Our cultural shifts and preoccupations as reflected in the evolution of the novel

“I was that girl. The one that carried a book everywhere. Then I started working. Now I’ve had the same book in my bag for almost 6 months and I am barely half-way through it. I get too tired by the time I come home,”  says 26-year-old IT professional Revathi Verma. Although verma says that she still reads, “It’s just not novels anymore. I read online. I read anything I can get my hands on. But mostly I find myself reading things that make me feel less alone,” she says. Verma is not the only one who feels this way. 29-year-old Manish Agnihotri says that his reading habit suffered the same fate “Sure I still like to curl up with a good book on my days off, but I no longer feel the compulsive necessity to zone out into another world.” Verma says that this need to stay rooted in reality perhaps comes from the fact of living an isolated urban existence. “By the time I am done with my day. It is too late to go out. I spend most of time in my apartment trying to make sense of what and how I am feeling.”

Most of us read what we can, while we can. Very rarely do we scour for books (these days only when we are doing that 6 book challenge on Facebook) Instead, we stare into our glow screens that are our phones and tablets. On long commutes, we pore obsessively over them. Sharing Instagram poetry and sighing at our collective suffering as beings. We are obsessive about the Berlin Art Parasites page and spend hours reading quotes on www.goodreads.com that can describe what we are feeling. Sure, a good story is still important to us. But the need to escape from reality in the form of a story has been overruled by the need to experience reality. At the heart of this change lies our almost narcissistic obsession with the self. All narratives must run around it and we as a generation might have just changed the idea of what constitutes good writing.

For the last couple of years, the increasingly blurred lines between what is fiction and what is real has been the subject of much literary debate. Sure, a good story is still important but it is overruled by the desire for a good experience and the tantalizing almost voyeuristic pleasure of reading about real experiences of fellow humans. When Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015 for her non-fiction work, she pretty much put an end to this long standing debate. The message was loud and clear. Non-fiction as a genre had arrived.

For many years, the genres were happy to co-exist in a space that had clear demarcations for each. People who read fiction didn’t necessarily enjoy what they deemed the almost boring banalities of non-fiction and vice-versa.

Non-fiction was functional. Fiction was finesse and in the middle there was the awkwardness of ‘literary fiction’. The demarcations were simple, you wanted powerful writing, you went to fiction. While facts and dullness defined non-fiction as a genre, so much so, that if a book was deemed well-written in the category, it became a literary anomaly and automatically celebrated. The literary fiction genre didn’t have many popular takers and was usually demarcated for the hard-core nerds.

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives, wrote Annie Dillard. Then in the last decade, something started to change .The internet expanded and how we spent our time started to change drastically. Entertainment exploded in larger than life forms and was available 24×7. We changed with the times, spending more time staring at screens than doing anything else. Our real-life experiences and adventures diminished. Eventually coming to a point of very basic level of experiences where the only grandeur that we experienced, if at all, was in our minds.

Novels were of course being written but somewhere along the line, people started writing about their experiences. These were not celebrated military heroes or dull biographers. These were real people, grappling with real issues. And the writing wasn’t bad either. Slowly and steadily, this cultural shift started to represent itself in our ideas of the novel. Essays, experiences and a fine line between realities became the norm.

A fine example of this has been Karl Ove Knausgaard who in his work My Struggle, a mammoth six-part series unraveled the banalities of his human experience. The success of his books proved once again that in writing, we had shifted our obsession from plot to relatable experience. Instagram and Tumblr hits, poets, Rupi Kaur and Lang Leav with their massive public appeal in the last one year proved that we have now shifted our reading base to the territory of creative, non-fiction, a bit like poetry where the human experience matters more than the story. And can we blame ourselves?

Recent research on the human brain shows that it is natural for humans to think in terms of a story. As  Isaih Hankel said, “this predisposition is continuously reinforced and strengthened throughout the life of your brain. Imaging studies have shown only a small, quarter-sized region of your brain lights up when someone tells you a series of facts. However, when someone tells you a story laced with those facts, or those facts in action, your entire brain lights up. Not only can you program your mind with a story — you can program someone else’s mind.”

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