Roger’s Rules

The Great American Novel?

Do you read a lot of contemporary novels? No, I don’t either. In the current issue of The Weekly Standard, I offer a few thoughts about why not. I argue that the place of the novel in our culture today, circa 2012, is very different from the place it occupied in the 19th-century or even up through the middle of the last century.

 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. . . .

It has often been observed that the novel is the bourgeois art form par excellence: that in its primary focus on domestic manners and morals, its anatomy of private vices and exercise of private virtues, it answered the spiritual needs of a specific historical epoch.

With the passing or maturation of that epoch, perhaps the novel, too, has matured or even graduated to the second infancy of senility. That theory would account for a good deal of what gets published and praised today, but I don’t think it tells the real story. It does seem as if there have been important alterations in the relation between life and literature—between life and the world of culture generally—and this is as much due to changes in the character of life as to changes in the character of culture.

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.

Read the whole thing here.