On the May Issue:
The Novel’s End
To the Editor:
According to Joseph Epstein, the life-changing experience that formed the climax of the classic novel has been dislodged by “the epiphany, that moment of sudden insight or revelation.” (“What Happened to the Novel?” May). That brilliant observation is itself an epiphany, and so far as I know, Mr. Epstein is the first to make it. He amusingly describes the literary epiphany as “the small insight strained through high style [that] the writer without wide experience of the world tends to fall back on.” Touché, but is it possible that something far larger is at play, i.e., our changed understanding of the self?
The careful plotting of the 19th-century novel was a moral instrument and served to test the character of the protagonists. The choices they made at the crucial moment implicated numerous people besides themselves, hence the large cast of supporting actors in the classic novel. Elizabeth Bennet’s marriage or Raskolnikov’s murder had both moral and social significance.
But in a culture in which the moral understanding of the self has been displaced by the psychological, it is inevitable that the author will care more about what the protagonist feels than what he does. I am reminded of Philip Rieff, the author of the Triumph of the Therapeutic, who memorably wrote that “no politics can be very ardent once the psychological man discovers how symptomatically he is acting.” Perhaps psychological man also can’t write a novel.
Michael J. Lewis
To the Editor:
As Joseph Epstein rightly notes, the fall of the novel in-to the dustbin of cultural history portends a cultural fate we cannot at this time calculate. Through imaginative genius, the novel’s place in society provided an entry point into the human soul. In less decadent eras, readers were invited to embark upon more than mere speculation; they were urged to peek into that which we cannot live without—beauty. As the late Roger Scruton insists, “beauty is vanishing from our world because we live as though it did not matter.” It seems beauty is no longer an ultimate value, a transcendent reality by which we live and move. The evidence for this lies within the contemporary novels the marketing world flashes on our screens; beauty is now obscured by a dark shadow of cultural narcissism and click-bait triviality.
We lament the growing insignificance of those worlds that the great novels implored us to explore. But this abandonment cannot persist, for the human project is hardwired for beauty. Our astonishment at it and our recognition of its virtues are universally inescapable. For those whose novels continue to lead us into this fair territory, press on.
To the Editor:
The usually insightful Joseph Epstein is particularly insightful in thinking about the fate of the novel. But perhaps the issue here is not so much the form itself or its practitioners but its raw materials. Take the theme of love, which was a motivating force in any number of novels, usually in some sort of conflict with the societal framework. In Jane Austen’s novels it was love and income, butting up against the norms and conventions of the gentry. True love brings Cap-tain Wentworth and Anne Elliot back together years after social con-ventions have torn them apart—once he has become rich. Love wrecks Anna Karenina’s life when she allows herself to defy social convention in order to follow her heart, but in the end finds she can’t overcome convention’s power. Then it’s “Goodbye, Anna.”
Since then, convention has been steadily dissolving. Allan Bloom related that a colleague suggested that Anna Karenina, brought forward a hundred years to Wisconsin, would have gotten a no-fault divorce and child custody from a local judge, and the novel would have been reduced to a commentary on outworn social conventions. So the very liberation of the individual that has characterized our era has perhaps made it harder to write the “grand theme” novels Epstein laments.
Likewise, the advance of science has constricted the realm within which art can freely operate. Since E.O. Wilson began thinking that men weren’t really all that different from ants, the men in white lab coats have been edging in around Henry James and his kind of analysis—putting lovers in MRI machines to see what part of their brains “light up” when they think about their true love. They are finding that love is more akin to an addiction subject to cure and less a mysterious obsession to be explored literarily. We’re more likely to think that gal from Sheboygan who threw herself under a train went off her meds than that she died for love. Meanwhile, all those ancillary themes Tolstoy filled his pages with—the deficiencies of Russian agriculture, for example—have been taken up by the university agronomy departments that didn’t exist when Tolstoy wrote.
Perhaps it’s not really their fault that Franzen and Company are lightweights. Perhaps the world that produced fiction has simply run its course. Maybe it’s time for a new genre. I sure hope it’s not animation.
Ft. Myers, Florida
To the Editor:
It is distressing to read that in Joseph Epstein’s view, Joseph Bottum largely states the case for the death of the novel. In addition to the explanations Epstein offers, there is the postmodernist critique
of literature. The more the post-modernist dissects literature, the more exhausted the form becomes.
While more people than ever are writing, more of what is written is small-bore, as seen in the flood of memoirs with pretensions to literary merit that now make up a large part of the public’s reading choices. In other new books, the particularization of the subjects being written about means that the vast awareness imparted by great novels is denied us.
To the Editor:
It is disheartening to read Joseph Epstein, who so sagaciously characterized poetry’s decline, declare a similar fate for the novel. He writes, “Novelists of an earlier time had a godlike mastery over vast stretches of knowledge, experience, intimate life that has long been missing.” I am reminded of Faulkner’s ranking Thomas Wolfe above himself, Dos Passos, Hemingway, and Steinbeck not because Wolfe’s novels were flawless, but because the scope of Wolfe’s work was so massive and daring that Faulkner admired him above the others despite believing that Wolfe’s novels were failures. His assumption, like Epstein’s, is that the novel is for sprawling explorations of what he called “the human heart in conflict with itself.”
The institutional coddling of the arts has suffocated this bold impulse that had sustained the novel so well. Faulkner and his contemporaries sweated alongside everyday people while they honed their craft. They understood that the novel could separate the sublime from the quotidian. Novelists today are cloistered in university faculties and often seem bent on sneering at the public rather than embarking on a serious treatment of their time. The public is right to reject naval-gazing work that condescends rather than elucidates the trials of living.
Our novelists are more deluded than their readers, and a novel that appealed to the form’s grand tradition may still be well received. Epstein may disagree with me on this point, but I am not prepared to admit that Americans lack the patience or erudition to enjoy difficult prose, or that the impulse to sort out in fiction the moral and spiritual questions of our time is no longer with us. Perhaps the best solution to our drought of great novelists is to point burgeoning writers toward the old masters and leave them alone.
New Orleans, Louisiana
To the Editor:
If Joseph Epstein hasn’t read anything written since 1990, how is it that he is able to pass judgment on novels written since then?
What has happened since 1990 is a positive revolution enabling a thousand times more people to write fiction than were able to do so prior to the emergence of computer technology. The output of this generation of writers reflects the fact that many have not read the classics, yet they have stories they want to share about their lives and about the world as they see it. So the novel is not dead; it’s just moved into a different universe, and its purpose has changed as well from serving a narrowly construed religious and social class to serving all kinds of people—many from developing countries—where their authors live. Much of what this generation produces is not readable, but some of it is, and the best finds an audience.
Perhaps Epstein should read some of this output and offer his editorial services to help these writers improve, because they are not going to stop writing. Their readers will thank him.
Peter G. Pollak
To the Editor:
It seems that in his piece on the decline of the novel, Joseph Epstein has been suffering from a few biases that have made him throw away the child of con-temporary world literature with the bathwater of the traditional European and North American novel.
Epstein asserts, and deplores, that “the truths that lie in the heart” (Henry James) have given way to “concepts and ideas” as main drivers of how novels are now written. Aside from the fact that his complaint is somewhat self-contradictory, since Epstein also regrets the disappearance of novels about “great subjects,” it seems that a broader vision would have enabled Epstein to regard the glass as less empty than he does.
In the first place, there seems to be question of a geographical bias: Contrary to what one might infer from the article, there is literary life outside North America and Europe. One only has to think of Latin American literature in the past 100 years or so to stop believing that great novels have not been written since the mid-19th century. Cortazar, Vargas Llosa, Borges, Garcia Marquez: None of them are known for not writing about great subjects and not writing about “the truth of the human heart.” Indeed, they managed to combine both dimensions in many of their books. And the Latin American tradition is by no means declining: Roberto Bolano, with his novels that deal with the position and function of literature in a dictatorial society, was, until his death in 2003, a worthy successor to the abovementioned quartet.
The second bias is gender-related. The position of women in society (a great subject if ever there was one) is being addressed in recent novels that, to employ Epstein’s yardstick, one had better be aware of if one aspires to be considered a “cultured person.” Soon to be published in English, Casas Vacías (Empty Houses) by Mexican writer Brenda Navarro is a powerful short novel about everything that is wrong in Mexico (and, one presumes, in the wider world) with ideas about motherhood and the way men look at women.
And returning to Epstein’s habitat, it is easy to think of an American, New York-based novel about similar themes that will almost certainly become the talk of the town, particularly of that town. Fleishman is in Trouble, by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, is a visionary exploration of everything that can go wrong between men and women. I don’t live in New York, but I can imagine that this book will easily pass the Ferguson test. The glass is (at least) half-full, I think.
San José, Costa Rica
Science vs. Scientism
To the Editor:
In “They Blinded Us with Science,” Sohrab Ahmari warns us of a worldview whereby “truth is limited to only what can be sensed with the senses, measured with our instruments, and generally expressed in mathematical language” (May). Ahmari goes on at considerable length explaining why this view is unreasonable. The problem is that, based on my years working with scientists and engineers, there are relatively few people who hold such an absolutist view.
Ahmari asks whether science has satisfied humanity’s hunger for truth and concludes that it hasn’t. This is correct. But any good researcher knows that the more you inquire, the more you uncover additional questions. This is humanity’s inherent curiosity and not a failing of science.
Scientists are a diverse bunch with a variety of interests and worldviews. They are keenly aware that science has limitations, but they press on, trying to increase our collective knowledge. Indeed, good science publishers require that every paper address the uncertainty in the results presented.
A quote from Ahmari’s stands out: “There is nothing quite like a sudden and unforeseen pandemic to puncture the confidence of confident men.” What I believe Ahmari is reacting to is not the overconfidence of scientists so much as the incessant pressure on science reporters to boil down nuanced scientific results into eye-catching headlines and punchy articles.
Added to this is a growing number of people who distrust science as part of a larger distrust of authority. The current polarized politics of the U.S. has spilled over into science and given rise to pro-science and anti-science camps. This leads to the growth of ridiculous theories such as the flat-earth hypothesis on one side, and the claim that “science is all that matters” on the other. While most scientists are unsurprisingly pro-science, their understanding of science is more nuanced.
There is much in Ahmari’s essay, however, that I agree with. It’s important to recognize that science is but a tool, and that life is much more than just the facts.
The Helpful Public
To the Editor:
I can verify that James B. Meigs’s excellent article reflects the truth (“Elite Panic vs. the Resilient Populace,” May). Having gone through Hurricanes Rita, Ike, Harvey, and Imelda, I have seen firsthand exactly what Meigs addresses. In Texas, we even have our own critical radio personality: Al Caldwell. He was spinning records when I was getting dressed for school in the morning in the 1970s, and he has talked us through every major disaster up to and including the current pandemic. The so-called Cajun Navy was here to help during Harvey and Imelda. Local business people and volunteers have pulled our city up from the ground more than once, sometimes with the help of local leaders, sometimes despite their “elite panic.” These stories, like the ones Meigs wrote about, never get enough press coverage because they are contrary to the preferred narrative about an all-important government.
To the Editor:
I’d add one more example of volunteer action to James B. Meigs’s article. In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, countless people, myself included, volunteered to help with the rescue attempt at the World Trade Center. After about a day or two, however, government officials determined they wanted only people with specific skill sets involved. But we still gave what we could—from cash donations to safety gear to food and water. The outpouring by the citizenry was phenomenal!
John Di Marco
Bridgewater, New Jersey