The Thinking Man’s Novel

Peacock Displayed: A Satirist in His Context

by Marilyn Butler
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 361 pp., $18.50

What is a novel for? To be read is the simple answer. But since fewer and fewer people want to read novels (as opposed to what the conglomerate-publishers call “category fiction”), it might be a good idea to take a look at what is being written, and why; at what is being read, and why.

In Ideas and the Novel Mary McCarthy notes that since the time of Henry James, the serious novel has dealt in a more and more concentrated—if not refined—way with the moral relations of characters who resemble rather closely the writer and his putative reader. It is not, she says, that people actually write Jamesian novels; rather, “The Jamesian model remains a standard, an archetype, against which contemporary impurities and laxities are measured.” In addition, for Americans, sincerity if not authenticity is all-important; and requires a minimum of invention.

During the last fifty years, the main line of the Serious American Novel has been almost exclusively concerned with the doings and feelings, often erotic, of white middle-class Americans, often schoolteachers, as they confront what they take to be life. It should be noted that these problems seldom have much or anything to do with politics, with theories of education, with the nature of the good. It should also be noted that the tone of the Serious Novel is always solemn and often vatic. Irony and wit are unknown while the preferred view of the human estate is standard American, which is to say positive. For some reason, dialogue tends to be minimal and flat.

Virginia Woolf thought that the Victorian novelists “created their characters mainly through dialogue.” Then, somehow, “the sense of an audience” was lost. “Middlemarch I should say is the transition novel: Mr. Brooke done directly by dialogue: Dorothea indirectly. Hence its great interest—the first modern novel. Henry James of course receded further and further from the spoken word, and finally I think only used dialogue when he wanted a very high light.”

Today’s Serious Novel is not well lit. The characters do, say, and think ordinary things, as they confront those problems that the serious writer must face in his everyday life. Since the serious novel is written by middle-class, middle-brow whites, political activists, intellectuals, members of the ruling classes, blacks seldom make appearances in these books, except as the odd flasher.

Predictably, despite the reflexive support of old-fashioned editors and book-reviewers, the Serious Novel is of no actual interest to anyone, including the sort of people who write them: they are apt to read Agatha Christie, if they read at all. But then this is an old story. In 1859, Nathaniel Hawthorne, having just perpetrated that “moonshiny Romance” (his own phrase) The Marble Faun, wrote to his publisher: “It is odd enough, moreover, that my own individual taste is for quite another class of works than those which I myself am able to write.” Sensible man, he preferred Trollope to himself. Nevertheless, in a sort of void, Serious …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

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.