Did anyone catch the online article The Great American Novel: Will there ever be another? by Roger Kimball the other day? You know, I should just stop reading stuff like this because it only ruffles my feathers and causes me to make indignant noises. But it’s kind of like a mosquito bite, I know I’m not supposed to scratch it but sometimes I just can’t help it.
So what got me worked up today? Plenty. Kimball claims the current state of American fiction is dreadful, so dreadful in fact that he really can’t read recent novels though he feels the need to page through one now and then but this only leaves him feeling unwell. And then he comes out with this:
This might be the appropriate moment to issue a disclaimer. I do not deny that there are good novels written today. I think, for example, of the spare, deeply felt novels of Marilynne Robinson, especially Gilead, her quiet masterpiece from a few years back. It might even be argued (I merely raise this as a possibility) that there are as many good novels being written today as in the past. It is sobering to reflect that between 1837—when Victoria ascended the throne and Dickens’s first novel, The Pickwick Papers, was published—and 1901—the year of Victoria’s death—some 7,000 authors published more than 60,000 novels in England. How much of that vast literary cataract has stood the test of time? How can we hope that our perfervid literary output will escape the exigent discriminations visited upon all prior periods? Jonathan Franzen. Bret Easton Ellis. Jay McInerney. Dave Eggers. Toni Morrison. Feel free to extend the list: Criticism is not prophecy, nevertheless I predict those and many other glittering darlings of the moment will be forgotten as surely as those 59,967 novels from the Victorian period whose names, for us, are writ in water.
Okay, so yes, a lot of what was written in the past has been forgotten and the majority of what has been written today will also be forgotten. That is the way literature works. But, to say that only 33 Victorian novels are still being read, and yes I know he just pulled a number out his ass, is ludicrous. Also it displays a distinct lack of understanding about what readers read. There might not be huge followings for certain Victorian novels, nor might they be taught in schools, but just because that is the case, it doesn’t mean no one remembers them or reads them.
But this is nothing in comparison to what he says later. He goes on to say that fiction occupies a less vital role in most people’s lives than it used to and because our relation to literature has changed it has also necessarily changed the novel:
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.
So here we go with the imagined golden age of literature when everyone was always reading and they never read trash. I also don’t buy into the argument that because literature is less culturally vital than it used to be, if we can even say that, that this makes it somehow lesser in quality because fewer people are reading it.
And there is another point, he is full of points:
My point is that even if a new Melville or Twain, Faulkner or Fitzgerald were to appear in our midst, his work would fail to achieve the critical traction and existential weight of those earlier masters. We lack the requisite community of readers, and the ambient shared cultural assumptions, to provide what we might call the responsorial friction that underwrites the traction of publicly acknowledged significance. The novel in its highest forms requires a certain level of cultural definiteness and identity against which it can perform its magic. The diffusion or dispersion of culture brings with it a diffusion of manners and erosion of shared moral assumptions. Whatever we think of that process—love it as a sign of social liberation or loathe it as a token of cultural breakdown—it has robbed the novel, and the novel’s audience, of a primary resource: an authoritative tradition to react against. Affirm it; subvert it; praise it; criticize it: The chief virtue of a well-defined cultural tradition for a novelist (for any artist) is not that it be beneficent but that it be widely acknowledged and authoritative.
Other than Twain, I don’t think these other writers were all that popular during their time. Of course they had successes but they weren’t exactly at the top of the bestseller list. What most annoys me though is his bemoaning the loss of a shared culture. Whose shared culture has been lost? Personally I find it difficult to mourn the loss of a Euro-centric patriarchal dead white men culture. I find the diversity of literature and thought and voices we have today invigorating and thought-provoking.
But the reason Kimball thinks so poorly of contemporary fiction seems to come down to, novels not, as he quotes Trilling, “involving the reader himself in the moral life, inviting him to put his own motives under examination.” Here again I think he is mistaken. Moral novels, American and otherwise, are being written all the time. And really, what novel doesn’t in some way deal with morals?
I think contemporary fiction is doing just fine. It’s not about to become irrelevant or die out. I know and you know plenty of readers and plenty of really good contemporary fiction that just might stand the test of time.