The Great American Novel
Will there ever be another?
Feb 27, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 23 • By ROGER KIMBALL
Matthew Arnold once described literature as “a criticism of life.” He looked to literature, to culture generally, to provide the civilizing and spiritually invigorating function that religion had provided for earlier ages. And to a large extent, culture proved itself up to the task. Horace once said that the aim of poetry was to delight and instruct. For much of its history, literature has been content to stress the element of delight: to provide what Henry James, in an essay on the future of the novel, described as “the great anodyne.” If a tale could beguile an idle hour, that was enough.
But there was a moment, an extended moment that lasted many decades, in which some fiction consciously performed a patently moral role quite apart from its value as entertainment. I should stress that by “moral” I do not necessarily mean moralistic or even didactic. Some fiction was indeed patently didactic, but much of the best fiction was moral in a broader, more insinuating sense. Its designs upon the reader—and the reader’s designs upon it—were often laced with equivocation and ambiguity, but were no less imperative for that. It was in this context, perhaps, that we should understand James’s observation (in that same essay) that the novel was “the most immediate and . . . admirably treacherous picture of actual manners.” I feel sure that, could we but fully unpack the union of those words “admirably” and “treacherous” in James’s understanding, we would understand a great deal. If we understood also what he meant by “manners” we would be in very good shape indeed.
My point here is to suggest that changes in our culture have precipitated changes in the novel or, more to the point, changes in the reception and spiritual significance of the novel. It was before my time, but not I think much before my time, that a cultivated person would await the publication of an important new novel with an anticipation whose motivation was as much existential as diversionary. This, I believe, is mostly not the case now, and the reasons have only partly to do with the character and quality of the novels on offer. At least as important is the character and quality of our culture.
In a great passage of “Burnt Norton,” the first of his Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot speaks of being Distracted from distraction by distraction / Filled with fancies and empty of meaning / Tumid apathy with no concentration / Men and bits of paper . . . I would not be so rash as to venture a definition of “the novel.” Those monsters, loose and baggy or otherwise, are by now too various to be susceptible of definition in a way that is at once accurate and not vacuous. (Samuel Johnson’s pleasing definition of the novel—“a small tale, generally of love”—belongs to an earlier, more innocent age.) Still, one may observe that novels require, at a minimum, a certain quota of attention and a certain quality of concentration.
We live in an age when there is tremendous competition for—I was going to say “the reader’s attention,” but reading is part, a large part, of what has suddenly become negotiable. The Yale literary critic Geoffrey Hartman once wrote a book called The Fate of Reading: It is not, in my judgment, a very good book, but it would have been had Professor Hartman got around to addressing the subject announced in his provocative title. It is of course a subject that goes far beyond the issue of the American or any other sort of novel: The advent of television, the ubiquity of mass media, the eruption of the Internet and ebooks with their glorification of instantaneity—all this has done an extraordinary amount to alter the relationship between life and literature. Television lulled us into acquiescence, the Internet with its vaunted search engines and promise of the world at your fingertips made further inroads in seducing us to reduce wisdom to information: to believe that ready access to information was somehow tantamount to knowledge. I pause here to quote David Guaspari’s wise and amusing observation on this subject: “Comparing information and knowledge,” he writes, “is like asking whether the fatness of a pig is more or less green than the designated hitter rule.”