The Last Great American Novelist

August 2019

Toni Morrison and the fate of fiction in an age of distraction.

Toni Morrison, 2003.CreditCreditTimothy Greenfield-Sanders

By Ross Douthat

Toni Morrison, dead this week at 88, was a great American novelist who was also a Great American Novelist. This means she had a special form of celebrity, an oracular status, and also that she was embraced by the tradition that regards novels as keys to interpreting America — insisting that you must read Morrison (and Ellison and Wright and Hurston) to understand the black experience, just as you must read Hawthorne and Melville to understand the legacy of Puritanism, or Faulkner or Cather to understand the South or West, and so on down the high-school English list.

So her passing raises the question: Is she the last of the species? The last American novelist who made novels seem essential to an educated person’s understanding of her country?

That question won’t be answerable for decades — the time it took to exhume, for instance, “Moby-Dick” and “The Great Gatsby” from their temporary graves. We can’t know how Morrison’s reputation will change, or the reputations of her peers or the status of their art form. The American novel was supposed to be eclipsed long ago by movies and television … and yet it proved resilient enough that, coming of age long after TV, I was still imprinted with the idea that novels were essential cultural ground, as important as Spielberg or “The Sopranos.”

But something has changed in the cultural status of the novel in the time I’ve been a reader, the years between Morrison’s canonization and her passing — and maybe especially the years since social media and the iPhone first arrived.

Part of that change is measurable. Sales of adult fiction have slumped by 16 percent just since 2013, with almost a billion dollars in vanished sales. In both the United States and the United Kingdom, novelists find it harder to earn a living, while pop franchises and young-adult sales increasingly keep the industry afloat.

The change in the discourse has been less quantifiable but no less real. The humanities were a crucial zone of cultural debate in the 1980s and 1990s, when canons were understood to matter and were contested by right and left accordingly. Today technocracy is crushing the English department and the equivalent debates are often about representation in Marvel movies.

Likewise, controversies about the novel qua novel attracted substantial attention 20 years ago — Tom Wolfe’s feuds, Jonathan Franzen’s Oprah anxieties, the judgments passed on the State of the Novel in The Atlantic or The New Republic, the criticism wars waged over James Wood or The Believer. Today you get that kind of attention only when a fiction touches some raw culture-war nerve, as with the New Yorker story “Cat Person” or the Margaret Atwood revival. Otherwise, the book media feels dominated, as Christian Lorentzen wrote recently in Harper’s, by “a consumerist mode of engagement with the arts,” in which the only point is to recommend and “like.”

Do these trends reflect the philistinism of late liberalism or capitalism? The tyranny of the political? The absence of traditional constraints that used to lend dramatic tension to social and domestic novels? The migration of literary talent to shows like “Girls” and “Atlanta,” the novel-equivalents of the Millennial age?

Probably all of the above. But in my own life it’s the internet that’s killing novel-reading. And specifically the social media/iPhone combination, whose distracting effect is the enemy of the novel more than of other forms of art.

You cannot jump in and out of serious novel-reading, and a book doesn’t claim your gaze the way the movies and television do. You have to enter and remain, undistracted and immersed. I used to be able to do that easily; now I only achieve immersion with high-end genre fiction, relying on murders and dragons to pull me away from the online. (I have a similar experience with another lost love, baseball, where now I only watch the playoffs.)

This is not the fault of contemporary novelists. Like Wood and others (but less intelligently) I had theories about What Was Wrong With the Novel back when I read lots of novels. But I’m pretty sure it’s my relationship to media and technology, not those theories, that is the reason I read so many fewer now. And although some of my favorite 1930s authors developed a more cinematic style in the shadow of the talkies, I wouldn’t want to read a novel adapted to the Twitter age.

What I want instead is the experience of my early-adulthood canon dives and quests for new books that might one day be canonical; the feeling of losing yourself in a story while also participating in a tradition.

That loss of depth and memory means that if the decline of the novel is not the internet’s more troubling influence, it might be one of the more telling.

For now there’s only one way to resist. I’ve got the new Sally Rooney novel, “Normal People,” on my dresser. Is she the Great Irish-Millennial Novelist — or at least as good a writer as her reviews suggest? The only way to know is the old one: Take and read.