In The Decline of the Novel, Joseph Bottum puts words to something every reader of fiction has long sensed in his bones: The novel is dying, if not dead; fiction is no longer a useful means of grappling with reality.
“For almost three hundred years,” he begins, “the novel was a major art form, perhaps the major art form, of the modern world—the device by which . . . we tried to explain ourselves to ourselves.” The novel represented a maturation of storytelling—the adulthood of fiction, taking the reader into the interior of the human person. Now, the form is on its deathbed. Lingering readers are seeking in it something other—diversion, entertainment—than what the readers of Jane Austen or the Brontes, Dickens or Kafka, were seeking back in the day.
Bottum first conceived his psychoanalysis of the novel as a case study of Protestantism’s weakening cultural significance in American and European life. A Catholic, he pleads that the novel started out and sustained itself for 300 years with a mission to reveal the “thick self in a thin universe.” Its beginnings were driven by the Reformation, “a Protestantism of the air,” breathed in even by those who were not Protestants.
Conceding that the “first novel,” Don Quixote by Cervantes, was “Catholic,” Bottum proposes that the form eventually emerged as the art form of the modern Protestant West. “The modern novel . . . came into being to present the Protestant story of the individual soul as it strove to understand its salvation and achieve its sanctification, illustrated by the parallel journey of the new-style characters, with their well-finished interiors, as they wandered through their adventure in the exterior world.”
The novel’s growth was propelled by a belief that societies were thrusting forward in confidence, sustained by a cult of progress thought to be taking humanity somewhere rather than nowhere.
Most of all, the novel grew into a great art form because it promised something more than detailed stories of modern selves...They were describing, with increasing urgency, what seemed the crisis of those modern selves. And at their highest and most serious level, they were offering solutions to the crisis. . . . the novel as an art form aimed at re-enchantment. It hungered to find or create with its stories a kind of glow to the objects of the world, a thickness of essential meaning in realities that had been rendered down to nothing more than thin existence by the modern world's turn to technological science, bureaucratic government, and commercial economics.
If the natural world is imagined by modernity as empty of purpose, then the hunt for nature’s importance is supernatural, by definition. If the physical order is defined by its sheer scientifically measured presence . . . then the search for meaning in the physical order is necessarily metaphysical. And if the secular realm is understood as merely arbitrary social arrangements enforced by the powerful, then the attempt to uncover social value must prove to be religious.
But novels no longer feel like they are practical devices for addressing an era in which metaphysics have lost their traction. “The decline of the novel’s prestige reflects and confirms...a new crisis born of the culture’s increasing failure of intellectual nerve and terminal doubt about its own progress.” As modernity marched on, “the thick inner world of the self increasingly came to seem ill-matched with the impoverished outer world, stripped of all the old enchantment that had made exterior objects seem meaningful and important. . . . This is what we mean by the crisis of the self: Why does anything matter, what could be important, if meaning is invented, coming from the self rather than to the self?”
He traces the beginning of the disintegration to the last decade of the twentieth century, when Protestantism began failing throughout the West. “Of the authors who have published novels since the early 1990s,” he writes, “none are mandatory reading.”
Snap! I have felt of late that a great many writers I continue to read are endowed with tremendous gifts of characterization, dialogue, poeticism, plotting, inspiration, etc., but lack the most vital capacity required of the novelist: the ability to inject a meaning that transcends the book’s pages. Their books start well, spurt down to the first fence, offer huge promise even beyond the halfway stage—but then seem to start looking around themselves for a direction home, usually introducing the literary equivalent of a shoot-out or a car-chase to get their authors off the postmodern hook. It is as if these writers can write anything except something that promises anything worth promising. They seem afraid of writing anything that might stab at a metaphysical meaning, preferring to retain their button-downed, black-shirted front of nihilism, in case the word gets around among their peers that such and such has “gone a bit religious.”
The Hungarian novelist Laszlo Krasznahorkai is among the few interesting voices still working at the coalface, those who have waded through the postmodern cesspit and saturated themselves in its stink and illogic in the hope of accidentally breaking through to what's on the other side. I would mention also the American George Saunders and the Frenchman Michel Houellebecq—post-postmodernists in that they seek to think their way to the very end of postmodern evasiveness, with a view, perhaps, to building a new city on the far side.
In his 1989 novel The Melancholy of Resistance, as though intent upon expressing the ultimate redundancy of the form, Krasznahorkai ended his story of apocalypse and godlessness with a lengthy description of the chemical decomposition of a human body. Bottum identifies what may be a related syndrome in the late American writer Tom Wolfe (whom he admires), a metaphysical block arising from the absence of a moral framework by which to measure the distance of events and actions from an ideal. Wolfe, he says, “needs a greater thickness than the world seems to possess.” He needs that “Protestantism of the Air,” the sense of a background paradigm of ethics against which he, the writer, might place his characters and their experiences, and against which we, the readers, may measure what he tells us. But it doesn’t exist. “What he discovers instead is the culture’s failure of nerve, and it ruins the attempt to go where he wants to go,” Bottum writes. “The ending of a Tom Wolfe novel is usually a disaster, or at least a minor fall, because the resources necessary to conclude a story of justification and sanctification simply do not exist for him.”
Still, shortly before Wolfe’s death in 2018, Bottum described him as “America’s greatest living novelist. Kind of.” I would say that, for entirely differing reasons, Krasznahorkai and Houellebecq are the two greatest and most relevant novelists in the world right now. Kind of. Both seem implicitly to understand the problem Bottum has spelled out, and each in his own way seeks to solve the dilemma by postulating a metaphysics of the imagination to fill the empty space. Houellebecq builds worlds in which transcendence is despaired of and yet appropriated; Krasznahorkai elides the problem, but in doing so creates a monument in writing to the condition of modernity such as no other artist I have encountered approaches.
Whereas the art of the novel has mostly been left to decay on a tiphead of ego, nihilism, and pseudo-aesthetics, the uses of novelism have been pilfered by less exalted platforms incapable of filling the novel’s shoes: popular biography, New Journalism, graphic novels, genre fiction. Each in turn has insinuated itself as the heir apparent, but soon revealed itself as another waster son of the shaman, a blood relative without The Gift. Novels continue to be published but—though occasionally engaging, acclaimed, successful, or even controversial—do not move the world as Dickens or Austen did. This failure, writes Bottum, “signals...an end of confidence, about the past values and future goals of what conceived itself as Western culture.” The novel is hooked up to a drip in Intensive Care and the family (just about everyone) has been summoned to the bedside.
For these reasons and some others, today’s novels are mostly books about next to nothing, written by imitators obsessed with the role rather than the art of writing, devoid of artistic ambition and surviving on the fumes of past glories. But Bottum does not claim that the decline of the novel means that writers of the past necessarily exhibited greater genius than those of the present. He namechecks recent writers we might think of as successors of the greats: Naipaul, Vargas Llosa, Byatt, Pynchon, Roth, DeLillo, Coetzee, Robinson, Amis, Rushdie, McCarthy, Murakami, Eugenides. Talented as they are, he says, they represent something different in our times than what Defoe, Dickens, Austen, Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, or Mann signified in theirs.
“All this is testimony, I think, to the current problem of culture's lack of belief in itself, derived from the fading of a temporal horizon....Without a sense of the old goals and reasons...all that remains are the crimes the culture committed in the past to get where it is now. Uncompensated by achievement, unexplained by purpose, these unameliorated sins must seem overwhelming: the very definition of the culture.” Where, then, is there to go? “Why, indeed, should we write or even read book-length fiction for insight into the directions of the culture and the self?”
Three decades ago, you might have thought thrice before sitting down at a dinner party without having read the latest Tom Wolfe or David Foster Wallace, but no such risk obtains with the work of any fiction writer today. Nor does anyone feel especially bad about this. A grounding in literature is no longer a prerequisite for an acceptable education.
The problem resides with readers first, with writers as a consequence. Nowadays, Bottum says, we all walk with our heads down.
Of course I know, as you know, any number of dedicated novel-readers today. But I do not know—and I suspect you do not know—many who still read novels in the older senses: novel-reading as a necessary part of participation in public life, akin to (and more important than) the news. Or novel-reading as the great hunt for insight into the human condition, akin to (or, at least, providing the raw material for) serious intellectual analysis of ethics, political theory, and psychology. Or novel-reading as the chance to observe authors performing heroic acts of cultural hygiene.
The Decline of the Novel has some architectural flaws, most relating to the fact that it is constructed around a number of pre-existing essays inadequately absorbed into the book’s thoughtstream. It is easy to quibble with the broad-stroke thesis, but it exposes a great deal of crystal truth.
Some may counter that many of the reasons for the decline of the novel are more obvious, relating to the technologization of information. Sure: Mass communication has indeed diverted people into more superficial ways of apprehending reality, which has lost much of its prior sense of limitless complexity. The reduction of understandings to manmade polarities has destroyed the mysteriousness that was once the forte of great fiction. It is odd that Bottum makes no references to Freudianism and its effect on the West’s public imagination. Psychoanalysis rendered instrumental everything about the human person, reducing the possibilities concerning human action to comprehensible pathologies and crypto-mechanical processes. In this realm, the once revered novelist was demoted to bumbling amateur.
We should also remember that the novel grew its teeth for chewing meanings in times otherwise devoid of forms of general communication and cultural interchange. From the beginning it was above all useful. Only later did it require an aesthetic, cultural significance, a sense of artiness—and by then it had already started to become an artifact of a diminishing curiosity concerning what appeared to be mysterious in the human.
The art of writing, too, has undergone a metamorphosis. Once a way to engage with reality, it has become primarily a status-seeking activity. The idea of “being a writer” nowadays seems more important than learning a craft, perfecting a talent, or honing a worldview. The wannabe writer now offers himself to the ideological architects of the media and academe, providing fodder for their deterministic interventions in a discourse increasingly more about remaking the world than investigating it.
Meanwhile, reality as presented through the media takes on an increasingly supra-fictional quality, daily trumping the most far-fetched efforts of even the most creative artists. The conventional novel came to seem strait-laced and slow, and only genre literatures like crime, horror, and sci-fi seem capable of sustaining the heightened attentions of a reading public strung out on escalation.
In sum, in abolishing God, man obscured mystery, including the mystery of himself. Marooned in his self-created world-without-wonder, hunchbacked by the low ceilings he had installed above his own head, he became more convinced of his growing intelligence, until his imagination shrank and dried up. His story, incapable of achieving a lucid ending, stuttered to a halt.
John Waters is an Irish writer and commentator, the author of ten books, and a playwright.