The Novel: Still More Relevant Than Its Detractors

I’ll grant David Shields this: based on the reviews, Reality Hunger sounds like an uncommonly original variation on the “death of the novel” school of thought that’s gotten so fashionable. But if I’m correctly understanding the bones of the book’s argument as laid out by Luc Sante in the Times, it’s still way off.

James Woods quotes the crux of the thing in his very James Woods-ian response:

I love literature, but not because I love stories per se. I find nearly all the moves the traditional novel makes unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless. I can never remember characters’ names, plot developments, lines of dialogue, details of setting. It’s not clear to me what such narratives are supposedly revealing about the human condition. I’m drawn to literature instead as a form of thinking, consciousness, wisdom-seeking. I like work that’s focused not only page by page but line by line on what the writer really cares about rather than hoping that what the writer cares about will somehow mysteriously creep through the cracks of narrative, which is the way I experience most stories and novels. Collage works are nearly always “about what they’re about”—which may sound a tad tautological—but when I read a book that I really love, I’m excited because I can feel the writer’s excitement that in every paragraph he’s manifestly exploring his subject.

Oy. The big error here–and one I wish Woods had spent a little more time deconstructing–lies in assuming that novels aren’t “about what they’re about.” Plenty of accomplished novelists are also accomplished essayists, so it’s probably worth asking why people who excel in both fields would choose to do both. Vanity? Holding out for a film deal? An overactive imagination?

Or maybe–just maybe–the ideas that any worthwhile novelist is trying to work out on the page aren’t reducible. Maybe you can’t distill everything that makes a great novel what it is in the Cliff Notes.

Take the example of Hamlet, whose plot reviewer Sante trivializes by saying it exists merely to service “the human need for sensation” and make all the proto-existentialism go down a bit easier. The suggestion is that all of the grand plot flourishes–the ghost, the mass bloodshed at the climax, the way the formula of the Shakespearean tragedy brings the play through all the expected hits–are just red meat tossed to the groundlings, and completely detachable from the Big Serious Ideas.

But without those things, you wouldn’t have Hamlet. The structure of the play, for example, may seem over familiar, but that’s a feature, not a bug. Someone who has seen a couple film adaptations of Shakespearean tragedies but is watching Hamlet for the first time might find that the grim inevitability of the outcome provides much-needed context for for the protagonist’s indecision. And it illustrates it in a much more vivid, eloquent, and vital way than me just telling you about it. Call it cliché, but skillfully deployed cliché can add a richness of meaning you would never get otherwise. You would think that someone as big on sampling and quotation as Shields would get this.

Besides, it’s incredibly presumptive to assume that the narrative in a novel has nothing to do with what the author–in Shields’ words–“really cares about.” If a novelist has any emotional investment in the characters, then presumably she cares about what happens to them in the narrative. If this same novelist doesn’t care for those characters, then the novel is probably going to be pretty bad.

Maybe Shields doesn’t care. Fine. But the original sin of a lot of these “death of the novel” tracts is an attempt to intellectualize and universalize what is really just personal preference. It’s arrogant, self-satisfied, and, by now, pretty thoroughly exhausted of its novelty. Maybe it’s time for some novelist with a gift for sarcasm to write a manifesto on the death of the death-of-the-novel manifesto.

(NOVELty. Ba-zing!)

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One Response

  1. Dude, you need a recommend feature on your blog posts. I’ve got nothing really to add here but I want to voice my support just the same and it would probably be more efficient, time-wise, if there was a single button I could press to express that.

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