L. Jagi Lamplighter put me onto a New Yorker article titled An Answer to the Novel’s Detractors, Adelle Waldman addresses the question of why the novel matters and why things have gone wrong as the literary culture has sought to subvert and do away with the novel instead of keeping what is valuable in it. Have a read
Less than a hundred years ago, D.H. Lawrence called the novel “the highest form of human expression so far attained.” Jane Austen said that it had nothing to recommend it but “genius, wit and taste.” Today, even novelists themselves—maybe especially novelists themselves—are unlikely to make such large and unironic claims in favor of their art. It is no coincidence that many of the most exciting novels to have appeared in recent years—Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series, Ben Lerner’s “10:04” and Sheila Heti’s “How Should a Person Be?”—have been distinctly un-novelistic, featuring protagonists who share many biographical details (and sometimes names) with the authors, and substituting the messiness of experience for conventional plots. Such “novels from life,” as Heti’s book was subtitled, reflect the authors’ exasperation with fictional artifice. “Just the thought of writing fiction, just the thought of fabricated character in a fabricated plot made me feel nauseous,” Knausgaard wrote in the second volume of “My Struggle.”
These books made David Shields’s “Reality Hunger” (2010) seem prescient. An earnest “manifesto” against the traditional novel (which Shields finds “unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless”), “Reality Hunger” galvanized many critics and novelists alike. Shields argued that novels are often flashes of “narrative legerdemain”; he calls for “serious writing,” in which “the armature of overt drama is dispensed with, and we’re left with a deeper drama, the real drama: an active human consciousness trying to figure out how he or she has solved or not solved being alive.” He particularly prizes the lyric essay, which forsakes plot and character entirely.
If aspects of “Reality Hunger” were familiar, refrains on old arguments (in fact much of the book consists of direct quotations from other books), Shields’s points are worth considering again, both because he is laudably serious about what literature ought to aim for and because his ideas about the novel are so firmly entrenched in contemporary literary culture. Shields’s belief that the traditional novel is dated and that the way forward—aesthetically, if not commercially—lies in non-novels or at least non-traditional novels now represents the fashionable position in the literary world.
I confess that I share Shields’s dissatisfaction with much contemporary fiction—and I too like the recent spate of “novels from life”—but I think he has homed in on the wrong target. The novel form isn’t the reason so much contemporary fiction seems uninspired; for that, we’d do better to consider other causes, of which there are plenty: an emphasis on documenting social conditions and modernity over the study of individual characters, a post-Freudian tendency to lean on secondhand psychoanalytic ideas as a cover for incomprehension or shallowness, a corrosive commitment to niceness at the expense of the kind of social and moral judgments that used to be at the novel’s center, MFA programs, to name just a few possibilities.
As a novelist who doesn’t feel especially inclined to experiment with form, I admittedly have a dog in this fight. And yet I hope it’s not only defensiveness that urges me to defend the form against an indictment that in some iterations seems more trendy than rigorous. Before we rush to condemn whole-hog the novel’s supposedly obsolete conventions—the well-worn apparatuses of plot and character—we ought look at how they function and what they do well.