Lately I’ve developed a tenderness for essays speculating about the “death of the novel,” or that inspiring sub-genre, “why write novels at all?” I suspect they are proof that the form still has a modicum of relevance; the very existence of such essays proves there is still something left to kill off. Contrast this with say, poetry, which is so entirely deceased (I’m sorry if this offends the 32 Americans who buy new poetry volumes each year) that nobody would even considering announcing its death.
The latest backhand defense of the novel is Roger Kimball’s essay “The Great American Novel: Will There Ever be Another?” which argues that both the atomization of American culture and our lack of shared cultural assumptions makes it unlikely the novel will ever return to its former prominence.
Right from the start of his essay, Kimball admits he is less than enthusiastic about contemporary fiction:
“I read as few contemporary novels as possible, partly (here we get into cause and effect) because most of the novels that get noticed today (like most of the visual art that gets the Establishment’s nod) should be filed under the rubric ‘ephemera,’ and often pretty nasty ephemera at that. I do not, you may be pleased to read, propose to parade before you a list of those exercises in evanescence, self-parody, and general ickiness that constitute so much that congregates under the label of American fiction these days.”
I’m tempted to agree that there are cartloads of forgettable novels coming out every day, however I don’t read enough contemporary fiction to make such a sweeping statement, and I do occasionaly encounter contemporary novels that have a shot at immortality.
In a culture without common moral assumptions, Kimball rightly believes there are no standards to subvert, critique or even support. In short, it never feels like there is anything at stake. As a a consequence, Kimball isn’t sure that we’d recognize our great American novelists if they were writing today—true enough—but it’s worth noting that Melville was not appreciated in his own time (it was only in the early 20th Century that critics resurrected Moby Dick and enthroned it as a canonical book):
“My point is that even if a new Melville or Twain, Faulkner or Fitzgerald were to appear in our midst, his work would fail to achieve the critical traction and existential weight of those earlier masters. We lack the requisite community of readers, and the ambient shared cultural assumptions, to provide what we might call the responsorial friction that underwrites the traction of publicly acknowledged significance.”
He goes on to say:
“The novel in its highest forms requires a certain level of cultural definiteness and identity against which it can perform its magic. The diffusion or dispersion of culture brings with it a diffusion of manners and erosion of shared moral assumptions…The chief virtue of a well-defined cultural tradition for a novelist (for any artist) is not that it be beneficent but that it be widely acknowledged and authoritative.”
Right now, in an American civilization where there is no agreement on which wars are worth fighting (or not fighting), what marriage is (and isn’t) and whether there is such a thing as objective beauty or even objective truth for that matter—the novel may be doomed, or it may just freeze up and go the way of of “classical” music.
There is always new symphonic and chamber music being written (and some important pieces at that), but listeners restrict their listening habits to a few choice masters from a few well-trodden epochs (i.e., the Baroque, Classical and Romantic periods) and thereby relegate modern compositions to a few lonely hours on Sunday afternoon public radio shows hosted by gentlemanly middle-aged men with beards and spectacles.