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 …