Life and Death of the Novel

The True Patriot

by Henry Fielding, edited by Miriam Austin Locke
Alabama, 263 pp., $12.50

Radical Dr. Smollett

by Donald Bruce
Houghton Mifflin, 240 pp., $4.95

Jane Austen: A Study of Her Artistic Development

by A. Walton Litz
Oxford, 198 pp., $5.75

The special fate of the novel, considered as a genre, is to be always dying; and the main reason for this is that the most intelligent novelists and readers are always conscious of the gap, consisting of absurdity, that grows between the world as it seems to be and the world proposed in novels. Of course, only the novelists and their more intelligent readers ever say that the novel is dying; the public for popular novels is happy enough with the familiar sights and landmarks of what Scott, looking at the English novel of the late eighteenth century, called “the land of fiction.” This is a place in which all its accomplished in terms of unvarying myth and convention; its “adventures” have to do, in Scott’s words, “not with those of real life, but with each other.” We are always—and by “we” I mean those of us who scorn to have dealings with the merely popular—we are always emigrating from the land of fiction. We object precisely to its absurdity; if that’s a novel, we say, I’m going to write an anti-novel. Then the anti-novel—Joseph Andrews, Love and Freindship I regard as anti-novels avant la lettre—points the way to a new novel, a new convention; once again strong minds are revolted by arbitrariness and absurdity. Again they proclaim the imminent death of the novel, the one genre without which modern literature is unimaginable.

This, or something like it, has been going on from the beginning. If we mean anything at all when we speak of greatness in fiction we have to admit that Clarissa Harlowe, that absurd overwhelming book, has the quality, even if we won’t consider re-reading it to check; yet the thought of a great many other people writing novels like Richardson’s really was unbearable, and Fielding, who disliked Richardson’s ethics as much as his epistolary form, turned himself into “the first great novelist” by means of reaction and parody. If you believe in The Great Tradition, your first great novelist is Jane Austen, but as I say there is a similarity in the ways she and Fielding started—with a rejection of the laws of the land of fiction. It is also very fitting that the novel had hardly got going when Sterne anatomized it in all its absurdity, so that if we want to study the modern novel in any kind of historical dimension we have to understand him as well as the other big eighteenth-century names—we have, that is, to recognize that the absurdity of the land of fiction was well understood from the moment it was first discovered. In fact the great men, having read and re-read Cervantes, took this for granted.

But all this is mere superficial glozing. To talk interesting sense about fiction and reality is one of the most difficult tasks a critic can set himself, and it isn’t surprising that with a few honorable exceptions the bulk of …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.