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Storms Over the Novel

What good is the novel, the long story told in prose? Hegel called the contingent, the everyday, the mutable, “the prose of the world,” as opposed to “the spiritual, the transcendent, the poetic.” “Prosaic” can mean plain, ordinary, commonplace, even dull. Prose fiction, historians of the novel tell us, has had to struggle against the sense of being a second-rate genre. Heidegger said that “novelists squander ignobly the reader’s precious time.” In late-eighteenth-century Britain, when large numbers of badly written popular novels were being published, “only when entertainment was combined with useful instruction might the novel escape charges of insignificance or depravity.”

In pre-modern China, Japan, and Korea, the general word for fictional writing was xiaoshuo (in Chinese), meaning “trivial discourse.” Socialist critics of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have accused the novel of bourgeois frivolity. By contrast, aestheticians of the novel, like Flaubert, proposed the ideal novel as “a book about nothing,” or, like Joyce, as a game which would turn the everyday world into the most concentrated and highly designed prose possible. Moral writers of novels like George Eliot or D.H. Lawrence believed in the novel as the book of truth, teaching us how to live and understand our lives and those of others.

The novel’s entanglement in “the prose of the world” can also be its justification and its pride. The novel’s virtue, it has often been argued, lies in its egalitarianism, its very commonplaceness. And the novel’s everydayness need not be an enemy to its aesthetic integrity. In his wise, deep, and witty essay on the novel, The Curtain, Milan Kundera, a follower of Flaubert in his critique and practice of the European novel, celebrates “the everyday” (“it is not merely ennui, pointlessness, repetition, triviality; it is beauty as well”) while writing in praise of the novel’s essential self-sufficiency:

It…refuses to exist as illustration of an historical era, as description of a society, as defense of an ideology, and instead puts itself exclusively at the service of “what only the novel can say.”

Kundera’s celebration of the novel’s freedom and self-sufficiency makes essential reading in a long history of debates about the genre. Ethical and aesthetic controversies over the novel have gone on for many centuries—the number of centuries depending on whether you think the novel came into being in the early eighteenth century, or (as Walter Benjamin does) coincided with the invention of printing at the end of the fifteenth century, or was lurking in Egyptian demotic narratives of the seventh century BC or Greek romances from the first century AD. Every so often these long-running debates are accompanied by prophecies of doom: the novel is dead, the novel is drowning in a dizzying virtual universe of instantaneous, interactive information, the novel is having to compete for readers in “a world in which millions of books are dumped in the market place at once.”

But 2006 seemed, to me at least, to be a year when the novel’s survival and significance were not in question. To read over a hundred novels last year, as chair of the Man Booker Prize judges, was to step into a fabulous trove of linguistic inventiveness, passion, originality, and energy—as well as on occasion to be irritated, unconvinced, and bored to tears. Our judges’ discussions kept returning to those centuries-old debates, where praise for seriousness, social responsibility, and moral meaning jostled against aesthetic pleasure in a high style or a well-played game. But in all our arguments we had no doubts that we were dealing with objects of value. And outside the “British and Commonwealth” confines of the Booker, there were novels in 2006 which showed us all how much the novel matters: Philip Roth’s formidable dark terminal drama Everyman, Richard Ford’s compassionate, funny, stylish meditation on American midlife everydayness, The Lay of the Land, Irène Némirovsky’s posthumously discovered, beautiful comedy of manners set within the grim history of occupied France, Suite Française.

The year 2006 also saw the publication, in America and Britain, of a number of books on the novel, as widely varying as the genre they describe. They ranged from the personal to the magisterial, from the historical to the technical (and from the chatty to the portentous). They were aimed at reading groups, students, scholars, browsers, theorists, anti-theorists, would-be novelists, and that slippery individual, “the common reader.” They spoke a great many different critical languages. But they all, in their fashion, paid tribute to a phrase from Virginia Woolf (used for the title of one of these books), “A thing there was that mattered.”

Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel is a novelist’s personal account of how the novel works, where it comes from, and what its main subjects are (the one she is most interested in is the treatment of women). There are tips for aspiring novelists, emotional accounts of how fiction gets written, and, in the second half of the book, brief, plain-spoken accounts of 101 selected novels, with simple, enthusiastic recommendations: “Reading Tristram Shandy feels like eavesdropping on a truly unique sensibility in a truly intimate way”; The Last Chronicle of Barset “is a lovely and delicious novel.” Smiley places great emphasis on the reader’s freedom to choose what she likes. She has no time for “academic” theorizing about the novel, because “novels were invented to be accessible.” Her central image, of “Earth’s big bookstore,” implies that there is plenty for everyone. She makes a political defense of the novel as an emotional argument for democracy which makes its readers more empathetic.

Edward Mendelson, Columbia professor and Auden expert, in The Things That Matter: What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say About the Stages of Life, is more interested in the ethical than the political meanings of the novel. He makes heartfelt, idiosyncratic, and illuminating diagnoses of seven novels by women writers (Mary Shelley, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf) as humane lessons in how (or how not) to live a moral life. One example will serve to illustrate his strong, didactic tone. Jane Eyre, Mendelson teaches us, is a story about learning how to believe, as much or more than learning how to act:

Almost everyone she meets tries to tell her what and how to believe—and everyone tells her to believe in different things in a different way—but she must find her beliefs by herself. In Jane Eyre as in life, the right choices are rarely new or surprising, but everyone has to discover anew the ways in which to learn to make those choices; you have to learn for yourself the ways—which are different for everyone—in which you can decide whether something that is not immediately obvious is nonetheless true, and you have to learn for yourself the ways in which you decide how to act on the truths you have chosen.

In How Novels Work, John Mullan, a British scholar of the eighteenth century and literary journalist, has collected the weekly pieces he has written for the London Guardian newspaper on the mechanics and tactics of novel-writing into a modest, helpful, and sensible diagnosis of novelistic strategies—beginnings and endings, paratexts and intertexts, first- and third-person narratives, present and past tenses, inadequate and multiple narrators, and the like, drawing on mainly well-known examples from Samuel Richardson to Philip Roth. The Cambridge father of “practical criticism,” I.A. Richards, is his acknowledged mentor, but his intended audience is reading groups rather than English literature students. With this in mind, Mullan keeps his prose jargon-free, though he likes to gesture occasionally toward theoretical terms, as in his useful account of “skaz.” The term is used of “a first-person narrative that seems to adopt the characteristics of speech,” and is derived from Russian formalist criticism (originally meaning a type of folk tale). Mullan links Huckleberry Finn, The Catcher in the Rye, and Martin Amis’s Money as examples of “skaz,” pointing out how “artificial and brilliantly contrived” such narratives can be. There were a good many examples of “skaz” in the Booker novels this year, pushing written English to its furthest bounds—with varying degrees of success—from literary language into oral, technological, demotic, and invented idiolects. We read e-mail and chat-room novels, a comic futuristic novel in the idiom of London taxi-drivers, the raw street-speech of an Irish drug addict and of Bristol down-and-outs, the flashy dialogue of fast-talking South London Asian boys. It was exciting, though not always pleasurable, to see the language of fiction being so stretched.

Lower down the handbooks food-chain, the British academic-turned-pundit John Sutherland published a little book misleadingly titled How to Read a Novel. It ought to have been called How to Talk Knowingly About a Novel Without Actually Reading It. The book is full of tips, thought necessary in today’s “mind-boggling” age of fiction overload, for finding out quickly whether a novel might be to your taste: “Turn to page 69 of any book and read it. If you like that page, buy the book. It works.” “If a book has chapter titles, then they are worth scanning before purchase.” On no account read every word, there simply isn’t time: “surf and zap…concentrate from time to time where the offering seems genuinely interesting.” If a book is difficult, go for the movie: “It helps get into the book version of Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove or The Golden Bowl…to have seen the films first.”

In the spirit of providing ruthless shortcuts to culture, there are a few quick critical readings. So we hear about “the gobsmackingly blasphemous” love affair in The End of the Affair, and the plot of Moby Dick— “he…is going to sea as a kind of therapy—the sailing cure (beats Prozac).” It’s hard to see who this book is directed at, since the inferred idiot-reader who is almost being told which way up to hold his book also needs to be enough in the swim to pick up Sutherland’s knowing references to his own involvement in the literary wars of John Banville and Ian McEwan (over the former’s attack on the latter in these pages).

Sutherland tells us that reading a novel is “one of the more noble functions of human intelligence.” His real interest here, though, is not in novels, or how to read them, but in publicity and marketing, genre niches, literary prizes, sales figures, production, technological advances, blurbs, and reviewers. There’s no harm in having a lively short book on this subject, and it has some shrewd things to say about the unadmitted politics of the Nobel Prize for literature and the unhappy demise of the public library system in Britain. But the overall effect is slapdash and thin.

At the opposite end of the critical spectrum comes Franco Moretti, professor of comparative literature at Stanford University, who has edited an epic, two-volume, multiauthored encyclopedia definitively titled The Novel. The first volume of this mighty project, History, Geography and Culture, covers the centuries-long evolution of the genre and its worldwide crossing of borders and cross-fertilizations. The second volume, Forms and Themes, examines

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