State of Affairs of the Novel

The Novel Is Not Dead. Despite Critics’ Best Attempts
by Jess Row Troy Holden

In 1941, as Panzer divisions closed in on Moscow, as Virginia Woolf slipped stones into her pockets and disappeared into the Ouse, Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin huddled in his room at the Gorky Institute of World Literature and wrote:

The novel comes into contact with the spontaneity of the inconclusive present; this is what keeps the genre from congealing. The novelist is drawn toward everything that is not yet completed. He may turn up on the field of representation in any authorial pose, he may depict real moments from his own life or make allusions to them. . . . After all, the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, between literature and nonliterature, are not laid up in heaven. Every specific situation is historical. And the growth of literature is not merely development and change within the fixed boundaries of any given definition; the boundaries themselves are constantly changing.

“Epic and Novel” was not published in Russian until 1975 (in the book The Dialogic Imagination) or in English until 1981. Thereafter, in academic circles, it became a seminal text, even something of a craze. In the broader culture, however, and especially in criticism of the contemporary novel, Bakhtin’s influence hardly registers. Perhaps because he arrived late on the scene, or because his work is dense, abstract, Hegelian, philological, and, on the surface, not very interested in the twentieth century—whatever the reason, it’s a shame, because in 2011 “Epic and Novel” still feels like news. At a time when funereal pronouncements and apocalyptic sentiments are all but universal in literary culture—The Death of the Novel, The Death of the Book, The Death of Print, The Death of Copyright—Bakhtin’s great heresy is to remind us that these crises are really more a continual state of dying and being reborn. Out of the most catastrophic circumstances—ravaged by bone disease; exiled to Kazakhstan; denied degrees, university posts; his manuscripts censored and lost—he reassures us, with sunny, grandfatherly certainty, that literature, unlike life, is a boat that always rights itself.

“Epic and Novel” is also a useful, if unwitting, counterpoint to two of Woolf’s most famous pieces of criticism: her 1924 essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” and its later companion “Modern Fiction,” which exercise a profound and crippling influence over contemporary American and British writing on the novel.

It is from Woolf that we get our sense that the novel is irrevocably divided into two kinds: new and retrograde. From her we inherit the feeling that all that matters in literature is “now,” that contemporary writing is a constant battle between the forces of innovation and life-giving freshness (“life,” “truth,” “the real”) and the turgid, sordid, compromised writers of yesteryear. Bakhtin would say such bifurcations are fatuous and a waste of time; I would go one step further and call them a convenient fiction, a chimera, and a sideshow. Or, to put it another way: there is no crisis of realism in contemporary fiction; there is only, among certain literary critics, a crisis of ownership, a last-ditch effort to keep debates over fiction stalled where they have been for nearly a century. What we have seen for the last ten years or so is a kind of proxy battle, very much in Woolf’s spirit, in which a contrived debate about novelistic method masks a silent—perhaps largely unintentional—effort to maintain cultural, racial, and geographic boundaries.

Read full article @ the Boston Review


~ by eneryvibes on 1,May 25, 2011.

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