MLA: New Theories of the Novel

I actually spoke on this roundtable from a single page of notes, as is my preference; but then I typed up the notes for a friend and so here they are. I only spoke for 6 minutes so I’ve said more below, I think, than I said then… but for whatever reason (probably the same reason one hears one’s own voice differently from others the written stuff seems thinner… Hmm.

I have essentially six things to say having to do with the way that new theories of the novel might emerge from a more generous syncretism than the one with which we are familiar from the great examples of from the 1920s-1970s (Watt, Bakhtin, Frank, Lukacs, Auerbach).

1. Let’s say you want a new theory of the novel, with examples from beyond Europe. Quite quickly you encounter the general problem of the relationship between exemplarity and generality. At the lower limit of this problem you will find someone willing to say that the example determines the general absolutely; that is, that there can be no distance taken from the unit of the example and a general theory that would bind together examples. On this view all conceptual thought becomes impossible: even a general claim about a single novel would be merely a claim about the limited set of examples used to adduce it; only (again under this rubric) a general claim about the novel including all the sentences of the novel would be allowable, meaning that you would essentially just reproduce the novel, which would be a general example of itself.

So we need a theory of the relation between exemplarity and generality that does more than just that, while recognizing that any such theory will be potentially subject to the critique above, and also that since such a critique is inevitable and always possible it is of limited value.

The general always owes a debt to its examples; it never breaks fully free of their gravitational pull. 90 percent of the problems people have with general statements can be resolved if people simply would do a better job of recognizing the degrees to which their examples influence their theories; so for instance we wouldn’t be complaining about Ian Watt if he’d called it The Rise of the English Novel. Adjectives are good!

2. So now that you understand that, you still want a new theory of the novel. Assume you know what a novel is. Now it’s just a matter of choosing a reasonable number (and spread) of examples.

3. (a) But! This all depends on what you think a theory of something does. If you think a theory of something is supposed to explain primarily its origin and development over time then you will always have a Eurocentric theory of the novel because, honestly, the novel happens in Europe first (remember: we are assuming we know what a novel is). That’s no great tragedy—sometimes stuff happens in certain places first. But the point here is that the choice to make a theory of X something that primarily attempts to explain X in terms of origin and progress will tend to produce certain kinds of results. That would be ok if the only way to theorize something were to focus on progress, but it isn’t.

(b) Because in fact you can produce non-progress-oriented theories of things, via among other things structuralism. I have done this in On Literary Worlds so I won’t talk about it here.

4. Now, assume you don’t know what a novel is. Then you might want to think of other kinds of Venn diagrams that would include many of the things you currently think of as novels but also possibly some things that don’t (or alternatively that would include a smaller group of texts). That is, think about the ways in which your sense that you know what a novel is depends on the examples you’re using. And imagine what happens if you change the criteria for exemplarity. For instance, you could have a theory of prose fiction, which would include Genji, the Chinese classics, the Roman novels, and so on. Of course you would have to assume you know what prose is, and what fiction is.

5. Why is the question of the future of the novel different from the question of the future of the detective novel? Is this merely a matter of kind and degree, in which the larger category acquires a qualitative difference by virtue of its scope and size, one that makes the “end” of it or the question of its future terrifying? I am not scared of a future with no detective novels, a future with no novels seems completely impossible to me.

6. Nonetheless: can we imagine a future without the novel? On the ecosystemic evidence, I don’t think so. One of the things culture is good at is retaining in residual form aesthetic structures and genres that belong to (and expressed the deepest logics of) earlier historical ecosystems. See poetry and drama. Of course they survive in somewhat muted, less dominant forms. On the other hand this actually gives them more aesthetic freedom. So I cannot imagine a future in which the novel does not exist. But, pace Nancy Armstrong’s essay on “The Future of the Novel,” I feel no need to believe that the novel will always adapt and change so as to remain the dominant written form of its era. I’m not quite sure she is saying this but there is a touch of anxiety about whether the novel can continue as novel in her essay; whether the novel can weather the ecosystemic change produced by the transformation of the relation between family/individual and polity. I for one don’t care too much whether it can; if it cannot, there will be a new form. And in general I think one ought to hope for something like that—that is, one ought to hope that someday there will be an ecosystemic change such that the novel will no longer best (of the various available forms) speak to the patterns of social and historical being. To wish for something else is either to wish for a novel that can adapt to anything, or it is to wish that we are living in the end of history. I don’t think we should wish for either of those if we want to retain some reasonably ethical relation to the future… by which I mean a relation in which we remain capable of being surprised.

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