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
a morphology that ranges euphorically from war stories, pornography, and melodrama, to syntactical labyrinths, metaphoric prose, and broken plot lines.
Then there are further divisions and subdivisions into large themes (“Space and Story,” “The European Acceleration”), narrower themes (“Inconceivable History: Storytelling as Hyperphasia and Disavowal”; “The Long Nineteenth Century of the Japanese Novel”), individual case-studies, and “critical apparatus” (“The Semantic Field of Narrative”).
Many of the essays are in awkward translations and much of the writing is densely theoretical. So, to help us understand Djuna Barnes’s use of “orientalist clichés” in her description of a female character in Nightwood, we learn (from Mieke Bal, professor of the theory of literature in Amsterdam):
Description’s alleged ideological reductionism can be taken to lead back from the order of representation to the more general semiotic issue of the Peircean interpretant.
All too often the writers here seem to be talking only to their own identically trained confrères in critical theory, thereby drastically narrowing the appeal of the volumes’ often rich exploration of fiction’s histories, types, and variants.
As in all these books, there is a great deal of discussion about the relation between the aesthetic and the ideological. In the long history of attacks on the novel for being more pleasurable than moral, or more about style than ethics, the image of the “sugared pill” has been a recurring metaphor (as Walter Siti tells us here in an absorbing essay called “The Novel on Trial”). As with fiction, so with criticism. Moretti maintains that “pleasure and critique should not be divided,” but there were many times, wading through The Novel, that I wished the pill had been better sugared.
It’s all (as all these critics tell us) a matter of taste. John Sutherland notes the “reassuring” degree of disagreement that inevitably develops in all novel-reading groups; what Jane Smiley likes most about novel-reading is the individual reader’s freedom of choice. In reading a hundred novels, she “loves some, likes some, doesn’t care about a few, and hates one or two” and is thereby “asserting her freedom and casting her vote.” Because Smiley is particularly keen on empathy, she has difficulty with some of her more alienating cases. She finds Dostoevsky’s Russian characters in The Idiot “a bunch of drunks, hysterics, liars, madmen, and manic-depressives” and therefore difficult for the average reader to “handle.” She thinks The Great Gatsby is too short (“Fitzgerald should have developed the characters and their relationships more meticulously and in more detail”). Ulysses is not to her taste because the marital difficulties between Bloom and Molly are insufficiently recognized: “None of these issues is resolved by the end of the novel.” These distressingly reductive opinions at least have the merit of straightforwardness. The more magisterial and objective-seeming critical books on the novel reveal their tastes only by selection and omission: I note that in Moretti’s 1,866 pages there is no mention of the incomparable Edith Wharton. And it is sad to see, generally, the fading away of the reputations of such great writers as Saul Bellow or Brian Moore, who go almost unmentioned in any of these books.
In our Man Booker Prize judging for 2006, however carefully we analyzed our books, however good we agreed our preferred choices were (and we could easily have had a long list of thirty rather than nineteen novels), in the end our arguments came down to matters of taste. The most hotly debated novels on our list (for instance by Nadine Gordimer, Barry Unsworth, Howard Jacobson, Andrew O’Hagan, and Edward St. Aubyn) divided us, finally, not because of objective aesthetic judgements, but because some of us disliked the moral atmosphere of the books, or found them claustrophobic or overinsistent, or were unable to enjoy a particular style of historical recreation, or were irritated by the narrative voice. And there is no accounting for boredom. The critic Jonathan Zwicker writes, in Moretti’s collection, of a marginal note scribbled by an anonymous Japanese reader in a 1908 library copy of Tolstoy’s newly translated Kreutzer Sonata, whose title in translation was “Chôkon,” meaning “long resentment.” The marginal note read: “A boring book. Where is the long resentment? The resentment is in having read the book. There is no value in its being translated.”
That early-twentieth-century Japanese reader of Tolstoy, just like any judging panel or reading group today, shows that coming to conclusions about the novel is as impure a process as writing one. Indeed that is one of the few aspects of the novel generally agreed on in all these books. “The novel thrives on the impurity of its forms.” “Novel writing is not pure.” Impurity makes categorization and classification difficult. Yet this is one of the favorite activities of commentators on the novel, at every level. Bookstores organize themselves by genre (Sutherland lists some examples of current British “genres within genres” as “chicklit, ladlit, weepies, creepies, shopping and fucking, docuthrillers.”) Reviewers will often reach quickly for typecasting—magical realist, Jamesian, Faulknerian. (It’s a mark of fame when an author’s surname turns into a genre—Rushdiesque—and of neglect when that usage begins to fade away. You don’t hear many writers being referred to now as “Murdochian.”) Jacket-copy writers love nothing so much as summing up a new book with a reassuring cliché and placing it in its stable. Reading the formulaic publicity apparatus that came with the Booker-submitted novels, I lost count of the number of times I encountered the “X meets Y” formula, as in “Ian McEwan meets John le Carré” or “Roddy Doyle meets Angela Carter.”
At their most methodical and scholarly, classification systems of the novel proliferate with Nabokovian obsessiveness. The most awe-inspiring example of this in Moretti is the Society for the Analysis of Novelistic Topoi (described by Nathalie Ferrand), a worldwide group of scholars
engaging in systematic research to recover the topoi of French novels from the Middle Ages through the revolution and of generating an inventory in the form of a computerized database based on that research.
Ferrand, who sweetly calls this “a magnificent, but, we might note, rather mad idea,” gives various examples of such topoi—“Beauty held captive in a harem,” “Retreat to a convent occasioned by despondent love,” “Overheard conversation”—within which you can refine your Web search to “Someone overhears a conversation in a garden.” I began to fantasize this as a contemporary party game. A prize for the most examples, in novels written in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, of the following topoi: real estate agent has midlife crisis; teacher charged with racial or sexual misdemeanor expelled from academic community; child grows up with telepathic powers transmitted through the nose.
The classification of the novel, with which these critical volumes abound—into romance, epic, postcolonial, realist, socially committed, picaresque, idealist, bourgeois, fantastical, and so on—can be helpful, but needs to come with a warning: “All genres are hybrid, but some are more hybrid than others.” The most interesting pursuit of categories comes when they are seen crossing cultural borders, as in a rather fascinating account in Moretti (by Jongyon Hwang) of how in the early twentieth century, Korean fiction began to adopt the genre of the bildungsroman as a means of moving away from the previous generation’s authoritarian culture (which collapsed under Japanese colonialism) and toward more Western desires for “self-expression and social advancement.” Classification can be valuable, too, when the category is seen as a shape-shifter, as in a brilliant essay by Bruce Robbins on how the “upward mobility story” in fiction shifted from social climbing to the making of a writer.
Reading for the Man Booker, I was struck by the recurrence, in very different voices, of so many age-old themes. A sense of exile, displacement, and alienation, of homesickness as a condition of life, whether literal or metaphorical, kept coming in. There were many characters on a quest, looking for a secret past, of a family or a country, searching for a lost parent or uncovering a hidden trauma. There were many solitary figures in confinement, institutionalized or exploited, much voicing of desperate and helpless rage and horror at the violent stupidities and barbarities of world affairs (involving frequent, enraged anti-Americanism), and many solitary or injured children, trying to tell their stories.
Among otherwise widely differing critics, there is general agreement that one of the novel’s main functions, whatever its shape or style, is to tell the story of vulnerable, ordinary, eccentric, or obscure individuals so that we will better understand them. So Valentine Cunningham claims persuasively that “through the forest of textual perplexities” in Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, “we do indeed see Tess, and know her.” Mullan speaks of how the “ordinary” characters in Graham Swift’s novel Last Orders “are brought to know that their sharpest pains are indeed but common, and all the sharper for being ordinary.” George Eliot is often cited as the preeminent example of the novelist who widens and deepens her readers’ sense of other people and makes us think harder about how we deal with the world. The “sadness” of Middlemarch, movingly analyzed by Mendelson, who calls it “the greatest English novel,” is that
George Eliot believed that there are answers to major intellectual and emotional questions, but that those answers remain elusive because we insist on asking the questions in the wrong way.
It follows from this belief in the value of the individual that the novel must draw us in as individual readers. Smiley believes that “every novel, every narrator can’t help offering the promise of a relationship” and that it is quite all right to read “just to see what happens next and to enjoy the company of the author, the narrator, and the characters.” (Inevitably, she finds such enjoyment harder to come by when the main character is a perverted obsessive, as in Lolita, or where “none of [the] characters is appealing”—her view of Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart.) But even sterner critics of the novel, the sort who prefer Finnegans Wake to Beloved, allow for the necessity of being drawn in.
Theorists of the novel haven’t much acknowledged the possibility of reading for story and character, or of thinking of “characters” as “an implied person outside the parameters of the narrative text,” a habit regarded as “the most glaring sign of readerly naïveté.” Yet, as Mendelson puts it,
a reader who identifies with the characters in a novel is not reacting in a naive way that ought to be outgrown or transcended, but is performing one of the central acts of literary understanding.
And that, he adds, is because the novel presents one of “the most intellectually and morally coherent way[s] of thinking about human beings,” which is “to think of them as autonomous persons…instead of as members of any category, class, or group.”
Most of the authors of the books under review are interested in the duplicity and doubleness of the novel, its acts of disguise, contradiction, and suppression. One of Mendelson’s main themes is that novelists often speak in
two contradictory voices in the same book. One, the writer’s official voice, expresses views the writer wants to believe but half secretly doubts. The other, unofficial voice expresses views the writer wants to deny but half secretly believes.
So Mary Shelley, in Frankenstein, “officially” endorses the theories of her time “of inherent human goodness,” but at the same time, through her story, refutes them as “sentimental and false.” Emily Brontë divides herself painfully between a desire for a marriage between the world of human vision and inhuman nature, and a recognition of its impossibility: “the romantic dreamer longs for a home that she is doomed never to find.” For Mullan, secrets, suppressed emotions, and withheld information are some of the main engines of the novel—“moments when the surface of things suddenly changes its meaning.”
The idea of the novel as contradictory, double-dealing, and secretive, the secret agent of literature, is matched in all these critical commentaries by an equally strong idea of the novel as multifarious, polymorphous, expansive, and superfluous, the behemoth of literature. For the prose of the world to be turned into the world of prose, superfluity, spilling-over, and generous abundance are called for. These critics show how even the most formal and aesthetically stringent of novelists also have appetites for excess. A.S. Byatt on Balzac eloquently celebrates his “manic inclusiveness.” One critic of Ulysses describes it as investing in “an ideal of exhaustiveness.” John Mullan points up the “sheer energy” in Philip Roth’s rhetorical strategies of “amplification”: “You say something, and then you say it again in a different way.” In all the generalizations about the novel, it’s the places where the critics take on the stuff, the prosaic detail, the thinginess of fiction, “the clutter of life,” that most speak to this reader: how the summer heat of Ian McEwan’s Atonement infiltrates the plot, the forceful presence of meals in Dickens, Catherine and Heathcliff’s sharing their clothes in childhood as a mark of their indivisibility, “ordinary things” interrupting the visionary dream of the traveler in Mrs. Dalloway.
Often, in reading fiction, or reading about it, one comes on the idea of a journey: a worn path, a day’s walking through a city, a quest, a progress, a journey through time, with deviations and stoppages—at its most extreme, a journey into the coffin, or a description of one’s own death. It is permissible to think about characters in novels as people, and it is not necessarily sentimental or naive to think about what might happen to them after we stop reading—since the novel, as Mullan observes, “is a genre that would have us believe that its characters might have a life beyond its pages.” Mendelson finely describes the ending of Between the Acts, written a few weeks before Woolf drowned herself, as pointing “toward an unknowable future different from anything she was then able to imagine.” The British critic Patrick Parrinder, who discusses the politics and ideology of a huge range of English novels in his thoughtful book Nation and Novel, is characteristically good on the rather bleak prospects for the family at the end of Mansfield Park:
Neither Sir Thomas nor his sons seem capable, at the end of the novel, of showing the enterprise and initiative needed to diversify the family fortunes. Unless unforeseen circumstances come to the rescue, this “Tory utopia” can only stagnate.
The novels which haunt me are those that give the effect of a journey continuing beyond the end of the book: Isabel Archer going back to her prison at the end of The Portrait of a Lady; the lovers walking away into the crowd in Little Dorrit and disappearing into everyday humanity; the lonely narrator, all storytelling spent, looking out at the burning stars at the end of I Married a Communist; the reunion of the son and the father, coming through the utmost humiliation, impoverishment, and abjection, on the last page of Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss.
At the end of Edith Wharton’s writing life, after forty-three books, she started The Buccaneers, not her best book, but an admirably ebullient and vigorous novel for a tired, sick writer in her mid-seventies. Toward the end of her unfinished story, she describes, with the kind of throbbing emotion that often pushes its way through Wharton’s steely, observant, cool prose, the unhappy married heroine’s faith in her distant lover. But the passage (in Chapter 28 of The Buccaneers, one of the last things she wrote) could also suggest the old novelist’s sense of having been on a long road of storytelling, a road stretching on beyond the last unfinished page of her books, speaking as if to the faithful reader of the novel, who will continue to exist after her own journey is over:
In this great lonely desert of life stretching out before her she had a friend—a friend who understood not only all she said, but everything she could not say. At the end of the long road on which the regular tap of the horses’ feet was beating out the hours, she saw him standing, waiting for her, watching for her through the night.
May 10, 2007