Yesterday, I visited the National Portrait Gallery in London. I am one of those Londoners who don’t make use of the fact that they are Londoners. Which is to say, I rarely visit places like the NPG or the British Museum. But my wife makes me do those things; she thinks I am a bore, so I make an effort. (And every time, I am eventually glad I did it.)
On the third floor of NPG, there’s a portrait of Samuel Johnson. Otherwise known as Dr Johnson, Samuel is a significant literary figure, especially here in the UK. One of the (many) fathers of the novel form and the author of the first English language Dictionary, a copy of which can be seen on a bookshelf behind the man in the portrait. Much like in Russia, everything can be traced to Pushkin; in Ukraine — to Shevchenko, the Brits are big on Samuel Johnson.
But what surprised me most of all was what was written in the description of the portrait. “The novel,” it said, “was still a relatively new form in the 18th century.” Before, and I am rephrasing, people mainly enjoyed religious texts, songs and plays. Only in the 18th century did the novel appear as a new form of entertainment, labelled by many critics as temporary, much like the TV, the radio, or even the Internet two centuries later.
And this got me thinking. If there was a time in which a novel — a form that many of us in today’s world take for granted — was entertainment innovation, which only the reckless few played with, moving away from “traditional forms of writing”, like religious songs and prayers and plays, what does that say about our world today?
Today, we have podcasts. We have YouTube and TikTok. We have Substack. All of these are brand-new ways of self-expression and creativity. Still, many, much like those critics in the 18th century, look down on these new forms as “yet another hype”, as “not deserving attention or consideration.”
…There are thousands of people on this platform who make a good living writing newsletters. There are millions of content creators around the world, and millions more want to become one. Even with Amazon and the never-ending stream of New York Times bestsellers, the novel form is becoming obsolete, giving way to new ways of expressing yourself through words. And this should be respected.
Who is to say these innovations won’t be taken for granted in two centuries? (Or even sooner, given how fast the world moves?) Who says we must stick to the old form and cherish them, as if they’re the absolutes? The world changes every day and the crazy hype of today is the new “normal” of tomorrow.
Perhaps we need to look at writing newsletters and blogs and recording podcasts with a newfound appreciation: not as lesser forms of entertainment or artistic expression, but as forms of the future and even, one might argue, the present.
If you enjoyed this post, subscribe. It’s free.