Forty or so years ago, if you let slip in conversation that you didn’t know who Mark Rothko or Elizabeth Bishop were, I would have had to conclude that your conception of yourself as a cultured person was sadly mistaken. Yet today if I asked you who Molly Crabapple and Anish Kapoor or Kay Ryan or Edward Hirsch are, and you didn’t have an answer, you would get a pass. For the truth, sad or bad or however one wishes to characterize it, is that both contemporary visual art and contemporary poetry no longer hold anything approximating the central place in culture that they once did. Without anyone actually saying so, these once major branches of art have become of at best tertiary interest. A person who thinks himself reasonably cultured need no longer be responsible for knowing much, if anything at all, about either of them.
How this has come about is a question of great interest, but before taking it up, one must add that it begins to look as if fiction, and in especial the novel, may now be joining visual art and poetry in the dustbin of former cultural importance. Such at least is the argument of Joseph Bottum in The Decline of the Novel. In his brief book, Bottum argues that, apropos of the novel, “a fundamental art of Western civilization for hundreds of years just doesn’t seem to count for much anymore.” He adds that “few major (meaning world-historical) works of art [in the form] have been produced since 1975. Maybe 1950.” The novel, Bottum concludes, no longer tells us “what we are… the way we live now,” adding that we have all but lost “the cultural confidence to produce it.”
Bottum links the rise of the novel, beginning in the 18th century, to that of what he calls Mainline Protestantism. He writes: “The novel was an art form—the art form—of the modern Protestant West, and as the main strength of established Protestant Christendom began to fail in Europe and the United States in recent decades, so did the cultural importance of the novel.” For the better part of the past three centuries, he writes, “the West increasingly took the novel as the art form most central to its cultural self-awareness as the artistic device by which the culture attempted some of its most serious attempts at self-understanding. And the form of that device was developed to explain and solve particularly Protestant problems of self in modern times.”
Bottum laments “the thinness and metaphysical barrenness under which more recent novels suffered.” Here his argument gets more than a touch abstract. (“A novel is not the place for abstraction,” said Joseph Roth, author of The Radetsky March. “Leave that to Thomas Mann,” he continued, and Mann is a great favorite of Joseph Bottum’s.) Willa Cather, my candidate for the best American novelist of the past century and who gets no mention in The Decline of the Novel, captures what I take to be Bottum’s point toward the end of her novel The Professor’s House, in which her Professor St. Peter, lecturing to his class, concludes:
As long as every man and woman who crowded into the cathedrals on Easter Sunday was a principal in a gorgeous drama with God, glittering angels on one side and the shadows of evil coming and going on the other, life was a rich thing. The king and the beggar had the same chance at miracles and great temptations and revelations. And that’s what makes men happy, believing in the mystery and importance of their own individual lives. . . . Art and religion (they are the same thing in the end, of course) have given man the only happiness he has ever had.
Religion, every religion, offered all men and women, no matter their station in life, the drama of salvation, a drama whose central question was: Have I lived well enough to have found acceptance by God and thereby a place in heaven? Bottum touches on this in a chapter called “The Rise of the Novel”: “However completely our culture shapes us, it remains, on the cosmic scale, only the prismatic spray tossed up by individuals acting out their own salvation plays.” With the passing of the central place of religion in Western life, other dramas came to the forefront: the dramas of attaining success, power, love, happiness, moral rectitude. These became the central subjects of the novel. Why, then, do these same dramas, set out in lengthy fictions, in our day no longer capture the imagination in the way they once did?
That they do not seems indubitable. Can anyone say he is awaiting the next novel of any living writer with the same eagerness that those of us old enough to remember awaiting the next Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, or Kingsley Amis novel? Is there anything like the same sense of excited anticipation for the future novels of Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Safran Foer, or from England those of Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie? I don’t believe so. I keep a list of the books I read, and the past hundred of these books include novels by Denis Diderot, Heinrich Heine, Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig, and Vasily Grossman, but no novel written after 1990.
If you admire fiction and consider it at its best richer than philosophy and novelists as the true historians of the present, but, like me, find yourself easily resisting contemporary novels, the reason, I believe, is that recent novels no longer do many of the things that once made them so glorious. They want a certain weight, gravity, seriousness that has marked the best fiction over the centuries. They have turned away from telling grand stories issuing onto great themes. Some may admire the cleverness or the sensitivity of certain living novelists, but none seems as God-like in his or her omniscience and evocative power as the great Russian or Victorian or French or American novelists of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Art, we know, is not on the same onward and upward progress curve as science and technology, but might it, in the novel, be demonstrably regressing?
Some saw the beginning of this regression as far back as the mid-19th century. As early as 1856, in their Journal, the Goncourt brothers, writing of Edgar Allen Poe, who was much admired in France, noted that Poe was bringing on “a new literary world, pointing to a literature of the twentieth century. Scientific miracles, fables on the pattern A+B; a clear-sighted, sickly literature. No more poetry, but analytic fantasy. Something monomaniacal. Things playing a more important part than people; love giving way to deductions and other sources of ideas, style, subject, and interest; the basis of the novel transferred from the heart to the head, from the passion to the idea, from the drama to the denouement.”
Five years later, Flaubert wrote: “The story, the plot of a novel is of no interest to me. When I write a novel I aim at rendering a color, a shade. For instance in my Carthaginian novel [Salammbô], I want to do something purple.” In Flaubert’s statement we have the first step from which giant strides will follow—the artist becoming more important than his story. The novel will less and less tell a great story, and the novelist will more and more himself become the story. Fiction will come to depend less on plot and more on the artist’s personality, obsessions, idiosyncrasies.
In the second half of the 20th century, the epiphany, that moment of sudden insight or revelation, came to loom larger than the life-changing event. Consider a John Updike story, “My Father’s Tears,” in which the main character recalls a rainbow that played on the bathroom walls of his first wife’s family’s house, where she had become pregnant: “This microscopic event deep within my bride became allied in my mind with the little rainbow low on the bathroom wall, our pet imp of refraction.” An epiphany, I guess, and though it seems to please Updike’s character, I’ll be damned if I as a reader know what to do with it. (To be fair, John Updike has in his fiction reached out to a wider world in his trilogy of Rabbit novels.)
Epiphany, the small insight strained through high style, is what the writer without wide experience of the world tends to fall back on. The epiphany puts fine writing in place of larger experience. Great novels may have such epiphanic moments, but they are not what these earlier novels were about; they were about engagement with the wider world, where much more tends to be at stake than oblique observation. In their fiction, Melville, Dreiser, Cather, to name American writers only, could dispense with epiphany—also with irony—because they were in possession of great subjects: the madness of obsession, the sad hungering of the underclass, the grandeur of the immigrant story in America. Elsewhere Isaac Bashevis Singer used the novel to argue with God. Such large themes are what have gone missing from most contemporary novels.
Political correctness hasn’t helped. Under its tyranny, whites are refused the right to write about blacks, men about women, heterosexuals about homosexuals. The great novelists, on the other hand, have been androgynous in their literary reach. Reading Tolstoy on women and Willa Cather on men, one forgets the sex of the author in one’s absorption in their characters. Meanwhile, even before political correctness had set in, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, and Philip Roth in their combined oeuvres could not produce a single memorable female character.
And how is it that the range of almost all of our novelists is, and for some time now has been, largely restricted to their own social class? We have no modern Balzac, no Stendhal, no John Dos Passos, novelists who created characters ranging across the social spectrum, along the way giving one a feeling for a great city or the fate of a nation. Novelists of an earlier time had a godlike mastery over vast stretches of knowledge, experience, intimate life that has long been missing.
Joseph Bottum mentions Andrew Ferguson’s cocktail-party test for books—would you be embarrassed at a cocktail party for not having read it?—and notes the last such novel Ferguson cites passing this test was Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities in 1987. Wolfe made a gallant effort at returning the novel to its former grand ambition, but he somehow wasn’t quite aesthetically up to the job. In novels fixated on status, filled with information, admiring above all physical bravery, Wolfe somehow never managed to explore the truth of the human heart.
Brief though it is, there is much to argue with in The Decline of the Novel. Bottum prefers Rabelais to War and Peace. He provides scant mention of Henry James, who in “The Art of Fiction” and in the prefaces to his novels provided for their New York Editions proved the great theoretician of the form. He calls Michael Chabon a “major novelist.” He makes no mention of George Eliot, Joseph Conrad, and little of the other novelists who for F.R. Leavis constituted the Great Tradition in the novel. The splendid run of 19th-century Russian fiction—Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Goncharov, Leskov, Chekhov—is largely ignored, with the exception of Gogol’s Taras Bulba. He makes extravagant claims for a novel about 17th-century Catholic missionaries in an anti-Christian Japan by Shusaku Endo called Silence (1966)—“the book whose impact, when I first read it, still provides the benchmark by which I judge the ambition and success of contemporary novels”—though on my reading, those claims are undeserved. In the risky generalization department, Bottum contends that “we could lose the paintings of all the Anglophones just as we could lose their classical music compositions, without terminal damage to the history of those arts. But the novel would be destroyed beyond repair.”
Clear enough on the reasons for the fall of the novel, Bottum fails to tell us what in losing it we have truly lost. By any measure, a great deal. The novel puts its readers in touch with historical epochs—the Napoleonic wars, the French Revolution, the lives of the Russian aristocracy and British squirearchy, the brutality of Communism, and much else—in a manner both more intimate and convincing than standard histories. Milan Kundera spoke of the novel as an invention for discovery. What, at its best, it discovers is the inner lives of men and women in their engagement with the larger society in which they live out their days.
The novel has also served as a stop to the run of bad ideas, of which there has been no shortage over the past century. “Create a concept,” wrote Ortega, “and reality leaves the room.” Concepts, theories, studies, ideas, the novel has traditionally been the best antidote for them all, and novelists the best filter against their dominance over our thinking. As Isaiah Berlin said about Ivan Turgenev, “all that was general, abstract, absolute, repelled him.” Through the work of the great novelists, who have demonstrated through their books the variety, richness, and complications of life, reality is allowed back the room.
“He has a mind so fine no idea could violate it,” wrote T.S. Eliot of Henry James, by which he meant that, in his novels, James operated above the level of ideas, preoccupied instead by the passions and jealousies and superstitions and stupidities and grandeur of men and women. So, one might add, did Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Balzac, Melville, Cather, and all the great novelists. The truths James, and with him every great novelist, were interested in are the truths of the heart. James himself invoked his own readers to be a man or woman “on whom nothing is lost,” and what is often lost in the realm of concepts and ideas are those truths the heart knows that no ideas can finally hope to encompass. “It is art that makes life,” James wrote, “makes interest, makes importance, and I know no substitute for the force and beauty of its process.”
Now that visual art has lost its import, now that poetry seems to have become an insular and thereby minor art, now that modern classical music has long been unable to command support, the entire realm of what used to be called high culture seems not so much in abeyance or even in retreat but in ashes. This high culture gave those of us enamored of it intimations of an elevated life, however far it might have been out of our reach, a life lived deeper down and beyond quotidian concerns. We can, of course, continue to live on the high culture of the past, with the great music of Austria and Germany, the painting of Italy, Holland, and France, the literature of Russia, Western Europe, and America, most of it produced a hundred and more years ago. Painful, nevertheless, is it to contemplate that further production in these magnificent lines of culture may well be closing down, and that contemporary culture henceforth will consist of streamed movies made chiefly from comic-book characters, video games, and graphic novels.
On the subject of graphic novels, the publishing firm of Liveright has recently brought out, in graphic novel form, two books that include the first three volumes of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. For those who wish to take a pass on Proust’s 1.5 million-word novel with its more than 400 characters, and don’t mind viewing his Duchesse de Guermantes and Charles Swann as comic-book figures talking to each other through balloons over their heads, smile, for your time has come.
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