Essays on the novel

I’ve now read the first five essays in Franco Moretti’s book on the novel (I wrote about the first essay here), and so far the verdict is mixed, although that’s not really a surprise, given the range of material included. I didn’t finish the second essay, as I found it unreadable — or least not worth the trouble of trying to make sense of out it. The writing was dense and the argument elusive in that way academic writing can unfortunately sometimes be. I don’t mind working hard if I sense there’s a payoff or if it’s a topic I’m interested in — in fact I’m happy working hard in these conditions — but I read enough of this essay to know it wasn’t going to win me over.

But the next three essays were better. One of them is called “Historiography and Fiction in Chinese Culture,” and it discusses the relative importance and respect granted to fiction and history in China up until the early 20C, history being the genre with all the respect, and fiction getting very little:

Since historiography was the highest genre, fiction had to justify its existence by claiming to serve as its popularized illustration, or as its supplementation. Therefore, fiction hardly represented the genuine spirit of Chinese culture but rather its distorted exposition. Some critics even regard Chinese fiction as the expression of the social unconscious, which was silenced in “normal” cultural discourses but let loose in those “inferior” genres.

This essay and others like it make me wish I had copies on hand of the novels under discussion so I could understand more concretely what’s being argued. Or maybe not? When I look some examples up at Amazon, what I find are books like this: Outlaws of the Marsh, a four volume set with 2,149 pages! At any rate, I’m learning things about the history of the novel I certainly never knew before.

Another essay traces the origins of the ancient Greek novel, arguing that rather than originating from one early example, the Greek novel developed from a number of different types of stories that slowly converged into one genre. This essay taught me a lot about the various forms of Greek fiction — and I was only barely aware that such a thing existed — but it did assume that the reader already had a certain amount of knowledge about Greek prose, and so it wasn’t as useful an introduction as it could have been. I’m discovering that about these essays — a general reader can follow any of them, but many of them are best read by someone who already has a solid base of knowledge about the topic. So the essays that mean the most to me are those about areas I’m familiar with — novels from the West in the last few centuries.

So, Walter Siti’s essay “The Novel on Trial” I found quite intriguing; he charts suspicious attitudes towards fiction in the West, pointing out that:

Of all the literary genres, the novel is the only one that feels the need to deny itself.

I come across this attitude in 18C novels frequently — the claim that novels are bad, which appears in the novels themselves. The author has to prove somehow that her novel is not like the others, not frivolous and a waste of time. What’s so scary about the novel, according to Siti, is that anyone can write one; it appears, at least, not to require a whole lot of skill (I’m sure practicing novelists would disagree with that notion, but the novel doesn’t have the “rules and regulations,” as Siti puts it, that, say, the epic has). Not only is the novel dangerously democratic, but it promotes bad habits of mind:

The general accusation was that novels lowered the cultural level and promoted curiosity and gossip, to the detriment of “litérature savante.” Novels wean people from the habits of thinking. “You never reread a novel,” wrote Vauvenargues in 1745.

The novel can also spread “obscenity and sedition” and introduce a vulgarity into society that threatens to undermine high culture. It privileges pleasure in reading instead of edification and high-mindedness.

But Siti argues that here is where the novel finds its source of strength:

… the novel’s vocation to satisfy its reader’s pleasure is what steered it toward those delicate spots where pleasure rubs up against reality; its vulgarity, in short, is the condition for the antisystematic perspicacity that is its strength … the protean and undisciplined surrender to the folds of the present and its dishonorable status drives the novel into murky territories where other genres fear to tread.

It took a long time for people to recognize the strengths of the novel as a genre, however; only in the 18C, Siti argues, did a shift begin to take place that slowly turned the novel into a respectable and serious genre. These days we don’t fear novels in the way people used to:

In the seventeenth century you could pay with your life for having written a novel; nowadays trials against literature generally end in acquittals and embarrassment for the accusers.

While it’s nice to think that novels can have social and political power, it’s a much better state of things that nobody has to pay with their life for having written one. Well, for the most part that’s true; Salman Rushdie might have thought otherwise at certain times of his life.

So — in spite of my mixed verdict on this book, I’m looking forward to seeing what the rest of the essays have to teach me.


Filed under Books, Fiction, Nonfiction

9 responses to “Essays on the novel

  1. verbivore

    I think I would really enjoy that Siti essay. I can see I am going to have to find a copy of this book – thanks Dorothy!


  2. It’s really overwhelming to think of all the books out there that I’ve never even heard of–not just recently published books, but all the books from other cultures that were written so long ago. It makes me feel like what I’m reading now is only a tiny drop in the bucket. The sections on the novel sound very interesting. The poor novel has had such a bad reputation. I wonder which novels brought death to the author? What a scary thought!


  3. The novel goes where other genres fear to tread, heh, I like that. It’s true too, at least until recently when memoirs became tell-alls and the “murkier” the secrets revealed, the better they sold. I’ll still take a well-written novel though over a memoir. Somehow, no matter how deep a memoir might delve, there is something a little dishonest about it and fiction doesn’t have that problem for the most part.


  4. Ed

    I am of Chinese descent, so I have heard of the classical Chinese novels such as ‘Outlaws of the Marsh’, ‘Monkey’ etc. Unfortunately I cannot read or speak Chinese which I feel guilty about, but that is another story. I have read an abridged translation of ‘Monkey’, but unfortunately the old Chinese novels were all very long, and so translations are hard to find. The originals are easy to get in Chinese book shops anywhere in the world. I know various (Chinese) people who rave about these books, and I know that both of my parents were big fans of ‘Monkey’ in the original, and they are not even big readers.


  5. Verbivore — it’s an excellent resource; I do recommend it.

    Danielle — it IS overwhelming, isn’t it? It’s fun to learn about new books sometimes, but other times I like it’s too much, like I don’t want to know about everything I’m missing.

    Stefanie — it’s interesting that memoir can seem dishonest and fiction honest, when memoir is supposedly truth and fiction lies! But what you say makes sense anyway — there’s something contrived about memoir, as though we know it’s impossible to tell the whole truth, whereas with the novel, we know it’s not trying — and failing — to capture truth in the same way.

    Ed — interesting to know how popular these books are. I’m even more curious about the books now. They were available on Amazon, although they were kind of expensive.


  6. I’m deeply curious what Chinese titles were discussed in “Historiography and Fiction in Chinese Culture”. (I haven’t read the essay, so I’m just typing whatever is at the top of my head. So, apologies if I’m missing the point or going off-tangent. )

    Is it really fair to compare the development of Chinese novels against the European/English novel?

    Some Asian authors have pointed out the difference between Asian traditions of storytelling from the European tradition – which sprung from the Greek dramatic tradition:

    The development of the novel form in China is a different from the English novel afterall. But didn’t the English novel also started out as a popular genre of a sort, which later gained a sort of literary credibility?

    Novel, are called “xiao shuo” in Chinese – literally “small talk” – which kind of gives you an idea of how the genre is regarded – something trivial, something for the masses – out of which something of significant arises.

    More tangential thoughts:

    In one of the great Chinese Classics, “The Story of the Stone” (or “Dreams of the Red Chamber/Mansion” – depending on your translation) – the character Jia Baoyu is the young scion of a rich family. His father expects him to study hard and achieve distinction in the Imperial Examinations. To avoid Baoyu from getting distracted, his father forbade him from reading novels. So naturally, one of the few acts of defiance was the young scion getting novels like “Journey to the West” smuggled to him.

    “Journey to the West” is also known in its abridged form as “Monkey” – as Ed just mentioned.

    It’s ironic that these “Small Talk” are so long.


  7. Dark Orpheus — the author doesn’t discuss titles in great detail — mostly he’s giving the history of the novel and mentioning titles as examples along the way. He mentions Dream of the Red Chamber, The Scholars, and Flowers in the Mirror, as well as Journey to the West, and also A Flower in the Sinful Sea, The Lion Roars and others. But really very little commentary on their details.

    He isn’t comparing Chinese and Western traditions in this essay (each essay is by a different author and the essays don’t really speak directly to each other), and so is at least implicitly showing how the two traditions are very different. But yeah, the English novel took a long time to become respectable too.

    Thanks for the link!


  8. Ah, I’m off-tangent then. Thanks for taking the time to clarify the essays.


  9. Still, your point was a good one!


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