IN RECENT YEARS, while the bookish among us were bracing ourselves for the bookless future, stowing our chapbooks and dog-eared novellas in secret underground bunkers, the poet and scholar Michael Schmidt was writing a profile of the novel. The feat itself is uplifting. Bulky without being dense or opaque, The Novel: A Biography belongs on the shelf near Ian Watt’s lucid The Rise of the Novel and Jane Smiley’s livelier user manual, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. Taking as his guide The March of Literature, Ford Madox Ford’s classic tour through the pleasures of serious reading, Schmidt steers clear of the canon wars and their farcical reenactments. He doesn’t settle the question of whether Middlemarch makes us better people. He isn’t worried about “trigger warnings.” And he doesn’t care that a Stanford professor is actively not reading books. Instead, with humor and keen insight, he gives us the story of the novel as told by practitioners of the form. The book is meant for ordinary readers, whose interest is not the death of theory or the rise of program fiction, but what Schmidt calls, in a memorable line, “our hunger forexperience transformed.” Novelists themselves have been saying something similar for quite a while. Iris Murdoch claimed that the novel expands our “vocabulary of experience” and gives us “a truer picture of freedom.” James Baldwin tried to embrace “our twenty-four hour reality.” Unlike film or TV drama, the novel takes on the infinite realm of daily human experience — a radical, usually fatal project that nonetheless, every once in a while, yields astonishing results. Schmidt has genuine sympathy for those who think the genre has run its course. Still, he wants to assert its value, and takes a sensible approach. “A culture of contempt,” he writes, “cannot be answered with contempt: There is much to be said, if the king is naked, for children to point and say so. But when the king is brilliantly attired and the children point, it is best to reason with them.”
Schmidt shares the work of defining the novel with several illustrious predecessors. Ambrose Bierce, in The Devil’s Dictionary, calls it “a short story padded.” E. M. Forster names the ingredients: “human beings, time, and space.” The chapters are arranged to illustrate the novel’s ever-widening scope; Schmidt, meanwhile, argues convincingly that irony is key. From Samuel Richardson’s faux-allegories to Henry James’ points of view, the ironic perspective stands out as the novel’s foremost innovation. Georg Lukács, the Marxist theorist, agrees, though he is less sanguine: “The writer’s irony is a negative mysticism to be found in times without a god.” James Wood, author of How Fiction Works, dwells on the novel’s famous “free indirect style,” also a species of irony. Irony, Schmidt points out, is what distinguished the novel — “a form that grows with protestant individualism, education, technology, and capitalism” — from allegory, which has its roots in medieval Christianity. Rudyard Kipling called John Bunyan “the Father of the Novel / Salvation’s first Defoe,” but Schmidt draws a useful line in the sand between The Pilgrim’s Progress and Robinson Crusoe. The former is too earnest, too didactic, too “whole-heartedly” allegorical, although it clearly lays the groundwork for Richardson’s Pamela. Ian Watt makes a similar case: Defoe invented the English novel by dropping the “transcendental schema.” Crusoe may claim that a certain event is owing to “Divine Providence,” but the facts of the story suggest otherwise; really, what we witness is a “secularization of his outlook.” Karl Marx noticed that Crusoe’s prayers were merely “recreation.”
If Defoe was the first to write one in English, novel enthusiasts generally agree that it all started with Don Quixote, a burlesque of romance and chivalry published in 1605. Lukács calls it “the first great battle of interiority against the prosaic vulgarity of outward life.” The “picaresque” novel soon became part of the English tradition, too. One prototype is Thomas Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveler, narrated by Jack Wilton, an unruly court page. Another is Gulliver’s Travels, which allows its author, Jonathan Swift, to square his moral impulse with his deep revulsion for humankind. (His goal, he said, was to “vex the world.”) Henry Fielding claimed to discover “a new province of writing,” a combination of prose fiction and mock-heroic drama; less well known is Tobias Smollett’s The Adventures of Roderick Random (John Barth calls it “a healthy, hard-nosed counteragent to the cult of love.” Laurence Sterne famously tested the form’s limits with Tristram Shandy.
Early novels undermine the category of “gentleman” (or, in Cervantes’ case, hidalgo) — a concept invented by Europeans once money became more important than honor. The modern novel extends this theme. In Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, in the novels of Orwell, Forster, and Farrell, corrupt moral values are deftly exposed and genuine impulses valorized. The novel becomes the testing ground for a civilization’s high ideals. It teaches, as Walter Benjamin wrote of Don Quixote, “how the spiritual greatness, the boldness, the helpfulness of one of the noblest of men…are completely devoid of counsel and do not contain the slightest scintilla of wisdom.”
For all it’s anti-wisdom, though, the novel is not a cynical form. Schmidt cites V. S. Pritchett’s reading of Thomas Carlyle as an example. Pritchett calls Sartor Resartus “a masterpiece of the grotesque,” a funny book untainted by “the poison of satire.” Jane Austen, too, is singled out for using the form to its greatest effect. Nabokov, while teaching at Cornell, liked to point out that Austen kept her characters’ sincerity balanced against the narrator’s irony. Joseph Conrad had a more exalted sense of what the novel could do. Here is his famous description of the novelist’s appeal:
His appeal is made to our less obvious capacities: to that part of our nature which, because of the warlike conditions of existence, is necessarily kept out of sight within the more resisting and hard qualities — like the vulnerable body within a steel armour. His appeal is less loud, more profound, less distinct, more stirring — and sooner forgotten. Yet its effect endures forever. The changing wisdom of successive generations discards ideas, questions facts; demolishes theories. But the artist appeals to that part of our being which is not dependent on wisdom; to that in us which is a gift and not an acquisition — and, therefore, more permanently enduring. He speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity; and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation — and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity — the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.
For Adam Smith, what makes us human is not necessarily reason, or speech, or the ability to form concepts, or to establish trade networks, or to create joint-stock companies, or to design communication devices. Instead, it is our unique ability to respond to “sentiments” — the passions and feelings of others. D. H. Lawrence, as Schmidt reminds us, agreed: “It is the way our sympathy flows and recoils that really determines our lives,” he wrote. “And here lies the vast importance of the novel, properly handled. It can inform and lead into new places the flow of our sympathetic consciousness, and it can lead our sympathy away in recoil from things gone dead.” American novels explore the sympathetic consciousness in dramatic ways. In Moby-Dick, Ishmael is forced to acknowledge Queequeg’s humanity (“Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”). In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the conscience of a nation plays out in the mind of an aimless boy. Twentieth century novels turn on the question of sympathy, too. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nathanael West expose the American dream as a dangerous Hollywood fantasy that leads to alienation rather than connection, Hemingway uses plain words to counter the fraudulent valor of statesmen, and Dos Passos proves that history happens behind the headlines and newsreels, in the reality of relationship.
Given its strong loyalty to actual human experience, the novel tends to parody any systematic approach to human life. Hence the theorists of “world religion” in George Eliot and Zora Neale Hurston; the suspicion of anthropology in V. S. Naipaul and Saul Bellow; and the germ of entropy common to Pynchon, Vonnegut, Heller, and Gaddis. Language, surely as systematic as religion and anthropology, is also fair game. Orwell admired Joyce for exposing the “imbecilities of the inner mind”; by parodying the language of priests, nationalists, academics, and barflies, Joyce stripped the Irish landscape of its arbitrary divisions. Ulysses, while an extreme case, offers what Muriel Spark once claimed all good novels should offer — that is, “liberation of our minds from the comfortable cells of lofty sentiment in which they are confined and never really satisfied.”
Free from lofty sentiment, we are forced to establish an earthier kind — forced, in other words, to identify with the messy lives of other people.“I believe,” writes Virginia Woolf in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” “that all novels deal with character, and that it is to express character — not to preach doctrines, sing songs, or celebrate the glories of the British Empire, that the form of the novel, so clumsy, so rich, elastic, and alive, has been evolved.” This is, of course, a lofty sentiment itself, and considering all the violence and mayhem inflected by so-called civilized cultures with rich literary traditions, the remarkable staying power of such claims is somewhat surprising. In the final chapter of Mimesis, Erich Auerbach’s critical masterpiece, he quotes a section of To the Lighthouse to showcase a new kind of “realism.” What Woolf is attempting, he says, and what the modern novel in general attempts, is
to put the emphasis on the random occurrence, to exploit it not in the service of a planned continuity of action, but in itself. And in the process something new and elemental appeared: nothing less than the wealth of reality and depth of life in every moment to which we surrender ourselves without prejudice. To be sure, what happens in that moment — be it outer or inner processes — concerns in a very personal way the individuals who live in it, but it also (and for that very reason) concerns the elementary things which men in general have in common. It is precisely the random moment which is comparatively independent of the controversial and unstable orders over which men fight and despair; it passes unaffected by them, as daily life. The more it is exploited, the more the elementary things which our lives have in common come to light […] It is still a long way to a common life of mankind on earth, but the goal begins to be visible. And it is most concretely visible now in the unprejudiced, precise, interior and exterior representation of the random moment in the lives of different people.
Mimesis was written in Istanbul, Turkey, where the author had fled to escape the Nazis; his reading is therefore highly charged with wartime melancholy, and yet he seems to detect in the novel the glimmer of a better future.
Today’s novels may not envision “a common life of mankind on earth.” They do, however, address the problem of being a self in society — which, for Schmidt, is the whole idea. Good novels prove that in the absence of religion, ideology, or any inherited value system, people can — against the odds — forge a conscience of their own, based on natural sympathy. The problem is that this conscience is often forged in isolation. Defoe, in his preface to Robinson Crusoe, acknowledges this explicitly. Though he cheers the protestant turn that gives us a newfound “individualism,” he also strikes an ambivalent note:
What are the sorrows of other men to us, and what their joy? Something we may be touched indeed with by the power of sympathy, and a secret turn of the affections; but all the solid reflection is directed to ourselves. Our meditations are all solitude in perfection; our passions are all exercised in retirement; we love, we hate, we covet, we enjoy, all in privacy and solitude. All that we communicate of those things to any other is but for their assistance in the pursuit of our desires; the end is at home; the enjoyment, the contemplation, is all solitude and retirement; it is for ourselves we enjoy, and for ourselves we suffer.
This is the novel’s sad paradox: we sympathize, but we do it alone. It’s a pretty straightforward conundrum, which is why scholars feel the need to apply sophisticated terms, lest the public suspect their job is to study people’s feelings. For Martha Nussbaum, the novel offers a “paradigm” for engaged, attentive thought. Franco Moretti sees it as a “locus” of bourgeois ideology. In his recent book The Deliverance of Others: Reading Literature in a Global Age, the critic David Palumbo-Liu uses the term “alterity” (“respecting the otherness of the other”) to navigate the ethical terrain of the global literary marketplace. For Palumbo-Liu, the process of globalization has disrupted traditional concepts of the self and the other, and it is straining our energy as readers. “The adjudication of how much otherness we need to encounter and grapple with in order to be better people,” he writes, “and how much will prove to be our undoing” — this, he suggests, is both a political and logistical problem.
The logistical problem is real. If forging a conscience is the goal, then why not simply embrace the internet, and forget about the novel? “Only connect!” is obsolete. We’re already connected! Why pick up a copy of a novel like In the Light of What We Know, the debut novel of Zia Haider Rahman, when every major subject and theme of the book — Bangladesh, Afghanistan, the global financial system, Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem — is discussed at greater length and in more detail online? Ethan Zuckerman, the activist and technologist who works at MIT, makes a fairly convincing case that fiber optic cable is more powerful than artful prose. Speaking at a conference on media reform, he said, referring to the internet: “It’s like we are building a giant empathy machine.”
Clearly, though, there’s something missing from our digital lives, and nobody is more aware of this than novelists themselves, whose job it is dramatize the age of total connectivity. In Gary Shteyngart’s dystopian novel, Super Sad True Love Story, the characters’ lives are mediated to the point of tragic absurdity. In Tao Lin’s Taipei, a depressive writer spends untold hours “looking at the internet,” a fine image of disconnected connectivity. And in Scott Hutchins’ debut novel A Working Theory of Love, a computer start-up in Menlo Park, California, tests the threshold of human consciousness. In the extreme conditions the authors’ create, human life has become inferior to data simply because it is mortal. The classic gesture toward immortality — self-transcendence through love or art — is complicated by the illusion of infinite life online. Hutchins incorporates early theories of artificial intelligence — notably, those of Alan Turing, a pioneering British mathematician — that explore whether machines could ever be made to think like human beings. The protagonist, a charming divorcee bemused by West Coast life, communicates with his dead father using software based on a posthumous diary. What makes the novel intriguing — apart from its fondly satirical portrait of 21st century San Francisco — is the way it explores an age-old problem — that of the nature of the writer’s “voice.” The novel shows that “voice” is to writing what “artificial intelligence” is to programming: a simulation that mimics the deep complexities of the human mind. Joshua Ferris’ latest novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, uses the theme of identity theft to pose a similar question: how well do we know ourselves? In that novel, a hacker from a mysterious cult has accessed a dentist’s Facebook account and sends him the following email:
Here is what I know about your life. You’re an indoor man because your profession demands it. You feel estranged from nature, unable to access it. You’ve replaced it with television and the Internet, which come directly into your home, and supply your need for diversion even as they coarsen your instinct for spirit. […] You are too much in your own head, trying to unravel the mysteries. Sometimes they make you despair and you give up hope. However, there’s nothing wrong with being in your head. In your head, with your thoughts, you live a rich and complex life, full of anxieties and regrets, yes, but also tenderness, and fancy, and unspoken sympathy for others. There is a lot of emotion coursing through you at any given moment of the day, and maybe nobody can read your mind, but if they only knew, if they knew, they would say, He’s alive, all right, he’s alive. You can’t ask for much more than that. Or can you?
Ferris’ book turns out to be a sustained argument against suicide. On the surface, it’s a comic novel, a send-up of the United States’ chronic addiction to exercise, sports, and “me-machines.” And yet it offers, cunningly, a new vocabulary of experience, and a more coherent description of the way we live and communicate. Novels, even at this late stage, are still offering more or less what Joseph Conrad said they should: “encouragement, consolation, fear, charm — all you demand — and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.” If despair, as Flannery O’Connor believed, is the refusal of experience, and if communing with fictional characters can be counted as experience, then reading a novel is “good for us” insofar as it fights despair. We are invited to see new value in life — a darker shade of romantic love, a gentler pattern of regret, a hidden tributary of joy. We take part in what Milan Kundera calls “the conquest of being.”
Novels have not disappeared, then. Nor has literature become a minor branch of cognitive science. If there’s a crisis, it’s not necessarily the decline of English departments or the rise of Amazon. It’s the loss of reading as experience — immersive, transcendent, challenging, confounding, restorative experience. “Connectivity” alone won’t solve the problem of self in society, which doesn’t mean one needs to become a Luddite. It may be true, as Ethan Zuckerman claims, that the internet will turn out to be “a giant empathy machine.” And yet, as any reader knows, we’ve already had one for centuries.