IN MARCH OF 2011, I was on a panel with three other novelists at the Quais du Polar literary festival in Lyon, France. We were there, if memory serves, to talk about strong female protagonists in crime fiction, but the discussion wound up encompassing much more than that. At one point, we were asked about the utility of the novel. In a century of smart phones and dumb tweets, with attention spans shorter than ever, what possible purpose could such an analog medium serve?
I had no ready answer for such an existential question. Fortunately, the French novelist Sylvie Granotier was prepared. It is exactly the analog nature of the form that makes the novel so necessary, she said. In a world of ADHD, she explained—in English as fluent as my French was not—the novel, alone among the art forms, demanded more, not less, attention from its readers. Only the novel could combat the erosion of our collective ability to focus. And it did this by insisting that its readers move at the deliberate pace set by the novelist.
“The power of the novel,” she said, “lies in its ability to stop time.”
In his column in The Believer some years ago, Nick Hornby wrote in praise of the short novel—the work of fiction that, as he put it, if you start reading when the plane taxis along the runway at LAX, you will be just wrapping up as the wheels hit the tarmac at JFK. His novels all meet this criteria. So do mine. Indeed, the lion’s share of fiction churned out by the big publishing houses seems to be written with the sole purpose of amusing the bored business traveler.