As Peter Boxall and Bryan Cheyette observe in their introduction to The Oxford History of the Novel in English, Volume 7: British and Irish fiction since 1940, in every decade of the twentieth century (and now the twenty-first) the novel has been dismissed as “an irretrievably exhausted and dying genre”. By 1970, it was possible to find at least one book-length study in Britain – The Situation of the Novel by Bernard Bergonzi – examining the history of authors and critics who had declared the end of the novelistic tradition. Bergonzi himself argued that one was forced to conclude (“inescapably”) that the formal possibilities of the novel had been used up somewhere between 1910 and 1930. Once the golden age of modernist experimentation was over, the novel was left in a condition of “fluctuating stasis”, endlessly recycling itself inside “an extensive but closed system of cultural references”. The paradox was that this stylistic dead-end was accompanied “by a constant increase in the number of novels written, published, and read”.
Any number of critics since Bergonzi have regurgitated the idea that the novel as we know it today persists in a kind of zombie state, stripped of whatever vital essence it once had (and this in spite of the fact that novels are being published and consumed in unprecedented numbers). But the argument for the novel’s demise has its own kind of ghoulish quality to it by now. Another observation made by Boxall and Cheyette is that every post-war jeremiad about “the death of the novel” – from Lionel Trilling’s study The Liberal Imagination (1950) to Will Self’s essay “The Novel Is Dead (this time it’s for real)” (2014) – tends to draw on the same limited set of ideas. The novel is said to be dead or dying either because it has been made obsolete by new technology, because it has become radically out of sync with the values of the culture around it, or because it has no further capacity for innovation (or some combination of the three). At this stage, what bears thinking about surely isn’t – or isn’t just – how the novel carries on in the face of these old claims, but why the argument about its life or death keeps reappearing.
Subscribe to the weekly TLS newsletter
The volume of The Oxford History under review – as well as being a fascinating compendium of a lot of very lifelike activity from British and Irish novelists over the past seventy years – frames itself as yet another instalment in this debate. Unsurprisingly, the editorial line is that the novel still has a pulse, but Boxall and Cheyette are certainly cognizant of the feelings of frustration and boredom that weigh the question down. Part of their response is to remind us that the issue cannot be understood in isolation: worries about pastiche, repetition and inertia have become endemic to our culture in recent decades. Although “Postmodernism” is a notoriously slippery term, one of the things it usefully describes is just this sense of exasperating immobility – the impression that, for all of the obvious novelty of our way of life, historical progress has somehow stalled or disappeared, leaving us stranded in the “fluctuating stasis” Bergonzi described nearly half a century ago.
Against this windless cultural background, the challenge is to identify what if anything distinguishes the situation of the novel today. In the introduction to the Oxford History (“The Life and Death of the Post-War Novel”) and the concluding chapter (“The Future of the Novel”), Boxall and Cheyette identify themselves as part of “a critical movement that is seeking to pass beyond postmodernism . . . without simply reverting to the historical models and paradigms that postmodern thinkers were rightly determined to overthrow”. Their case for the novel, roughly, is that it remains a singularly powerful medium for forecasting cultural change. Accordingly, it is in the pages of novels, as much as anywhere else, that we are likely to find premonitions of whatever will replace postmodernism.
How this hope might reconfigure our understanding of the novel itself is explored in a slightly more schematic way in Boxall’s monograph The Value of the Novel, a short book that stands by itself perfectly well, but which also serves as a handy theoretical base for the position outlined in the Oxford History.
Setting the argument about the novel’s future aside for the moment: the Oxford History is a beautifully produced volume, and it includes contributions by thirty-three academics over a wide range of subjects. Interested readers will find more than enough to satisfy themselves with here in terms of broad historical overviews, textual analysis, half-forgotten titles and gratifying pieces of trivia (this reviewer was delighted to discover that James Joyce set up the first cinema in Dublin in 1909). The book is organized with 1973 as the pivotal year between the post-war novel and what can be loosely described as the postmodern era that followed. Andrew Nash submits two excellent chapters on the material history of the novel on either side of this date.
Insofar as there is an overarching story that the editors wish to tell, however, it is that the history of the British and Irish novel since 1940 cannot be neatly divided (as it sometimes is) between a narrow, inward, parochial phase in the wake of the Second World War and a more colourful, globalized epoch that supplanted it in the later twentieth century. One of the recurring themes in the volume (to be found in Liz Sage’s chapter on “women’s fiction” after the War, for instance, or Philip Tew’s chapter on comic novels in the same period) is the tendency of post-1973 trends to obscure or disavow their continuities with the earlier period. Another motif is the continuously mutating issue of how national or regional identities shape themselves in response to larger formations that threaten to smother them. Two particularly good examples of the latter are Zachary Leader’s entry on the Movement writers – which examines perceived distinctions between Englishness and Britishness – and Berthold Schoene’s discussion of the transition from “multiculturalism” to “super-diversity” in twenty-first-century fiction. Inevitably, given the size of the volume and the range of contributors, there are entries that lag or do little more than cycle through information, but they aren’t too frequent. It would be a shame, finally, not to mention Martin Priestman’s chapter on thrillers and crime fiction. Belly laughs are not what one expects from a literary anthology, and he delivers more than a few.
But does the wealth of literary activity since 1940 lend itself to any boldly new ideas about what the novel is or why it matters? In The Value of the Novel, Boxall aims to revive the notion that the novel form has an immanent, enduring value and, moreover, to usher in a new phase in literary theory (the combination of brevity and intense ambition gives the book a manifesto-like quality, although not always to its credit). His argument begins with a rudimentary, two-stage model of how thinking about literature has changed in Britain over the past century. In the first stage, according to Boxall, the critics and academics who were the architects of English as a modern discipline (figures such as F. R. Leavis and I. A. Richards) championed the idea that literature enshrined cultural value. Later, in the wake of poststructuralist thinking in the 1970s and 80s, this defining idea was displaced by the notion that the special role of “theory” – the term signifies the dissolution of firm boundaries between academic literary criticism and fields such as history, philosophy, anthropology, linguistics and so on – was to decode and undermine the values of the dominant culture. Essentially, the study of literature went from being an instrument for resisting cultural decay to a means of unravelling oppression.
The point of Boxall’s (very simplistic) sketch is to provide some context for what he describes as the “curious depletion [of] energy” in the humanities since the post-structuralist or postmodern theorists (the terms aren’t equivalent, but for the purposes of the argument the differences between them don’t matter) became part of the academic establishment. Although it is not exactly the case that post-structuralism has been superseded by new intellectual movements in recent decades, there is a general feeling that it no longer sets minds on fire in the same way. This fading sense of purpose in literary studies has been compounded by the emergence of a fresh set of external threats to the humanities. (The details of this crisis should be familiar to us all by now: the “democratization” of value claims via the internet, the steady subsuming of university culture beneath market imperatives, as well as the corresponding squeeze on “soft” subjects.) Consequently, the question of the humanities’ value has been taken up again with some urgency by a number of academics.
Boxall points to the work of Terry Eagleton as an example of how the climate has shifted since the heyday of cultural theory. In Literary Theory (1983), Eagleton dismissed the idea that any such thing as literature existed, “in the sense of a set of works of assured and unalterable value, distinguished by certain shared inherent properties”. By the time of How To Read Literature (2013), on the other hand, Eagleton had become so distressed by the perceived decline in critical standards he worried literature might disappear if an effort wasn’t made to reassert its value. In effect, Boxall, who is clearly a child of poststructuralism, wants to marry the radical chic of the younger Eagleton with the protective instincts of the elder – to find a third way between Leavis and Jacques Derrida.
Boxall thread this needle by arguing that the essence of the novel is something that conti-nually escapes and resists evaluation, but – paradoxically enough – it is this very quality that gives the form its innate value. He never explain why he thinks this trait resides in novels and not, say, poetry or short fiction, nor is he specific about what distinguishes the modern novel (the novel “as it has developed since the early eighteenth century”, which is his real subject) from its precursors.
Nevertheless, it might be helpful to think of the argument in The Value of the Novel as a radical extension of the idea that the novel is the characteristic literary vehicle of a (modern, capitalistic) culture defined by instability. In Boxall’s account, the novel form acts as a piece of psychic equipment through which humans are able to apprehend and adjust themselves to the unknown; as a kind of mechanism for coping with change. His descriptions of this process sometimes sound rather mysterious. The novel, he says, operates “at the disappearing threshold between the world that exists and that which does not, between the world that we already know and understand and that which we have not yet encountered”. It nourishes our desire for order but at the same time it consistently draws our attention towards the “indistinctness at the heart of things”, the sense in which reality is neither as solid nor as plain as we might imagine. This dual capacity for reinforcing and exceeding conceptual thought is what Boxall describes as the “formal genetics” of the novel, “a genotype that underlies the phenotypical expressions of historical difference”. Its value, it seems, is that it cultivates a kind of profound epistemic receptiveness.
The substance of Boxall’s thesis is a series of close readings spread across five chapters (on the novelistic voice, literary realism, and the representation of the body, time and justice) in which latent similarities between vividly different authors are identified. Some of these discussions are very good. Dostoevsky and Hugo are used to illustrate the idea that our minds are drawn towards a spectral ideal of justice. Dickens and Samuel Beckett are combined to say something about the novel’s “progenitive voice”. There are energetic readings of Moby-Dick and Mrs Dalloway in the chapters on the body and time, respectively. Unfortunately, the argument quickly loses traction whenever Boxall shifts from textual analysis to grandiose claims about the novel’s significance. Conceptually speaking, The Value of the Novel is trying to do two things that are not obviously compatible: to say something about the novel’s innate value; but also to argue that it has a newly important function in the twenty-first century. In other words, the claim is that the novel’s value is both timeless and, at least to some extent, circumstantial. Boxall marries these two elements by arguing that because we live in an era defined by almost unimaginably complex phenomena (such as globalized capitalism and climate change) we would do well to hold on to a medium that helps us to grapple with things we find hard to understand. In the closing chapter of the Oxford History, Boxall and Cheyette likewise encourage their readers to have faith that the novel harbours “a kind of precognition in its uncreated depths”. The novel form contains “the promise of uncolonized and unlived time, the time in which anything might happen”, which is precisely what makes it so relevant in an era when history seems to have evaporated.
It is not that these various assertions are wrong exactly – how could they be disproven? – but they do verge on the mystical. Despite Boxall’s claim that he has no wish to revert to outdated critical models, The Value of the Novel ends up looking uncomfortably like one of those conventional pieces of theory that critics such as Eagleton put a lot of energy into tearing apart: a reverent examination of a series of well-regarded old books, which ultimately confers a quasi-religious value on literature, in this case as an instrument of prophecy.
Writers and critics find the sense of drift and aimlessness that Boxall and Cheyette are responding to so frustrating because it seems to trivialize the act of literature and, ultimately, makes it feel boring. Although Boxall doesn’t frame it in this way, The Value of the Novel comes across as a theory in search of excitement: from the lament for the lost energy of poststructuralism with which it begins, to the repeated (and unconvincingly insistent) claims that we are living “in a state of crisis” or at a time “of great transformation”. The fundamental problem is that excitement cannot be manufactured on demand. When we say that a cultural practice is “dead”, we do not mean, necessarily, that it has stopped happening, or even that it happens less than it used to, but that it no longer matters somehow. And we are talking about something akin to desires and emotional investments when we do so, not what is straightforwardly reasonable. Boxall never seems to ask himself whether the effort to persuade an audience that the novel-form is valuable is any different in kind from – for example – trying to persuade someone to be in love. Maybe it is, but an argument still needs to be made here. Together, The Value of the Novel and the editorial line in the seventh volume of the Oxford History amount to a thoughtful, well-intentioned and yet underwhelming case for the novel’s vitality. Not for the first time in the history of criticism, then, we might start to think more about the erotics of what we are trying to do.