The 2019 King’s Lynn Fiction Festival takes place later this month in an antique town hall of great beauty abutting the River Ouse. Highlights include a plenary session, held on the Saturday morning (16 March, for anyone who happens to be in northwest Norfolk) in which the guests – the current bunch includes myself, the very wonderful Robert Edric, Monisha Rajesh and George Orwell’s adopted son Richard Blair – are bidden to discuss some topic of notional interest to novel readers. How many times, I asked myself, discovering from the festival website that this year’s subject is ‘the future of the novel’, have I been asked to ponder that old chestnut?
As an undergraduate, I attended earnest conferences about it. As a twenty-something apprentice, I inspected literary magazines in which it wound itself through contents pages like knotweed across a lawn. The grand panjandrums of the day – David Lodge, Malcolm Bradbury, Lorna Sage – were fixated on it, and you could barely throw a stone in literary London in the 1980s without hitting some pundit gearing themselves up to pronounce that the novels of the future would be written by computers, or theorists, or rapt multiculturalists, or exclusively by women.