The way we read now

The thrill is gone for lovers of fiction. Joseph Bottum on the strange death of the novel

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Almost touching the bottom?: Salman Rushdie and actress Olivia Wilde at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, 2008
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For almost 300 years, the novel was a major art form, perhaps the major art form, of the modern world — the device by which we tried to explain ourselves to ourselves. Something new came into art during the transition out of the Middle Ages, through the Renaissance and the Reformation, and into the modern age. We might call it the turn to the interior — an increasing agreement that domestic life and drama are real, not merely minor activities necessary to keep body and soul together while we play out our real lives on…

For almost 300 years, the novel was a major art form, perhaps the major art form, of the modern world — the device by which we tried to explain ourselves to ourselves. Something new came into art during the transition out of the Middle Ages, through the Renaissance and the Reformation, and into the modern age. We might call it the turn to the interior — an increasing agreement that domestic life and drama are real, not merely minor activities necessary to keep body and soul together while we play out our real lives on the world’s stage.

Think how rare domestic drama was before the novel. Penelope spins not so much private life as politics in her domestic settings in the Odyssey, Dido lays down the markers of history in the Aeneid and the goddess Ishtar performs something like theogony with her anger in Gilgamesh.

It makes sense why the modern novel felt so new to readers in the 18th and 19th centuries. In Flaubert’s delicate notice of the vaginal bruising that poor, idiotic Emma Bovary feels after relentless trysts with her lover Rodolphe, we see not just a new sexual explicitness (however oblique) and the close observation that would become almost the definition of realistic narration. We also see modern novels entering the personal and private spheres in ways unimagined by any previous art.

This modern sense of self could be traced along the line of high philosophy, from Descartes through Rousseau and down to Kant. Or through the economics of capitalism — analyzed, from Marx and Ruskin on, as the dissociation of workers from the work they do. We could turn to foundational Protestant theology, from Martin Luther to Jonathan Edwards, finding a root of the modern self in the Reformation’s profound focusing of religious attention on the individual soul.

Novels became central to the culture partly because they were the only available art form spacious enough for all the details authors needed to draw increasingly realistic pictures of their characters. But most of all, novels described what seemed the crisis of the modern self. And at their highest and most serious level, they offered solutions.

The sad truth is that the novel now doesn’t occupy the same cultural high ground, and it doesn’t typically feel to readers like a practical device for addressing problems. The decline of the novel’s prestige reflects a new crisis born of our culture’s increasing failure of intellectual nerve and its terminal doubt about its own progress.

We hardly lack for prose in this online age. Digital entertainments aside, English- language genre fiction has blossomed into a startling new maturity. Popular biography conveys lessons the novel once delivered — as do popularly presented sociology and ‘New Journalism’, which uses techniques of novel-writing for essay-length reporting. Still, the novel is moribund. Its failure signals an end of confidence about the past values and future goals of what conceived itself as Western culture. The signs of a weakened, diffident and timid culture are written in the dust on the unread books of our library shelves.

The greatest (and yet mostly unremarked) sociological change in America over the past 50 years is the collapse of membership in mainline Protestant churches — from around 50 percent of Americans in 1965 to under 10 percent today. This collapse removed a central support of American identity. Though others were welcomed, on and off, we understood that we lived in essentially a Protestant nation. The dominant churches were the cultural Mississippi pouring through the center of the nation’s self-understanding. When that well-spring dried up, the old culture died in the hard-baked mud. As the theological foundations decayed, so did the cultural institutions built on those foundations, including the novel.

With the fading of a temporal horizon, history appears to have no discernible aim, culture no visible end. Without the old goals and reasons, all that remains are the past crimes the culture committed to get where it is now. Uncompensated by achievement, unexplained by purpose, these un-ameliorated sins must seem overwhelming: the very definition of the culture. And without a sense of the old goals and reasons, why should we strain for the future? Why should we write, or even read, book-length fiction for insight?

So we don’t bother much with those books anymore. We don’t teach them in college in any systematic way. We don’t expect that even the educated will have a sure sense of the form. Local libraries have given up on acting as repositories of literary history, moving a few copies of Dickens and Hemingway to the Young Adult section and pulping the rest. Although their positions in universities derive from the prestige that literature once possessed, literary scholars now study the dated pornography of naughty French postcards with the same tools and enthusiasm they once used for the novel.

This suggests a kind of impersonal secularization, a rooting out of the last unconscious elements of a cultural Christendom. The novel at its most serious aimed at re-enchantment. It hungered to impart a kind of glow to the objects of the world, standing against the modern turns to technological science, bureaucratic government and commercial economics.

If the natural world is imagined as empty of purpose, then the hunt for Nature’s importance is supernatural by definition. If the physical order is defined by its scientifically measured presence, then the search for meaning in the physical order is necessarily metaphysical. And if the secular realm is understood merely as arbitrary social arrangements enforced by the powerful, then the attempt to uncover social value must be religious.

From the 18th century through the 20th, authors produced fiction unlike anything the world had read. They did so because the civilization needed them to. Rewarded them for doing so, too. Of the authors who have published novels since the early 1990s, none is mandatory reading. This lack of cultural centrality is not necessarily the authors’ fault — we just don’t read novels the way we used to. The great ambitions have dwindled, and the engine of the art form sputters on the last fumes of its old fuel. Modernity’s metaphysical crisis was not solved — by the novel or anything else. Consequently, we are overtaken by a second crisis, one debilitating for art, as the culture loses its horizons and its sense of purpose.

That hardly means no fiction has been attempted over the past half century. From V.S. Naipaul, Mario Vargas Llosa, Thomas Pynchon, Philip Roth and Don DeLillo (all five born in the 1930s) to J.M. Coetzee and John Irving (both born in the early 1940s), older authors have remembered the novel’s ambitions. For decades, serious readers snatched up anything new by Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Cormac McCarthy. I am not a great admirer of the work of Ian McEwan and Jonathan Franzen — the way I am enthusiastic about anything by Marilynne Robinson, A.S. Byatt and Michael Chabon — but all need to be read if one follows contemporary fiction. Zadie Smith, Haruki Murakami, Orhan Pamuk, Arundhati Roy, Jeffrey Eugenides and a dozen others make up the standard list of applauded writers of contemporary serious fiction.

Yet, talented as they are, none of them towers in our sense of the novel the way the foundational English authors do, from Daniel Defoe to Jane Austen. Or the way the High Victorians do, from Dickens and Thackeray to Henry James. Or the way the Modernists do, from Proust and Joyce to Thomas Mann and Ralph Ellison. Or even as mid 20th-century novelists do, from Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Hemingway to Sinclair Lewis and John Steinbeck.

We might make the same point by contemplating the golden age of genre fiction through which we are living. Neil Gaiman is a genius of his kind, exploring genre fiction in children’s books, urban fantasy and graphic novels. Dean Koontz uses horror surreptitiously to raise metaphysical questions about the world’s disenchantment. George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones is a model of rich world-construction in the post-Tolkien age, while Gene Wolfe used science fiction to undertake a Catholic-tinged literary project for over 30 years.

Consider the two bestselling authors since Agatha Christie: Stephen King and J.K. Rowling. And then there are all the authors and artists involved in the maturing of the comic book into the graphic novel: the superhero revisionists Alan Moore and Frank Miller; Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.

Their very talent raises a question of why they bother with genre fiction. To see someone elevate a police procedural or comic book to the higher levels of art is to wonder why he isn’t writing ambitious novels, working in the artistic form the culture spent almost three centuries developing into a device of extraordinary subtlety, range and power. In our recoil from the snobbery of the question, the question finds its answer.

Robert Heinlein with his science fiction, P.G. Wodehouse with his romantic comedies and Rex Stout with his mysteries — not one of these masters would have minded the suggestion that perhaps he was not working at the level of a contemporary Nobelist like Mann. When we sense something elitist and condescending in the distinction between ‘serious fiction’ and ‘genre fiction’, we reveal that we don’t believe in the power of the old forms of serious fiction — a disbelief that would not have been shared by even the best of genre writers in previous generations, from Arthur Conan Doyle to Dr Seuss.

The idea of the decline of the novel is not a claim that greater genius existed in previous centuries or that genius is wasting itself in popular art. It is, rather, a claim that the great purpose of the modern novel was to re-enchant our sense of the world with fictional narratives that put in parallel the sanctifying journey of the soul with the physical and social journey of the body. That purpose was to knit back together the interior and exterior realities which the modern age had split apart. And as western culture stumbles along, no longer confident that modernity can be solved, the old project seems slightly unreal.

The novel didn’t fail us. We failed the novel.

This essay is adapted from Joseph Bottum’s The Decline of the Novel (St Augustine’s Press) and originally appeared in The Spectator’s February 2020 US edition.