I am an English professor and I have not read a novel since 2009. I do not intend to read another.
Increasingly, I am uninterested in all forms of creative writing, but when it comes to the genre of the novel my attitude is not one of mere indifference. What began as a lack of will to read slowly grew into an active refusal to do so.
In the first half of the 20th century, the Great American Novel was considered the premiere mode of American artistic expression. In contrast, the average reader today may have a few favorite novelists, but there is little public consensus about today’s “great masters.” There may be a loose consensus among the educated elite, but the names on that list wouldn’t be recognizable to most Americans. The preeminence of the novel in culture has been displaced by popular music and cinema.
Yet I say the decline of the novel is a good thing. Here’s why.
Although prose narrative storytelling is an ancient phenomenon, the form of the novel as it exists today first manifested under very specific cultural circumstances in a particular place and particular moment in time: Europe of the 17th century. A number of preconditions had to be met for the ascent of the novel.
First, printing methods had to be refined to a degree that longer works could be steadily produced. Second, the cost of printing long-form texts had to reach a certain floor in order to make the production of such works profitable. Finally, the profitability of the novel was linked to the number of people who were able to read them, the number of people who wanted to read them, and the number of people with the necessary time and money to consume them.
In other words, only in a society with historically high rates of literacy and a sizable population with significant money and time for leisure could a form like the novel really rise to prominence.
The emergence of the novel was an effect of the economic, educational, and cultural success of the modernizing Western societies of the Enlightenment. At the start, the novel was written for the satisfaction of bourgeois appetites. While the popularization of the form mirrored the democratization of all culture that was unfolding across the West, it also reflected Western decadence.
As the middle class grew, so did the novel, which shows that a growing number of people in the West were affluent and comfortable enough to be looking for distractions. The common person increasingly was aping the blissful lethargy of the elites of old. And so, even today, the novel remains a bourgeois flight of fancy, a daydream, a salve for those with the time to be dismayed by the banality of the everyday.
But while mass consumption of the novel had common people aspiring to aristocratic leisure, the contents of novels shifted the West’s attention from the heroic to the demotic. Most of the great literature of pre-modernity was transfixed by mythic greatness: it depicted characters who were great warriors, great thinkers, great villains, great kings, great queens, great gods. Premodern texts were ruminations on great goodness and great evil. Texts like Boccaccio’s Decameron and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales were among the first to prefigure modern literature’s fixation on the everyday. The farts of the characters in Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale” continue to echo and waft through the contemporary novel.
From the Heroic to the Mundane
Rare is the novel today that valorizes the heroic. Instead, today’s novels tend to depict average people in unusual circumstances. They elevate the low—low ideas, low speech, low behaviors. In so doing, they endorse those things. They seek to glorify the mundane—to present the everyday man as hero, and as a result end up lowering our expectations of people. In short, they serve to kindle the smoldering Western malaise.
In a seeming paradox though, in depicting the ordinary as heroic, the ordinary people who read novels come to see themselves as heroes. This fuels the twin ideologies of individualism and authenticity that reign over Western culture, and especially, America. Individuals come to see life itself as personal artistic expression, and “being true to yourself” or “you doing you” becomes the central way that regular people strike the heroic pose. Generally, this means acting in defiance of cultural norms, expectations, and traditions in pursuit of realizing personal desires (a common source of the conflict in many contemporary novels).
Thus, although the reading of novels puts the average person in an aristocratic posture, novels also encourage elevating the self over shared cultural norms—something that weakens the social order that enables the bourgeois artistic expression that novels embody.
In yet another paradoxical twist, the widespread popularity of novels also gave birth to a new aristocratic class: literary experts. These priestly figures have credentials that indicate their expertise as cultural interpreters who divine the meaning of novels and other creative texts. Thus, while the general public can read novels, it falls to an educated, hermeneutic elite to do the hard work of understanding and appreciating the novel.
The novel can’t simply be understood as a story—it must be understood as a story with a point. That point—which is typically called a theme—is an implied argument, a larger claim about the world that is dramatized through the events of the narrative. Because the “meaning” of a novel is articulated implicitly, English professors and critics take on the task of explicating the meaning, performing a critical mining of the text in an effort to articulate the unstated claims of a text.
These mining techniques are the primary thing that is taught to students majoring in English today. Given that the idea of canonicity is now mostly considered a tool of white male ideology, syllabi reading lists no longer assign works chosen because of their aesthetic achievements or their depiction of moral excellence. The main driving force behind the choice of works that professors assign is a consideration of the utility of the work in advancing a critique of traditional Western culture and values. The primary value of Huckleberry Finn comes to be its illustration of the moral bankruptcy of 19th-century white supremacy. The primary value of The Awakening comes to be explicating its theme of the spiritual constraints that American patriarchy places upon women.
With that implicit claim fully mined, classroom conversations inevitably turn to how women and girls are still victimized by the men they share their lives with, and by the larger misogynistic machinery of society writ large. Contemporary novels are chosen for the most part on the basis of whether they articulate a critical view of society as it exists today.
Are You Entertained?
Given these interpretive methods, the novel is reduced to one of two things: Older works are viewed as a kind of historical-ideological residue through which we can come to understand the shameful legacy of our past. Newer works are viewed as a kind of confirmation of the endurance of that shameful legacy in the present.
These two possibilities expose the political function of the novel and the objectives of its elite interpreters: they work together to advance an activist, generally leftist, political agenda for a broad restructuring of our society. This is to say that novels—and their interpreters—have very specific ideas about how the world should be. Their function isn’t simply to entertain the reader, but to persuade her.
This rhetorical objective (which seeks to persuade the reader that the theme of the novel is either an accurate critique of the status quo or a laudable vision for how the world should be) is only a problem because of the fictive property of novels themselves. They tell stories: made-up stories. We don’t need Chopin to weave us a yarn about a stifled woman at a beach house to illustrate that 19th-century American society made many unfair demands of and impositions on women. This isn’t to say that there isn’t some value in imagining and writing such a tale or taking some pleasure in reading it. Rather, the point is that novels often clearly conceive of themselves as playing a role in public democratic deliberations that occur outside the imagined world of the novel.
To the extent that they actually play that role, it only serves to impoverish public deliberation on important matters of concern. As a fundamentally imaginative exercise, novels can distort people’s understanding of the true state of affairs in our society.
As a genre that seeks to dramatize people and events, novels primarily rely on pathos to achieve their effect. Pathos is a technique by which one convinces audiences through a manipulation of their emotions, and when it comes to public deliberation, most people recognize that reason is the best guide while emotional manipulation should be minimized.
Finally, as a form of entertainment, novels already have considerable persuasive power. In sum, novels dramatize the imaginary to influence the real.
When I talk to colleagues about these ideas, they rightly point me to the cultural value of many of the best-loved novels. Without question, many novelists have made major aesthetic contributions (Willa Cather, Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac) and political contributions (Ayn Rand, George Orwell, Richard Wright) to our society.
But today the primary measure of value for a novel seems to be its political utility. These political calculations severely constrain which sorts of novels are written, which ones are promoted, which ones are read, which ones are assigned, and which ones will endure. Most people who still read them will continue to read novels. But given the questionable value of the historical and social effects of the popularization of the novel generally, it is probably a good thing that the public reputation of the novel has declined.