American critics and regular readers alike usually don't care for sweeping literary-historical arguments. And yet in recent years we have been celebrating Sebald and Bolaño as if we really do believe in some big metanarrative about the novel—one that proclaims that, even post postmodernism, the form remains in crisis. Sure, Sebald and Bolaño deal with fascism, and both died at the height of their powers. More decisive is that neither fiction writer writes as if he believes in fiction. Our canonization of these writers implies a sense, even a conviction, that you can't be a really important novelist anymore unless you can't really write novels.In a post responding to this essay, Scott Esposito addresses this passage thus:
Of course, when the unsigned editorialist says "can't really write novels," he/she is referring to novels in the 19th century (and maybe early 20th century) sense. Sebald's and Bolano's works are certainly novels, just not in the sense that some critics would like novels to only be viewed as."I've wondered why we insist on having the word "novel" encompass so much. Why must it be asserted that the books written by Sebald and Bolaño "are certainly" novels? Are they? What is a novel? A novel is, presumably, everything, the genre-less genre, as I've said previously. Those critics, such as perhaps James Wood, who appear to be seeking to "limit" the novel, must then emerge as the enemy. (Though even for Wood, the novel is so flexible as to be just about anything, so long as it is "real".)
I was recently reading through the archives at zunguzungu, the excellent blog written by Aaron Bady that has too late come to my attention, and I came across this post from March, about a talk given at Berkeley by Franco Moretti. Moretti made the "provocative point that the high aesthetic novel is more of an epiphenomena of a mass commodity culture than the transcendence of it", and the "major question . . . was why the Chinese novel didn't develop like the novel did in Europe" . . . there are all sorts of obvious historical factors Moretti addresses: capitalism, imperialism, China's pre-industrial development, and so on. For Bady, these sorts of questions normally bother him, because "Why shouldn't [the Chinese novel] be different?" The question for him is "why the Chinese novel even gets called a novel in the first place, why a term of art derived from the French word for 'new' under a very historically contingent set of circumstances, in Europe, would be considered appropriate (to anyone) for reference to the classic long fictive prose narratives in China." He goes on (italics his):
the intractable problem at its roots, which is whether a novel is a novel because of historical or formal characteristics. One narrative of the rise of the novel points to the historical circumstances, the social factors that produce a particular kind of textual object and invest it with particular meanings and significance. Another narrative derives it from a structural form: the novel is a fictional narrative which is long and written in prose. That these "objective" features are historically defined (what it means to be fictional, for example, requires a secular consciousness) needs to be suppressed, as does the fact that giving history a legible form requires treating unreliably contingent objective forms as if they really were objective. But while history and form define each other, and are really separable, neither do the narratives collapse into each other. Is Robinson Crusoe a novel because that's what it was called at a certain point in history, or because it achieved some essentially novelistic form? If the former, a historical paradigm, then there can be no Chinese novel at all, just something that looks superficially similar from a distance. Yet if its the latter, a formalist definition, then how can a Chinese novel be Chinese?I remember I used to think it was strange that there were Japanese novels. In part, I'm sure this had something to do with the logographic form of writing: I had a hard time imagining such works reading as novels. (Are Japanese prose works even written logographically?) I generally dismissed this puzzlement as my own problem, but the question nagged at me on occasion, though usually it remained just out of focus. Anyway, pondering the Japanese novel, I would think about those forms we're taught in grade school that belong to this or that national culture. We would write imitations for class assigments--haiku being the example that comes most readily to mind. But clearly haiku is not a form truly available to the writer writing in English. Later I would think of older European forms--the sonnet, say--and think to myself that the sonnet is not available to the contemporary writer. I could set out to compose a sonnet, yes, but it would be at best pastiche; however well done, however beautiful (or, more likely, ugly), it would stand awkwardly in relation to literary history, imitative, inappropriate, suspect, wrong. Its form is not for me, just as I understood intuitively that the haiku is not for me.
I was never really sure what precisely to think about my problem with the Japanese novel, but Bady's post zeroes in on some of what was troubling me. What is a novel? It seems to me that it's become defined down as simply "prose narrative of a certain length". Gabriel Josipovici has argued that the narrative mode of the 19th century novel became so dominant (not least because of England's--and to lesser extent France's--role as imperial power, I would add), that we expect it to hold true for very different sorts of narratives. The Bible, for example, we approach as if it should yield the same sorts of effects as would a George Eliot novel. When it does not yield these effects, we find it wanting, incomprehensible; or, we read effects into it that are not there, and could not be, an approach with numerous interpretative and affective pitfalls of its own. Why should the effects be similar? Why should we read a Japanese prose narrative as if it followed the same rules, created the same effects, as a Dickens novel? Why should contemporary prose works necessarily be treated as novels? Why do we insist that of course a given work is a novel, just not the kind of novel some readers expect? Why, indeed, should adventurous or exploratory or so-called experimental prose writing be subject to the same expectations as a novel? Why called a novel at all? (As always, I am ignoring the needs of the publishing industry.) Are Thomas Bernhard's works novels? Or might it be better to call them, simply, "prose works"? What about Blanchot's récit? Is Josipovici's Everything Passes a novel? David Markson's This Is Not A Novel was titled, so I understand, in response to what one reviewer reportedly actually wrote in dismissing Reader's Block, his previous work. But what if we just saw the title as simply accurate and then worked from there?