Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Novel: Dying All Over Again

I'm a pretty regular reader of Arts and Letters Daily-- a service of the Chronicle of Higher Education which collates the best and most interesting stuff from around the web which has anything to do with the humanities, literature, and ideas.  It also filters out all online journalism which requires a subscription on the website-- making it the ideal tool for unregenerate autodidacts and cheapskates alike.

Following this website for four years or so reveals surprising features of our cultural life, especially as it relates to the humanities (always bearing in mind the selection bias of its editors).  Surprising feature #1 is that the same ideas and intellectual movements which have colonized academic humanities departments most effectively-- namely, postmodernism, identity politics, "theory," pseudo-Freudianism and other lit crit shibboleths-- are almost universally hated and derided by everyone online who writes about the humanities-- whether they be liberal or conservative, employed in academia or freelance, etc. This bizarre mismatch demands a blog post of its own, but it's not what interests me right now.  The irony that is striking me today is surprising feature #2: that these same writers on A&L who tell us we should read more novels don't appear to read novels themselves.

What I mean to say is that there is a cyclical pattern on the website of despairing prognostications about the decline of literature, the death of the novel etc.-- yet for all the caterwauling, these same writers don't seem to ever have anything to say, in other than general terms, about novels and literature-- at least not any new novels and literature.  The number of doomsaying articles simply eclipses the number of articles about actual literary fiction written by contemporary authors.  When you do hear about books on this website, it is because a new biography of Willa Cather came out, or someone found Vladimir Nabokov's toenail clippings, or evidence came to light of some Elizabethan luminary's unorthodox sexual proclivities.  Those contemporary writers who do still get press are aging fast.  So-- to put it bluntly, the people who spend the most time complaining about the decline of the novel appear to be part of the problem.

I am part of the problem too.  I almost never read contemporary literary fiction.  The only contemporary novels I even hear about-- because they are the only ones profiled in places like A&L-- are those written by authors who established their reputations in the 1960s or earlier-- Thomas Pynchon, Philip Roth, V.S. Naipaul-- and so on.  It was a great generation, to be sure-- but like all generations, it has a tendency to eventually get old and die.  Jose Saramago and Gore Vidal had to pass on and leave us with Salman Rushdie writing self-serving memoirs in the third person!

And even those older writers who are still at work seem tired.  When a new Thomas Pynchon novel came out last week, I briefly pricked up my ears, but then laid them down again.  Pynchon was one of those writers I idolized from afar in high school as a master of encyclopedic arcana and self-consciously "difficult" novels.  I idolized him, that is to say, out of all proportion to the amount of his work I actually read.  I liked the idea of Thomas Pynchon, just as I liked the idea of David Lynch movies, even when I found the process of actually watching them to be ponderous and stultifying.  Similarly, once you've waded through V. or Against the Day, two Pynchon tomes I've tackled, it's not clear that you've gained anything for your efforts.  More depressingly, it is not clear that for all Pynchon's knowledge of bizarre lore there's actually a thoughtful, mature, or humane spirit animating his productions-- even though this, more than a knowledge of Byzantine history or Teutonic mythology, is essential to good literature.  This new Pynchon novel sounds like it too is going to be replete with obscure references, flashy gimmicks about pop culture (apparently Furbies and Beanie Babies make an appearance, just as Godzilla showed up in Vineland)-- and it all starts to seem puerile rather than clever.

So what is happening here?  Maybe it's all my imagination.  I do hear rumors that novels are still being written, published, and read somewhere.  It would be a huge mistake to confuse what I happen to be interested in at this point in my life with "the destiny of American cultural life," etc.  In making any kind of broad observation about the state of the world, it's very easy to project your own insecurities and fantasies onto authoritative statements about "the way we live now."  On the other hand, it is also a fact that our own interests tend to mirror the zeitgeist, even when we don't realize it.  To a disturbing degree, those things we fancy our own "discoveries" and private interests are predetermined for us by what other people on the internet or around us are thinking.  It's the unsettling question posed by the fact that Google can now preselect search results based on "our interests," while simultaneously shaping our interests by what it presents to our gaze.  Who's preselecting what?

So I think I'm justified in saying that my impression-- novels have come down in the world in my lifetime-- is not purely a reflection of my own lack of interest in contemporary literary fiction.  This is a problem, as I aim to show in the rest of this article-- but I also want to avoid overly sentimentalizing the issue-- something I was guilty of in a previous contribution to the whole "decline of the humanities"/"death of the novel" genre.  "Sentimentality" I define as that which expresses worldly and often selfish concerns in the guise of genuine emotion.  In Victorian fiction, it was usually repressed sexuality or sadism which presented itself as pity or righteous indignation.  In my case, it was my own insecurity about finding work as a humanities major and my desire to justify my own educational and professional decisions which led me to wax melodramatic about the fate of belle lettres.  In that article, I quoted from Martha Nussbaum, who is similarly prone to patronizing sentimentality where the humanities are concerned-- writing about how democracy will perish in their absence, about how reading Shelley or Byron makes you a better voter and taxpayer, and so on.

I want to say here that the humanities and "the novel" are two different things-- and one could potentially survive without the other.  I suspect democracy really would crumble if anything remotely like philosophy, ethics, history, or narrative storytelling were wiped from human consciousness.  But this seems unlikely.  Whereas the somewhat more plausible scenario-- that novels indefinitely cease to play such an important role in our intellectual life, and are displaced by other forms of narrative storytelling and discursive thought-- would not necessarily spell doom.

After all, human society got on just fine without them for most of its existence, right?  Apart from a few examples from Greco-Roman antiquity, the novel-- as in, the prose narrative with minimally realistic characters and plotting-- is an early modern invention.  And for most of its history, the novel was just a species of entertainment.  The virtually unquestioned notion we have in our modern society that the novel coveys ideas-- that it merits thoughtful analysis and academic scrutiny in order to ferret out its "symbolism," its "meaning" and so on-- is an even more recent creation.

The great American public intellectuals of the 20th century were mostly book reviewers-- Orwell, Dwight MacDonald, Lionel Trilling, etc.-- who used novels as a window into larger questions about politics, morality, and society.  This seems natural to us because it is so familiar-- but it would have made very little sense to intellectuals prior to the late 18th century or so who would have viewed this method as absurdly circumspect.  If you want to talk politics and morals, why not talk about them-- and cite other authors who talk about them?  Drawing on literary fiction to talk about them seems like going unnecessarily far afield.

If there is no necessary connection between the novel and the capital-T "Thought" of a given time and place, how was that connection forged in the first place?  I'm not going to commit myself to a single explanation, but sociological factors probably account for part of it.  In generations which lived before tenure, before widespread university education, before plentiful faculties of learning, most intellectuals were freelance.  They therefore suffered under a much greater incentive to be interesting.  They had no captive audience of students or donnish squares who took a comradely interest in their work.  So they-- even when they were primarily interested in philosophical or political or social problems-- were forced to write in more accessible genres, such as the novel, the tale, the "conte philosophique,"etc.

Some of the early generations suffered under the still greater threat of censorship, which often meant that their social and political commentaries had to be presented as fiction.  The novel has done astonishingly well under authoritarian regimes for this reason-- the great literateurs of 19th-century Russia were novelists or the critics who wrote about their novels-- Gogol, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Vissarion Belinsky, etc.  Ditto the period of Soviet rule.

Once we see that the notion of the novel as the primary vehicle for ideas and social criticism is a modern and contingent one, it now seems obvious that it would start to fray in our modern world-- a world in which attention spans, including my own, are vanishing asymptotically and the incentive for writers to just come right out and say things has grown.  We no longer have the patience to be introduced to a whole Russian family or decayed Southern county before learning the author's stance on the issues of the day.  We demand a straight answer out of our writers.

Okay, fair enough-- but what is so wrong with all of this-- if I am correct in saying that human society got along okay without novels for so long?

The usual answer to this from the sentimentalists is that novels help us develop empathy.  They make it possible for us to climb into another's skin and feel what they feel.  This might sound like self-justifying twaddle and maybe it is.  But it is striking and noteworthy how closely in history the rise of the psychological novel, focused around a sympathetic protagonist with whom the reader can identify, parallels the rise of the anti-slavery movement, the abolition of torture, and the ideology of human rights.  At least one historian has seen in this parallel something more than coincidence.  The novel is a recent invention- but then, so too is representative government, the romantic conception of marriage, the nuclear family as a focus of filial love and affectivity, the discourse of human rights, and modern "empathy" as we know it.  So even recent inventions might be worth preserving.

This preservation, however, will never get anywhere unless we are honest with ourselves about what novels can and ought to achieve.  The real value of a novel does not lie in its ability to convey "ideas" which can then be represented in some other form-- which can be "translated" into academic prose.   Our modern English departments seem not to understand this, and proceed to dissect literature looking for hidden imperialist agenda, proto-feminism, crypto-fascism, and hokey Freudian imagery.  And our "literary" authors oblige them.  Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, and the other post-modernists freight their books with ideas.  Their books are like encyclopedia or history books-- if encyclopedia or history books had more gratuitous sex and bad puns.  Yet people are sagely noting that if they want to read such books, they might as well read encyclopedias or history books.  They are waking up to the fact that novels are a poor medium through which to convey philosophy or political platforms.  They therefore increasingly treat them with scorn and turn toward writers who will simply come out and say what they mean.  If all novels could do was convey ideas, they would be right to do so.

But novels do more than that.  I'm not going to say they preserve democracy or that we would become unfeeling automata without them.  I would say that films and TV and other narrative forms can also broaden empathy, if they make the effort.  The deaths of some of the characters in The Wire is more moving to me than the death of Little Nell.  There are musical moments in The Lion King or Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring which give me more gooseflesh than the best poetry.   But novels shoulder an important piece of the empathy-building division of labor.  For them to regain a foothold in our intellectual life, however, we are going to have to give up the notion that they express ideas-- or worse, that they convey "knowledge" as does any scholarly discipline.  They do not.  They show us, at their best, that other people have feelings and experiences which are intelligible to us.  They give us that thrill of recognition-- that "how did the author know I felt that way?" which makes us feel less alone.  They even show us that there are truths which can't be put into philosophical form.  But they do not tell us anything about society or politics or history we could not more easily glean from other sources.

Recognizing this would compel some serious changes in the way we "do literature" in our schools and universities.  I suspect it would undermine, in fact, the whole notion of teaching literature in a standardized curriculum, because no matter how good a novel is, the experience of reading it will be worthless if one does not have some intimate and personal feeling to resonate with its themes.  Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim will always mean more to me than Wuthering Heights, even though I read them at roughly the same time in my life, and even though the latter is probably the "better book."  But I just couldn't relate to Heathcliff's doomed and morbid fixations, while Jim Dixon's futile efforts to best the "bearded pacifist painting Bertrand" in political argument seemed like the story of my life.  Someone else might have read them and had precisely the opposite response.  Teaching them to both of us in school would have accomplished little.  And most importantly of all-- the thing I "got" from Lucky Jim that I didn't get from Wuthering Heights was not an insight into the Suez crisis or Britain's postwar economy-- it was realizing that some British guy in the '50s had thought about things and experienced things the way I did.  This made me a slightly better and more caring person, as do all successful novelistic encounters.  It reminded me that other people exist in the same way I do, with the same vulnerabilities.  Human beings, with all they do, can never be reminded of this too often.

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