Currently, there are two kinds of serious-novel. The first deals with the Human Condition (often confused, in Manhattan, with marriage) while the second is a word-structure that deals only with itself. Although the Human Condition novel can be read—if not fully appreciated—by any moderately competent reader of the late Dame Agatha Christie, the second cannot be read at all. The word-structure novel is intended to be taught, rather like a gnostic text whose secrets may only be revealed by tenured adepts in sunless campus chapels. Last month, a perfect example of the genre was extravagantly praised on the ground that here, at last, was a “book” that could not, very simply, be read at all by anyone, ever.
The only thing that the two kinds of serious-novel have in common is the fact that in each case the creator has taken extraordinary risks with his talents. He has driven his art and mind to the furthest limit of prose; and beyond. He has gambled recklessly with his gifts; been deer to his own gun; been brave, brave. On the other hand, the serious-writer’s reader’s courage has gone entirely unremarked and the slopes of Parnassus are now planted thick with the shallow graves of those gallant readers who risked their all in dubious battle with serious-texts, and failed—their names known only to whatever god makes the syllabus.
Nevertheless, despite the glory of risk-taking and the applause of tens of book-chatterers, today’s serious-novelist often betrays a certain edginess whenever he feels obliged to comment publicly on his art. He is apt to admit that the word-structure novel is unsatisfying while the Human Condition novel tends to look more and more like old movies or, worse, like new movies. Needless to say, the fact that hardly anyone outside an institution wants to read a serious-novel has never been a deterrent to our serious-novelists—rather the reverse. They know that silence, cunning, exile all add up to exegesis. But is that enough? I suspect that a crisis is now at hand and that the serious-novel, as we lucky few have known it, may be drawing to a close.
At the risk of poaching on that territory where the buffalo and Leslie Fiedler roam, one might make the case that owing to some sort of perfect misunderstanding about the nature of literature, our ungifted middlebrows have taken over the serious-novel while those highbrows who tend to create an epoch’s high literature appear not to be “serious” at all. In any case, the thing is now so muddled that it will be a long time before things are sorted out. Certainly it will be a long time before anyone can ever again state with George Eliot’s serenity and confidence that “Art must be either real and concrete or ideal and eclectic. Both are good and true in their way, but my stories are of the former kind.” What,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.