Sunday, January 18, 2015

Peak literature: the decline of the novel



Results of a Google Ngrams search for the term "novel"


In a previous post titled "Where have our dreams gone?", I argued that literature, as well as other forms of art, has declined starting with the 1980s, losing impact and interest in our society. This, of course, can only be a qualitative evaluation and it was challenged in some of the comments. Indeed, terms such as "impact" and "interest" can only be defined in qualitative terms and there is plenty of space for different interpretations.

Nevertheless, I did some experimenting on google's "Ngrams" and I think that my interpretation is shared by many others. You can see in the figure above, showing a clear peak for the term "novel" (*), around 1990 indicating a decline of interest in novels. Also this result is debatable, of course, but I think it does tell us something about the general cultural decline of our civilization.




(*) One problem with this search is that the term "novel" in English may also be an adjective, but the peak is visible also with unambiguous terms such as "novelist" and "novel", although in both cases it appears earlier. Also, in Italian, the term "romanzo" for "novel" is unambiguous, and it shows a similar peak - even clearer - as for "novel" in English. 



14 comments:

  1. Ugo, Google ngram is not showing how many people type the word "novel" into the Google search engine, but how prevalent the word "novel" has been in published books between 1800 and 2008 that have so far been digitised in the Google Books project. So, you're in effect searching WITHIN the field of books for evidence of the decline of interest in books? Meaningless!
    But, if you type "novel" into Google trends, you can see how many people are using this word as a search criteria over time. Looks like the term declined in popularity between 2004 and 2007, then flatlined between 2007 and 2012, and then has been steadily increasing in popularity since 2012 to present day. Of course, this is not adjusted for the massive increase in people connected to the Internet over the same period of time.

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  2. Nathan, allow me to disagree: novels are not the same thing as "books". And I had looked also in google trends, but the time span of that engine is too limited. My hypothesis was that the interest in novels had started declining in the 1980s and I was discussing long time trends. So, I think that ngrams can give us at least some hints of what has been going on during the past decades. But, also, it is true that it is difficult to make clear cut statements on these things. In a few thousands years, someone will see these things clearly. For us, they are still obscure, in a dark mirror

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  3. You have the problem that there has been a technological shift in narrative exposition, away from Novels and more toward media. There may be fewer novels and fewer people reading them, but there is more video and audio now than in 1980. In a sense, the narrative is in an explosive blowoff phase here, just it is not text driven.

    You can criticize the quality of film and audio, not to mention the internet, but there is definitely way more information flowing outward now. I think it is a bit of a stretch to see this one as a Seneca Cliff effect.

    RE

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    1. Of course it is difficult - probably impossible - to measure something like the quality of literature. As I said in the previous comment, we'll see that for sure in a thousand years from now! Still, I think that this subject, as for the song that Sirens sang, is not beyond all conjectures. So, the idea of using the term "novel" in the ngram search comes from considering the novel as a form of communication which requires a certain degree of engagement and attention on the part of both the writer and the reader.

      A novel is something that goes in some depth into exploring the human mind. I'd say that there is the same relation between novels and the endless internet chatter invading our mindspace as there is between a serious text on climate science and the silly debate on climate change that you can read in the comments of blogs. So, novels could - perhaps - be considered as a proxy for the depth and the complexity of current literature..... perhaps.


      But, again, it is all conjecture

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  4. Ugo

    Statistics on the number of new books (counted by # of new ISBN numbers each year) are available here:

    http://www.bowker.com/assets/downloads/products/isbn_output_2002_2013.pdf There is some spikiness (what happened in 2010!?) but the trend would appear to be upwards.

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    1. Yes, I know these data. Books are doing reasonably well (fortunately!)

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  5. Ugo, my point is this. ngram tells you how often a word appears in the text of all books from every publishing year that Google has so far digitised under their "Google Books" program. So, the Google ngram graph you have reproduced is showing us how often the word "novel" appears in English language books published between 1800 and 2008. Is that in any way meaningful? You seem to think Google ngram is showing you how popular the word "novel" was as a search term for internet searches! Dating back to 1800! My larger point is this: If you can so badly misunderstand the core function of Google ngram, can we trust any stats you put on Cassandra Legacy?

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    1. Sorry but Ugo did not state that, you need to reread the post again. The footer of the graph may have confused you: "Results of a Google Ngrams search for the term "novel"", but nonetheless I think it is unambiguous and right.

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  6. Dear Nathan,

    I stated clearly what I did and why. My opinion is that the popularity of the world "novel" (and hence the concept of "novel") can be roughly measured from how often it appears in the corpus of published books in English. Many of these books are, or include, literary criticism and similar matters and in the pre-internet times reflect the general intellectual discourse of the times - just like the Internet does today. If you think that it is not meaningful, you are perfectly entitled to your opinion - I also said that my interpretation it is clearly objectionable. If that also makes you mistrust everything you can read in this blog, again, you are entitled to your opinion. Thank your for your comment and I'll see to take it into account in future posts.

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  7. I've really enjoyed your brief articles on this Ugo, and believe there is something to the idea but the definitive statement has not been made on the decline of literate culture. I have a pet theory that nothing of literary value has ever been produced on a PC, but you run into the fact that it's hard to acknowledge classics as they are created. Melville and Faulkner moldered in obscurity for some time before achieving any status. I start with Lasch's Culture of Narcissism, and Jacoby's Death of the Intellectual; the television was dominant then, and nothing has improved since.

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  8. Hi Ugo, thanks for sharing your data experiment. I would never have thought of looking into the "frequency" in which the word "novel" appears in the corpus of published books. That's genius!

    We shouldn't read too much into a statistic like this, but the results are impressive, the graph makes total sense (under the given assumptions). Look at how the biggest dip (after plateauing) matches the Great Depression perfectly, it's really astounding.

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  9. Ugo,
    You didn't state this opinion completely and clearly in your article. If you believe the quantity of appearances of the word novel as it appears in published English books is indicative of the popularity of reading novels in general, then you should have said that in your article. Thanks for finally clarifying. However, I would point out that a Google ngram search on the word "money" shows usage peaked in 1934. Does that means we are losing interest in money :-)

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  10. All I know is that if instead of reading about 100 posts and all of their comments over this past week I had started in on Tolstoy's War and Peace (which I have been intending to read for ages but still have not managed to get to) I probably would have finished more than half of it by now. A word from the wiser part of me to the unwise part of me is perhaps needed? (others will have to have their own intra-psychic discussions taking into account "modern and current" external conditions and realities)

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  11. In my opinion, the decline of the novel is not by itself an indication of decline, but of cultural changes.

    Arnold Toynbee wrote that our civilization is undergoing decay for centuries. I do not know if the time in which started the decline - the collapse according Toynbee happened at time of the Crusades or in the begining of the Renaissance.

    We are talking about proceses centuries-long . For example Toynbee argued that the Hellenic Civilization collapsed as consecuence of the Persian Wars and its desintegratíon began with the Peloponnesian War and ended with the fall of the Roman Empire.

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Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)