What are not novels?

“Novel (noun): a fictitious prose narrative of book length, typically representing character and action with some degree of realism. . . . ORIGIN mid 16th cent.: from Italian novella (storia) ‘new (story)’, feminine of novello (new), from Latin novellus, from novus (new). The word is also found from late Middle English till the 18th cent. in the sense a novelty, a piece of news, from Old French novelle.” (American Heritage Dictionary)

Ever since 1977, when my third-grade teacher told us, “Now, class, take out your novels, and turn to page 38,” I have had to fight the tendency to understand the word “novel” as encompassing every kind of book-length printed work. Perhaps it’s because novels–unlike, say, works of historiography (=on the theory and practice of writing history) or verse-drama (such as Shakespeare’s plays) or even Enlightenment philosophy in its most belletristic or populist narrative modes (the Hume of the Essays; Burke and Rousseau in most things)–remain, even today, everyday objects, even when we read them on a Kindle.

When I relax with a book, it’s more likely to be Lesley Thomson’s The Detective’s Daughter (a novel) than Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality among Men (a work admittedly capable of speculative feats in its conjectural account of history, but still not a novel–too inconsistent in narration, lacking in dialogue and characters.) No one has ever read Kant’s Critique of the Power of Aesthetic Judgment in a bathtub. But even the hardest works of Henry James can be found in secondhand bookstores covered in the tell-tale wrinkles of dried splashes and submergences.

That my third-grade teacher and I are not alone in our tendency to see “novel” as a catchall term for books (texts, works) is clear from Clifford Siskin’s discussion, in his 1998 The Work of Writing, of what he calls “novelism.” Novelism, for Siskin, has two major outcomes: the folding into the conceptual category “novel” of all printed works, and the displacement of “the history of writing,” in all its multiplicity of manuscript and printed genres, short and long, official, elevated, or popular, by “the history of the novel” in the history of literary criticism and, subsequently, in popular understanding (172-3). Siskin argues that these folds and displacements began during the eighteenth century, as “writing” first became a household word, an everyday activity, a medium so common as to have become largely invisible as such. Siskin claims, following Raymond Williams, that during that century writing was thoroughly “naturalized” (Siskin 173; see also Williams 7). The developing familiarity, and eventual acceptance, of “the novel” was part of both processes. Viewed through the template of “the novel,” writing, like novels after novelism, came to appear as a force of nature: without a history, always present, usually comfortable even as it harbors dangers requiring active vigilance and containment.

Would yielding up the tendency to speak of all books as “novels” allow us to recapture something of the past and present dangers (that is to say, the seriously poetic agency, in the sense that poeisis means creation) of writing? Would it allow us, that is, to re-experience writing, in all its multiplicity, as a serious agent in the world? This, I think, is a crucially important consequence of Siskin’s project. Let’s, then, let philosophy be philosophy, and experience it in a context in which it is seriously discussed. (Last year, when two young men in Russia got into an argument about Kant, it ended when one shot the other. The stakes remain high.) Let ephemera be ephemera, and make an effort to read them: let polemic and sales pitches alike be heard with all the force of their original appeal. Let a hundred flowers bloom.

Yet, at the same time, let’s acknowledge that The Work of Writing also suffers from its tendency to experience “the [realist] novel” as distinct from all this: in short, as “safe” (193). This is a reading that accepts, in particular, the literary-historical characterization of Jane Austen’s novels, which Siskin calls “particularly narrow but thus admirably deep,” as especially secure and unthreatening works of writing (208). Siskin demonstrates that Austen’s novels were simultaneously praised and dismissed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, much as literature more broadly has come to be praised and dismissed in the contemporary academy and, perhaps, in the world at large. (Could literature ever be more than a decorative adjunct, a helpmeet, to Science, Technology, and Maths in the currently trendy STEaM acronym? Why else the lower-case ‘a’?) Indeed, Siskin importantly argues that, today, the praise of literature has precisely required its dismissal.

Austen’s novels were, for Siskin, “feminine” in the features of their pioneering mode of realism–what he takes to be their narrowness of geographic and thematic scope and their depth of psychological inquiry, which have come to serve as a model for “the novel” as it’s classically understood today (208). As a result, Austen’s works became milestones in the critical and, subsequently, the popular feminization of “literature,” which came about by means of the simultaneous naturalization and canonization of the novel. By “naturalization” I mean the ubiquity of the genre that resulted from the containment of its dangers. By “canonization” I mean the entry of the genre into classrooms and newspapers, where it remains as an (ever less important) component of the “general education” background to degrees in applied science and practical technology and as the focus of a(n ever shorter) pull-out section in the (dying) printed form of the daily newspaper.

Perhaps, if we were to reclaim the word “novel” to speak only of novels, we would be marking the historical newness of the novel that its proper name captures (novello, novelle) and registering our sense of wonder at the strangeness and continued inventiveness, generativeness, and variability of the genre, its range far beyond classic realism as it has retroactively been canonized. And perhaps we could also thereby reclaim something of this form’s own agency–and, not least, of the strange lingering poetic energy that has begun to be recovered even in Austen’s works.

Works Cited

Siskin, Clifford. The Work of Writing: Literature and Social Change in Britain, 1700-1830. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1998.

“Unreasonable critique of Kant leads to man being shot in Russian shop.” Guardian. 16 September 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/16/kant-philospohy-argument-turns-violent?CMP=twt_gu.

Williams, Raymond. Writing in Society. London: Verso, 1983.

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