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NPG x88256; The Faber Poets ((Frederick) Louis MacNeice; Ted Hughes; T.S. Eliot; W.H. Auden; Sir Stephen Harold Spender) by Mark Gerson

W.H. Auden called poems, “the only art form that you either take or leave.” What he meant was that when you are listening to a song, you can also be impatiently contemplating your next meal; while you watch a movie, you can rehearse the intricacies of your last phone call with your girlfriend; as you stare into a painting, you can also be deliberating about whether you’ve paid September’s water bill.

A poem doesn’t let you do that. When you read a poem, you read a poem. You can do nothing else. But Auden was wrong to draw the line at poetry, because novels also demand the totality of your conscious mind in a way other types of art do not.

Recently there has been a good deal of fevered and idle speculation about whether the novel is dying. Much of this stems from the advent of the e-reader and Kindle, which coupled with the general diminution of our collective attention span could give us, at least on a superficial level, reason to suspect that the novel as a medium is on its way out.

Last year, the New York Times published its list of the Ten Best Novels of 2012. First among these is Hillary Mantel’s fictitious account of Thomas Cromwell in the tudor court, Bring Up the Bodies, which also won the coveted Man Booker Prize in England – the award many see as the most prestigious annual prize in literature. Her book has sold roughly a quarter of a million copies worldwide. In terms of U.S. sales, BUTB and the list’s other nine titles have total sales that top out at fewer than 600,000.

This is in a country of 300 million people — all of whom are literate, excepting children.

According to a HuffPost/YouGov poll from last week, 41 percent of U.S. adults admitted – admitted – to not reading a fiction book in the past year, while 28 percent said they had not read a book of any kind.

I don’t point this out in a cloying attempt to lavish a smarmy air of literary superiority on an audience who is, after all, reading what I’m writing. I understand that finishing a novel takes time and energy, and most people just don’t have enough of either to sit down and sift through In One Person. They’re filing their tax returns, playing with their children, watering the lawn, or having a glass of wine. And among those who have the time and the energy, and who aren’t busily going about those other tasks, half wouldn’t make it five minutes into a book without pulling out their cellphones in order to Instagram a picture of themselves reading it (#JohnIrving #Postmodernamericanlit).

But the novel will never die.

It is immortal because human beings just haven’t found – and perhaps never will discover – a form of storytelling and expression that reveals the workings of a mind and heart the way a well-crafted novel does. It is a wholly pre-technological medium: a succession of monochrome sheets bearing arranged chunks of curled cuneiform. Yet through these lines you connect with another psyche trimmed of its gender, age, epoch, social class, and ethnic identity. The author may’ve been dead a hundred years. Still when you finish the last page you want to keep the conversation going – to write to them, to have coffee with them. “Tell me more about…”.

For all of their charms, songs, sculptures, movies – they do not have that power. Novels, which are written alone and in silence, and are savored by readers in the same way, are not in danger of going so long as people are still around.


The picture is of the writers Louis MacNeice, Ted Hughes, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, and Stephen Spender.