility of reading even the tiniest part of this great tide of storytelling, means that you cannot be an expert on literature in general. The proliferation of novels perhaps means the death of a particular kind of expertise.

Another reason you might lament the sheer number of novels is the fear that there might not be enough readers to go round. If you read my novel (and you should, of course, but then I would say that…), then you might not have the time to read Marías’s novel. Time is a limited resource, and many writers and critics fret over the notion that the dwindling pie of readers’ attention is being divided between more and more writers, more and more books. As a sorrowful literature professor where I work said to me a few weeks ago: “Everybody wants to write, but nobody wants to read”.

A third reason you might want to protest that there are too many books is that you are a good capitalist who is interested, above all, in shifting units into the hands of consumers; and as a good capitalist, it makes more sense to sell hundreds and thousands of one thing to an undiscerning public, rather than selling only thousands of one hundred things to a more discerning public. Think of the efficiency-savings! So what you want (actually, it isn’t really what you want, but only what you think you want; but because you are a good capitalist, you don’t have much imagination) is a monoculture: you want everybody to be reading the same damn thing, and you want it to be your damn thing.

But these, I think, are all bad reasons to argue that there are too many books. In fact, it seem to me that most of the arguments that “we are too menny” are unconvincing. We can take the three arguments I have given above in turn.

Firstly, when it comes to the question of expertise and the impossibility of developing a synoptic, overall knowledge of the literary world, whilst this might put paid to the consoling thought that one is an expert, it is perfectly possible to see this as a liberating and invigorating thing. The realisation that the world is a vast proliferation of stuff that we don’t know about, and that we never will, the fact that our knowledge is always partial, might perhaps seem alarming; but it also means that there is always a possibility of discovering something new and exciting, something from outside of the narrow circle of those things that we have hitherto known.

As for people reading but not writing, in general I’m not sure that this is true. It may be that there is a shifting in the balance between how much people are reading and how much they are writing. Time is a limited resource. If I didn’t spend so much time writing, I would be able to read more. That is a simple fact. The activities support each other, but you can only do one thing at a time. So whilst this balance may be shifting, with more people spending more time writing than at any time in history (which, I think, is irrefutable), this again shouldn’t be seen as some apocalyptic event. Reading is probably a pretty good way to spend your time, but then so is writing. Both seem to me to be worthwhile creative activities. The professor of literature was wrong, I think, in assuming that people want to read but do not want to write. Most people who write want to both read and write. They have an increasing range of tools and technologies not only to access things to read, but also to put their writing out into the world. They want to make use of these possibilities, balancing reading and writing together. More power to them, I say.

As for monocultures, there will always be books that sell in their millions, books that sell in their hundreds of thousands, books that sell in their thousands, books that sell in their hundreds, and books that hardly sell at all; and although heads of sales departments may go home and dream sweet dreams of the One Novel to Rule them All, the reality is never like this. These dreams always remain unfulfilled. And this is a good thing. We don’t need monocultures. Monocultures make for bad ecosystems.

Are we “too menny”? I don’t think so. So if you are writing, my advice would be to keep on writing, and to ignore the warnings of the likes of Marías. Write the best books you can, get them out there as best you can. Keep the ecosystem alive. Human beings are built for communication, we are evolved to be natural storytellers, and the proliferation of novels is a part of this. Novelists shouldn’t be protesting at the proliferations of novels as some kind of apocalypse. Perhaps they should be celebrating this Burgess Shale of literary abundance. Who knows? We might look back — or future generations might look back — and see our present, with all its anxieties about the future of the novel, as some kind of golden age.

Comments

Jayarava
Reply

I read novels at about 50-100 pages an hour, and read fiction an hour or two every day. There are definitely not enough novels in the world!!

Will
Reply

Thanks for the link. Yes, I agree. There was a lot that I could have disagreed with in the rest of the article — and now that you have done the job for me, I don’t need to.

I confess to not having read him yet, although I’m told that he is a wonderful writer of fiction. But this was a pretty poor essay, I thought.

Rowena Macdonald
Reply

Good piece, Will. I must admit I sometimes feel like Javier Marias, but you have persuaded me to think otherwise. Excellent point about all of our knowledge only being partial, but this being a good thing because it means there is always something to discover. Not ever read any Javier Marias. Is he any good? The other thing is, it’s all very well for him to say there are too many novels when he’s already got a load published. Perhaps he should ease up a bit and give the rest of us some space.

Will
Reply

I’ve not read him either — or not yet; but I hear he’s really very good indeed. He’s on my list. As for space, I think that probably writing novels opens up new spaces, rather than filling a limited, available space…

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