What happened to the page-turner novel?

Too much modern fiction is dreary, slow-moving and downright boring, argues Harry Mount.

People have been declaring the death of the novel ever since the first novelist, Petronius, held the first launch party 2,000 years ago, in Rome.

The latest doom-monger is Lee Siegel, a witty columnist on the New York Observer – one of Manhattan’s sprightlier, lighter reads.

Siegel says that the novel has now become a “museum-piece genre”, a creaking old thing destined for the scrapheap, like visiting cards or hand-written address books. Non-fiction is now the place that attracts all the good writers, he thinks.

But the problem isn’t with the novel – it’s with the novelists. People haven’t lost the capacity for reading novels. They’re just longing for good stuff, and it’s in woefully short supply.

Of course, you could say, it always was. When you walk through Waterstone’s, from the new releases in the front of the shop to the classics at the back, you are comparing hundreds of books published over the past couple of months with those cherry-picked from the previous couple of millennia. There probably weren’t that many fantastic new summer reads published in July 1510; there were quite a few over the course of the 16th century.

All the same, something has gone wrong with the modern novel. As Martin Amis said last month, there just aren’t enough enjoyable ones around. It’s as if, to be taken seriously, you’ve got to be at least a bit boring.


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