The Novel as Performance Art
Writing used to be the loneliest of the arts. Not anymore.
Why are there so many novelists these days?
Thousands of novels are published every year, but that only scratches the surface of what is being written. Novelists are everywhere. The nice old lady in the post office. She writes regency romances published by Penguin Random house and earns about $15,000 in royalties to supplement her income. The spotty man-child who lives in his parent’s basement next door. He earns $250,000 a year on Patreon where he publishes 2000 words every week of a never-ending high fantasy adventure. The shy woman on the bus. She is writing a profound literary novel on the death of Proust that will never be published. The brisk older gentleman who wakes you up at 6 am on a Sunday morning with his lawnmower. He has published 15 novels on Kindle Direct about a dashing 18th Century sea captain who wins a battle and beds both a wench and an admiral’s daughter in every book.
You can’t swing a cat in a coffee shop these days without upsetting a half-drunk latte all over the keyboard of an aspiring Hilary Mantel. Seriously, why are so many of us doing this? (Because I am one of this cursed and wandering generation.) I have a theory. I think novel writing has become the new performance art of the masses.
People have been performing since the dawn of man. Gathered around the feasting hall of an Anglo-Saxon king, guests would take turns to entertain the crowd by singing, dancing, telling stories, or, quite probably, all-in wrestling. Genteel young ladies of the 18th century were taught to sing and play the piano to entertain guests. The working classes, in their kitchens, played the fiddle, told jokes, and sang old songs (we presume, no one ever really recorded how the lower classes spent their leisure time). It was not so long ago that every pub would have a piano and the patrons would regularly gather round it to sing old songs.
Everyone, in short, was a bit of a performer. Their performances got them a little applause, and a little heckling, but they thrust them, each in their turn, into the center of attention in their little circle. It affirmed their membership in the community and the affection and regard with which their community held them. Performance was a social thing, and a socializing thing. It was the token and badge of membership.
That is all gone now. Recording and broadcasting killed it. You no longer play the piano and sing; you listen to Taylor Swift on your iPod. (So I am told. I have not personally done this.) You don’t get together with your friends and put on a show; you go to the movies to watch Robert Downy Junior dressed as a rocket-powered version of the Tin Man. (Can he find a heart? Or did he have one all along?) Everyone is entertained, but no one performs.
What does this have to do with the novel, which was never a performance art? On the face of it, novel writing is the least performative thing you can do. You shut yourself away in a room for months on end and emerge with a daunting stack of paper that your friends and family will find elaborate excuses not to read. And even if they do read it, you will not be there to bask in your momentary capture of their attention. No one wants to read a novel with the author in the room watching them, going “What?” at every giggle or frown.
Traditional forms of performance have gone professional. Rather than watching local performances live, we mostly watch the recorded performances of a tiny handful of stars. Even the band that performs in your local pub on Saturday nights are not your buddies or your neighbors, they are an aspiring Three Dog Night. (Dating myself!) The social bonding that performance provides is thus diminished or lost. (Sometimes it pops out in unhealthy ways which lead to people stalking celebrities.)
But ordinary people have found new forms of performance online. YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram have become the new performance media of the masses. People gather their own little communities of “followers” around them. If we think of these media as people aping TV actors and pop stars, I think we miss the point. In fact, they are reclaiming the personal and social aspects of performance which recording took away.
It is not the same, of course, because the local geographic element has been removed. Followers are not neighbors. That is why you have no idea that the nice old lady in the post office, the spotty man-child, the shy girl, and the brisk gentlemen are all novelists. And why you have no idea that your neighbors across the street are the yodel king and queen of TikTok with millions of fans from Minsk to Montevideo.
These online performers do not get to enjoy the classic affirmations of the stage performer. They never experienced the roar of the greasepaint or the smell of the crowd. They have an entirely different set of affirmations: likes, follows, subscriptions, comments, reviews, and, if they are particularly appealing in their field, patronage.
Here’s the kicker, though. All these forms of affirmation work just as well for writers as they do for singers and acrobats, for dancers and sword swallowers. If you can’t carry a tune, if you don’t know even three chords on the guitar, if you have two left feet, a fear of heights, or don’t fancy perforating your esophagus, there is one thing that we were all taught to do in school: write. And if you write and post your writing online, you can get likes, follows, subscriptions, comments, reviews, and even patronage, just like the sword swallower and the guy who sings sea shanties while thumping the back of his guitar.
Writing has become the new performance art of the masses. And thus the world is full of novelists.
One of the consequences of this is that it allows publishing companies, and Amazon in particular, to market more effectively by narrowing the taste of their readers. Thus we have an almost endless supply of novels about plucky young women making a significant contribution to the war effort in WWII while fighting male chauvinism on the home front. Establish a narrow niche market like that and the cost to market new books to it drops significantly.
And there is an endless supply of novelists willing to supply plucky-WWII-gal novels till the cows come home, and enough of this near endless supply is at least good enough to keep the meme alive. The writers who supply this steady stream of similar novels are unlikely to make more than a few thousand dollars for the years of work they put into them. With such an infinity of supply, publishing companies have neither need nor motive to take on more ambitious or risky projects. Nor have they any need to build a business model that provides a reasonable living for authors.
Some authors do make a decent living, of course, but this is not usual nor something the publishing industry takes any pains to ensure. Consider, for instance, that if agents make 15% of the author’s income, and their clients all made a decent income, then an agent would only need about six clients to make a decent income themselves. They are more likely to have 30.
On the other hand, there are more and more venues for authors to enjoy the affirmations of performance art. Self-publishing a book on Amazon periodically is, by itself, a pale imitation of traditional publishing. You will, if you are lucky, get likes and reviews — though not in the more prestigious journals. But these will still be accolades at a distance.
On the other hand, if you publish a novel on Substack, as I am preparing to do, and as many others are doing already, you get to have a running relationship with your readers, and to see your readership grow, week by week. You could very well make more money than you would have with a traditional publisher, but that may be secondary for many writers. By publishing a chapter a week, you get a chance to communicate with your readers weekly, to get the likes, the reviews, the subscriptions as the work rolls out. You can also set up a private Discord server for your subscribers (all of them or just the paying ones) where they can chat with you or with each other about the book as it unfolds.
This way, a novelist can enjoy all the social affirmation and social interaction of a musical TicToc or YouTube star. Writing has become a performance art for the masses. And thus we have far too many novelists. And I am one of them.
Very soon this newsletter will pivot from me whinging about the sate of the book trade and my place in it, to serializing an historical novel. The novel in question has previously been called The Peaceweaver, and The Rules of Trade. but will now be called The Wistful and the Good. It will be the first of a series that will be called Cuthbert’s People. It will tell the story of the daughter of an Anglo-Saxon thegn of the 8th century in the days following the great Viking raid on Lindisfarne in AD 793. It will feature love, blood, petulance, and football on the beach. It will be accompanied by a series of backgrounder posts in which I will talk about its historical background, the difficulties of historical research in the period, and my literary goals and intentions. The serialized novel will be free to all subscribers. The background posts, and perhaps some other stuff as well, will eventually be for paid subscribers.
This may all begin next month, if I can get all the ducks in a row. If not, it will be in the new year. Please tell your friends.
And if you are reading this on the website, please subscribe.