The Art of “The Novel”

September 29, 2014 | 10 books mentioned 10 7 min read
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Alright, look: Michael Schmidt’s The Novel: A Biography is big. Like, really big. In every sense of the word. At just under 1,200 pages, the book tackles the subject of the novel in English, a 700-year history. Its pages are densely researched and necessarily erudite. The print is small, and the thing weighs over six pounds. It took me over two months to read it in its entirety. Like I said, it’s big.

covercoverBut I am going to try to convince you that The Novel is one of the most important works of both literary history and criticism to be published in the last decade, surpassing even such monumental works as Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors’s A New Literary History of America and John Sutherland’s The Lives of the Novelists. The reason Schmidt’s book is so effective and important has to do with its approach, its scope, and its artistry, which all come together to produce a book of such varied usefulness, such compact wisdom, that it’ll take a lot more than a few reviews to fully understand its brilliant contribution to literary study.

Do I sound hyperbolic? Well, hear me out. First, let’s begin with Schmidt’s approach and its relation to his project’s inevitable place in the canon. Schmidt states, in his introduction, his intention to allow the story of the novel to be “mainly told by novelists and through novels.” Thus he completely eradicates the presence of critics. Rather than a snide excision, this technique enormously improves his enterprise, for what is the most basic element of the novel’s narrative than influence from one practitioner to another? Here we are given Edith Wharton’s preference of calling the Gothic “the eerie,” and Virginia Woolf referring to same as “a parasite, an artificial commodity, produced half in joke in reaction against the current style, or in relief from it.” Here we learn of Jane Austen’s commendation of Maria Edgeworth and how Charles Dickens’s viewed the estate of Sir Walter Scott as “a warning to himself”:

I saw in the vile glass case the last clothes Scott wore. Among them an old white hat, which seemed to be tumbled and bent and broken by the uneasy, purposeless wandering, hither and thither, of his heavy head. It so embodied Lockhart’s pathetic description of him when he tried to write, and laid down his pen and cried, that it associated itself in my mind with broken powers and mental weakness from that hour.

coverWe learn which of H.G. Wells’s novels Henry James viewed as expressing Wells’s “true voice.” We learn that Jonathan Franzen puts Elmore Leonard in the same “entertainer” category as P.G. Wodehouse. We read Michael Crichton’s review of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five: “The ultimate difficulty with Vonnegut is precisely this: that he refuses to say who is wrong…He ascribes no blame, sets no penalties.” (Schmidt refers to Crichton’s career as “almost cynically contrived, fiction as speculation.”) I could go on and on with examples, but the point is that, here, collected in one place, we have the largest repository of the greatest novelists’ opinions and views on other novelists. It would take the rest of us going through countless letters and essays and interviews with all these writers to achieve such a feat. Schmidt has done us all a great, great favor.

The approach coupled with the scope (covering, as it does, a huge swath of time) results in maybe the most complete history of the novel in English ever produced. As Schmidt writes early on, he “set out to write this book without an overarching theory of the novel,” which basically means he precludes strict emphasis on historicity, movements, and linear evolution. Instead, he focuses on influence––that beautifully organic (yet inexact) process of thoughts begetting thoughts, ideas begetting ideas and styles begetting styles––which, Schmidt’s book implicitly argues, matters much more than the cultural context of any of the works.

Take, for example, Thomas Love Peacock, a marginal figure now but an important one in his time and, in many ways, the history of literature. The way in which Peacock is presented in The Novel typifies Schmidt’s multitudinous achievement. First of all, Schmidt gives Peacock (like he does for every writer discussed at any length) a short biography, replete with insights into how his circumstances relate to his work: after a lengthy hiatus, it was only after Peacock’s wife died that he “began again, more fluently” to write. Secondly, Schmidt, an uncannily astute critic, punctuates this section (like all sections) with critiques of the authors’ work: Peacock’s “masterpiece,” Crochet Castle (1831) is “marred by a strain of anti-Semitism” and “complemented by a vexing hostility to the Scots and their Caledonian hubris.” Moreover, Peacock himself…

…is memorable for the brightness of the entertainment, the leavening and sweetening of the verses breaking the dialogue, changing the key of a description. How various are Peacock’s poetic registers: he can do the voices of the Romantics (Byron in particular), and he can do his own voice.

covercoverBut what makes Peacock as rendered by Schmidt so fascinating (and Schmidt makes countless writers function this same way) is way he’s contextualized within the framework of other writers. John Fowles, Schmidt tells us, referred to him as “Austen-drowned Peacock,” as Peacock “came in the wake of another writer whose success eclipses his as surely as Shakespeare’s eclipses Ben Jonson’s.” Austen has, in the centuries since, become the esteemed figure; Peacock may have had a better position in the canon if it weren’t for such basically arbitrary timing. Moreover, Peacock was the man who inspired Percy Shelley’s A Defense of Poetry, a vital work of criticism, “though all references to Peacock have been edited out of modern editions.” Further, Peacock relationship to Shelly and his wife Mary, leads to many odd synchronicities. Peacock’s book Nightmare Alley (which itself has much in common with Austen’s Northanger Abbey) was published the same year as Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, 1818. Shelley’s novel nearly succumbed to the same legacy of Peacock, namely that it almost didn’t have one. “Half a century ago,” Schmidt writes, “in The English Novel, Walter Allen did not mention Mary Shelley,” for her book “remained a feature of children’s horror literature” and “was not taken seriously.” But Shelley, who resented her husband’s patronage of Peacock (who became her husband’s executor), has since been critically reconsidered, while Peacock remains in the formidable shadows of extraordinary contemporaneous women.

I’ve barely even scratched at the first third of Schmidt’s book here, but I have to accept certain limitations reviewing Schmidt’s masterpiece. There is simply too much to represent to you. Later, as the story moves closer to the present and the structure of his book takes considerably more radical forms (such as the virtuoso chapter “Truths in Fictions, the Metamorphosis of Journalism”), Schmidt furthers his technique and, more importantly, his almost/kind of/sort of thesis, which is that the novel’s refusal to be accurately categorized, or concretely defined by such-and-such characteristics, is its principal quality. It has an almost osmotic ability to absorb features from various other sources, to combine elements from art and reality to depict something closer to actual lived experience, yet still remain stubbornly artificial, autonomous, so that the distinctions between art and life are starkly clear. Consequently, the novel form’s multiplicity allows, like novels themselves, for dimensions of inexpressible depth. Despite all of Schmidt’s hundreds of thousands of words on the subject, in the end the only term he has for this quality is a “something.”

coverWhich brings me to Schmidt’s astounding artistry. None of what I’ve described above would have mattered in the least had Schmidt’s prose been a snoozer to read. But in every way possible––from entertaining style to convincing authority to elements of undeniable personality––Schmidt’s writing is a triumph of critical acumen and aesthetic elegance. Unafraid to insert his opinions, Schmidt declares, for example, that David Foster Wallace’s “importance as writer…is in the essays he wrote and the original ways in which he wrote them,” not his novels. About Samuel Richardson, Schmidt proclaims in exasperation: “Yet how tedious Samuel Richardson can be!” He defends Stephen King, saying that although his “bibliography is vast…the novels are generally substantial and serious in intent.” Again, I could go on and on. Similarly, Schmidt is willing to invoke personal memories while discussing a text. On James Fenimore Cooper, he notes that his father read The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757 (1826) to him and his brother because Cooper’s novels were “assumed to be good books for reading aloud,” and that he, Schmidt, was “haunted” by “scenes of brutality.”

Schmidt occasionally surprises with the beauty of his prose––as when he writes of William Beckford that in Vathek: an Arabian Tale (1786), “The reality of the novel merges with the stage paste of romantic masque”––as well as his humor. He notes that Mary Shelley was “linked to that of the American writer Washington Irving,” but that a romance was unlikely, “Irving being a confirmed bachelor or, modern biographers suggest, ‘a confirmed bachelor.'” Or when he finally arrives at a full-on chapter about Modernism, he opens it with this cheeky introduction: “It is not possible to postpone the high tides of modernism any longer,” as if, like history itself, he tried valiantly to resist it.

But it is the narrative, as told by Schmidt, that wows. He is able make a story with no “characters,” a novel with no “plot,” feel as dramatic and absorbingly propulsive as the best kinds of fiction. Part of this has to do with Schmidt’s apparent passion, which appears on every single page, but most of the tome’s energy comes straight from Schmidt’s preclusion of a strict critical approach. He wants to tell a story, not espouse indirectly the import of a given critical approach. Thus, he combines biography, analysis, memoir, and history into a hybrid monster, a modern Prometheus revitalized by Schmidt’s ambition and skill. He’s just so damned sensible, it’s hard to not follow his voice wherever it goes.

That Schmidt refuses, in such a lengthy work, to provide an overall assessment of the novel itself (save for his “something“) remains the book’s greatest strength. As Susan Sontag points out in her seminal essays “Against Interpretation” and “On Style,” the tendency to reduce a given work down to what it’s really saying is gravely erroneous. The illusory distinction between “form” and “content” is needless and harmfully furthers the notion that a “curtain could be parted and the matter revealed.” Style is not, in other words, the mere packaging of content, to be ripped open for the present inside. For anyone to try to objectively name the true “meaning” of an individual novel––i.e. to state the work’s content––would be, ultimately, doing a disservice to the art. Schmidt, too, understands this, that novels––as well as the story of the novel––are not to be reduced to an ingestible and comfortable conclusion. Rather, the story itself is all the meaning we need.

To reiterate: Schmidt has done me, you, all of us, a heroic favor in telling this story. In one single volume, he has synthesized myriad biographies of vastly contrasting artists, the nonlinear trajectory of their influence (good and bad) on each other, the various forms the novel has taken over its celebrated history, and a singular voice that pushes this complex tale along. The Novel: A Biography is a big book, yes, but it is also a big book, a piece of academic, intellectual work that doesn’t succumb to the insular (and boring) habits of much academic, intellectual work. It is a monumental achievement, in its historical importance and its stylistic beauty. The Novel, I believe, is a novel, the protagonist a murky, somewhat indescribable figure––the ultimate unreliable narrator––that Schmidt renders as real and human and flawed as anyone else before him. It is, itself, a work of art, just as vital and remarkable as the many works it chronicles.

is a literary critic. He is a staff writer for Literary Hub and a regular contributor to The Georgia Review and The Millions. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Tin House, The Atlantic, The New Republic, LA Review of Books, Read It Forward, The Rumpus, Chautauqua, PANK, and numerous others. For more, visit jonathanrussellclark.com or follow him @jrc2666.

10 comments:

  1. Have had this on my to-be-read pile for some time and am very glad to see it getting further press.

    Jonathan, are you familiar with Steven Moore’s even more monumental The Nove: An Alternative History? For me, that’s the benchmark against which I’ll be measuring Schmidt’s book.

  2. I recently finished it; it was the best book I’ve read in a very long time. Highly recommended. (Now I am reading Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets).

  3. It sounds as if the two Moore volumes and Schmidt’s book can be considered complementary, since Moore stops at 1800.

  4. This sounds like a book the world really needs, letting the writers speak for themselves!
    Literary theory, unfortunately, is the contraceptive of choice for a scholar before s/he lies down with a good book.

  5. I’m sick of academia treating literary theory as if it takes precedent over the writers and the books themselves! This book sounds like a perfect companion to Moore’s–I believe he’s still working on his followup, too. Not sure if it covers 1800 to today or if it sticks to the 19th Century and leaves the 20th for a future volume. Either way, it’s great to see others feel the same about theory and its suffocating, minimizing stranglehold on literary criticism.

  6. Peacock’s novel is titled Nightmare Abbey; Nightmare Alley is an outstanding work of crime fiction by William Lindsay Gresham.

  7. Your writing is incredibly self-indulgent and what you’re reviewing is not literary criticism. You even say as much, before undermining what you say.

  8. Although Schmidt gets the occasional detail wrong — he twice mentions that Cooperstown is located along Lake Champlain — I suppose that can be expected given the ambitious scope of this book. It ain’t perfect, but it is the most thorough recent examination of the evolution of the novel in the Western world.

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