What’s a Novel Good For?

March 17, 2021   •   By Andrew Koenig

The Novel and the New Ethics

Dorothy J. Hale

“EVERYBODY BEHAVES BADLY,” says Hemingway’s Jake Barnes. “Give them the proper chance.” Why read novels about people behaving badly? Can a novel about bad people do readers good? These questions about the real-world effects of fictional characters — not just their “reality effects” — have come to the fore in recent years with the ascendancy of autofiction, on the one hand, and the persistence of the stoutly character-driven novel, on the other: the kind where characters, and, by extension, readers, get to know, and accept, social others who are nothing like them. Whereas autofiction asserts a kind of apolitical license — it’s my life, so it doesn’t matter if my problems seem trivial and if everyone I know is exactly like me — it’s incumbent on the latter kind of novelist to make social difference legible, rather than erasing or tokenizing it. It’s a tall order, and between the demands of professional and lay critics, on and off Twitter, the bar for ethical fiction, in which characterization is the vehicle for moral instruction, keeps getting raised ever higher.

Enter Dorothy J. Hale’s The Novel and the New Ethics. Best known as editor of the definitive The Novel: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory, Hale tracks, in The Novel and the New Ethics, what she calls the “ethical turn” in modern fiction — a turn responsive to the increasing pressure that authors are under to perform ethical work. Hale’s subject might be seen to embrace two complementary propositions: first, that novels can better their readers; and second, that authors can and should convey the experience of others ethically and responsibly. The primary contention of The Novel and the New Ethics is that this “turn,” away from the Victorian cult of sympathy and toward a more tentative and diffident form of relationality, is what distinguishes the modern novel, which, for her, begins around 1900.

“The novelist’s success in the twentieth century,” writes Hale, “is increasingly judged by her capacity to represent the variety and autonomy of lives different from her own.” Although Hale doesn’t celebrate this ethical turn outright, her skepticism toward aesthetic definitions and defenses of the novel shows that she is far from lamenting it. Her book works to define a critical rubric for the ethical novel, one that privileges political commitments over aesthetic ones. (Hale is nonetheless careful to select novels of high artistic merit as her objects of study, perhaps to allay potential critics who might be quick to proclaim the “death of the novel” at the hands of various social pressures.) In Hale’s schema, “alterity” is the modern novelist’s White Whale — what writers try and fail again and again to capture.

It’s not Melville, however, to whom Hale ascribes the origins of the modern novel’s ethical project, but Henry James. James might, at first blush, seem an odd choice. His books deal primarily with the Anglo-American upper class; their thought and speech patterns come to have a kind of lustrous uniformity very few would readily associate with social difference. Yet Hale sees James as “launch[ing] the aesthetics of alterity,” an aesthetic whose social project is part and parcel with its form. In What Maisie Knew, one of Hale’s case studies, James tasks himself with portraying a little girl’s consciousness, and, by Hale’s account, succeeds. Never mind the charge that James’s narration of women’s inner lives (in this case, a little girl’s) is insidiously voyeuristic, even cruel; we’re right there in Maisie’s mind with him. Even critics like Toni Morrison — who takes James to task for the novel’s sketchily defined, heavily stereotyped Black “Countess” — are themselves being Jamesian. It’s only because James has already spoilt us with his penetrating insight into the mind of a little girl that we fault him for resorting to stock characterizations elsewhere.

This is the primary argumentative move of the first section of The Novel and the New Ethics. Through his fiction and his famed prefaces, James inaugurated a set of rules for novel writing by which he himself has come to be judged. Authors in the Jamesian tradition may not always get it right, but the rules of writing about others are seldom in question. Psychological subtlety and depth are prized; caricatures and cardboard characters are no-nos. Navel-gazing of the autofictional variety is to be eschewed.

Hale’s genealogy for the ethical novel culminates in the work of a small constellation of contemporary writers including Morrison and Ian McEwan, but the two polestars of Hale’s argument in the second part of the book are Zadie Smith and J. M. Coetzee. This choice is unsurprising. Both authors have commented on the vexed problem of writing about others and about race, while doing so themselves: Smith’s On Beauty and NW are about interracial marriages; Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians reckons with the legacy of colonialism. (Happily, Coetzee’s lesser-known Elizabeth Costello is Hale's primary case study.) Coetzee’s Disgrace, another of Hale’s case studies, about a literature professor who loses his post following an affair with a student, is — provided that one has a proper understanding of its irony and ambiguity — a moral tonic. (The Novel and the New Ethics does not always account for poor readers.) So is On Beauty.

Loosely based on Howards End, whose epigraph famously reads “Only connect,” On Beauty weaves a hopelessly tangled web of social relations. It’s reminiscent of a James adage: “Really, universally, relations stop nowhere.” Readers entangled in this web come to appreciate, above all, perspective and relativism. “The novel’s multiperspectivalism,” Hale writes, “becomes weighted with ethical value.” Multiperspectivalism epitomizes Hale’s model of ethical engagement. It’s a favored technique in contemporary fiction, one calculated to enlist the ethical faculties of the reader. Think Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry, which switches, midstream, from a white woman’s consciousness to that of an Iraqi American man, or An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, who has spoken of the challenge of splitting the narrative’s perspective between an incarcerated man, Roy, his wife Celestial, and her lover.

Whether multiperspectival switches succeed or not is another question. Hale herself shows us where Smith falters:

If you find Howard’s sexcapades amusing and I find them wearying, or if you regard Kiki as the novel’s feminist center and another reader sees her as hopelessly male-dominated, then we may come to believe that our difference in judgment is based as much on differences in subject position as on the novel’s artistry.

Yet Hale is unwilling to advance her own interpretation as definitive: the capacity of On Beauty to generate divergent critical responses is, instead, a sign of its success.

The implications of Hale’s argument here are significant. Divergent opinions of On Beauty may have less to do with its merits than our own prejudices. The two are admittedly always impossible to separate, but judgments of taste can turn in on themselves by Hale’s reasoning. If you don’t enjoy On Beauty, that means Smith is actually succeeding in unsettling your fixed assumptions about taste. If you do like it, that may be because the novelist hasn’t pushed you hard enough. As Hale writes of What Maisie Knew (and Morrison's critique of it): “The novel succeeds” (i.e., aesthetically) “because its author fails” (i.e., ethically). But what if you simply don’t like the novel?

Hale’s “fail better” thesis is a difficult one to refute, and its faintly corporate undertones give one pause. According to her criteria, the desire to lose oneself in a good story and escape the vexed problems of today is morally dubious. Failure, discomfort — having to reckon with hard truths and come to grips with social difference — count for a great deal. Yet a novel may very well succeed in exposing its own narrative failures and acknowledging its own blind spots while failing in other respects (namely aesthetic ones). One also begins to wonder whether simply naming one’s failures and one’s blind spots is a true substitute for the harder work of actually rectifying them.


It’s sometimes hard to tell whether Hale is heralding a transvaluation of critical criteria or simply documenting it. What is clear is that, while failure holds a privileged place in The Novel and the New Ethics, beauty, because of its pretensions to universality, is suspect. “To admire the novel as form,” Hale writes in one of the most polemical sections of the chapter on Smith, “is to risk trivializing or objectifying the social alterity that the novel claims as a primary ethical, social, and political good.”

The ethical and aesthetic are thus sundered in Hale’s schema. The opposition is contrived, in part, because it may no longer be tenable to equate the two — to accept the old-fashioned notion that a beautiful piece of literature by definition improves and uplifts the reader morally. It’s also by design. Hale’s project is one of redress: for too long we have been blind to the ethical import of literature. She wants to make us alive to the ethical dimension of novels, their ability to sharpen readers’ moral reasoning and increase tolerance for minds not like our own.

Her criticisms of the therapeutic and aesthetic aspects of literature, however, are sometimes more provocative than they are persuasive. Hale has a bone to pick with a number of thinkers, among them Elaine Scarry, whose “On Beauty and Being Just” lent Smith the title of her novel. “Is the love of beauty a product of a class position that allows the opportunity for leisured contemplation that is experienced by the privileged as ‘free’?” asks Hale. “Is [Scarry’s] epistemological certainty […] the interpretive confidence accorded to those who occupy elite professorships?” Similar criticisms, once again conveyed in a flurry of rhetorical questions, are lobbed in the book’s conclusion at Rita Charon, who has written on literature's curative properties. “[The] campfire is [Charon’s] figure for the primacy of storytelling as not just a human but a humanizing act,” Hale writes. “But where is this campfire? Who gets to speak first? Who gets to sit at the fire? What counts as a story for those assembled?” Elsewhere Hale faults Charon for not “consider[ing] the political and cultural construction of the body that dictates who can touch whom in the clinician’s office, who might be clothed and who unclothed.” These passages almost sound like a parody of the kind of assiduous moral reasoning that goes on elsewhere in The Novel and the New Ethics.

“For the new ethicist,” Hale writes, “literature does not technically teach us anything at all — unless we understand learning as the overthrow of epistemology by experience, the troubling of certainty by an apprehension that comes through surprised feeling.” Where a Jane Austen novel might tell you how to act in certain situations — being snubbed, jilted, misunderstood — a novel today tells you how not to act — how not to impose yourself on others, how not to presume upon their experience. The reader can congratulate himself after finishing a novel that he, along with the author, has assessed and acknowledged lines of social difference and reoriented himself accordingly. But this vision of novel-reading itself demands scrutiny. Hale probes into the various ideological ends implied by the “new ethics,” but not always with the same depth and forcefulness she employs elsewhere.

There’s also a cruder objection to be made: most writers aren’t very good people. And if the novel is to be accepted as an educational tool, then it may very well matter whether authors are themselves ethical actors or not. I don’t care for this line of reasoning, but The Novel and the New Ethics does invite it. Hale’s argument implicitly places the author on a pedestal as a moral agent. Good people make good novelists; the very best people make great novelists. The doubtful implications of the argument sometimes cast doubt on the book’s central claim.

Hale’s narrow definition of the contemporary novel is, ultimately and inevitably, the main objection to be leveled against The Novel and the New Ethics. Any book of this sort lays itself open to the old charge that it’s impossible to say what “the novel” is or should be. It’s a fool’s errand — novels can be anti-establishment or conservative, minimalist or maximalist, funny or sad. Even so, Hale’s putative ideal — the novel that ethically engages with alterity — seems restrictive. Which “novel” is Hale talking about? If one were to situate her intervention within the history of novel theory, you might say that this is, pace Henry James, an endorsement of the realist novel over the art novel.

The novel of the “new ethics” is not all novels, however. It’s not even most. But insofar as The Novel and the New Ethics describes a subset of highbrow literary fiction — a small but significant corner of the literary marketplace — it is an astute, oftentimes convincing study. You might choose to see this study as the history of a certain kind of novel, and, equally, an endorsement of a certain kind of reading.


Andrew Koenig is a PhD candidate in English at Harvard. His essays have appeared in The New Haven Independent and The New Criterion.