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Jane Smiley:

"The Novel and History"

Planted deep in the heart of Jane Smiley's 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel (Knopf, 2005) is the most important essay written by anyone, anywhere, in the year 2005. It is an indispensable item of nonfiction. Entitled "The Novel and History," it makes the case that our liberal, tolerant, and progressive society is inconceivable without the novel. The claim is audacious, but Ms Smiley is persuasive. She will at any rate persuade anyone who has loved a novel that reading novels, far from being a pastime, is the engine of our social development.

Let's be clear right away what this does not mean. It is not that novelists propose social change. Sometimes they do, but the best novelists accept the status quo well enough to study the parts that interest them thoroughly and to compose fictional reflections, stories that illuminate the problems that some people have in the world. It is really the readers who mulch the social bedding with their reactions to novels.

Sometimes, of course, the solution proposed by the novel is a passive one, such as acceptance of the idea that evil exists or fate exists and nothing can be done about it. We often react to such novels with special admiration and respect, as I react to The Good Soldier. The Good Soldier is told entirely in retrospect by a narrator who has no hope of changing the outcome and not much hope of understanding it - his premise is that certain events have taken place right in front of him, but out of obtuseness and complacency, he was never able to see what was going on until it was too late for anyone to be saved. I read this with enjoyment and appreciation for the author's perspicacity, but even as I am understanding what has happened for Ford's narrator, John Dowell, I am vowing to learn from his mistakes - I will never be so unobservant. The very process of accompanying him while he disentangles his experiences reassures me that they can be disentangled.

Ms Smiley focuses on two institutions that have been overhauled by fiction: marriage and the sense of self. "Sense of self" is no less an institution than marriage, for it, too, has been institutionalized by all the major religions in such a way that, ideally, everybody's sense of self is the same - just as all marriages are the same, governed by a handful of simple if severe rules. The novel has blasted such complacencies to bits, and it is no wonder that orthodoxies rail against the resulting "individualism." The very idea of orthodoxy is at risk in a population of novel-readers.

It is difficult to recall, in our age of prizes and canons, that novels began as marginal literature. Written in vulgar tongues, they were a sort of samizdat for women. (Men wrote either scholarly work and its false cousin, propaganda, or verse, and in any case they didn't read "romances.") The idea of teaching novels remained questionable well into the twentieth century. Novels were thought to be trivial distractions, and girls were sometimes forbidden to read them. Trollope occasionally assured the parents of his readers nothing improper was taking place in his pages. To be sure, there has always been more fatuous, empty fiction than there has been fiction that we would call literary - fiction with the full powers of the form. Perhaps that's just as well, because if the guardians of culture had seen our literary fictions as the generators of change that they've been, they would have taken much stronger action against them.

In order to read a novel at all, you must check your inner censor at the door.

What we might call the Emma Bovary effect applies - the author constructs a lengthy plot that implies a train of cause and effect but requires the reader to suspend judgment in order to read all the way to the end of the novel. The reader ends up pondering what is wrong with the situation and having ideas of her own, and most assuredly one of these ideas will be that marriage itself could be constituted differently - that a mistake could be recognized as a mistake and the partners could be allowed to start over.

Such an observation might have cost Ms Smiley her life a few hundred years ago. But if things are no longer as they were when eccentric women were burned as witches, that is at least partly because we have learned not to fear heterodoxy. (I speak of those of us who read novels.) To allow people to separate and reunite with others is not to encourage meaningless relationships, any more than supporting abortion rights does. And why is this so different from what classical thinkers expected? Can human nature have changed? I, for one, believe that it has, and I base this claim on Ms Smiley's other line of thought. Women have taken upon themselves the right to have their own sense of self, their own point of view. They are nobody's property, nobody's proxy. (I speak, alas, of societies made up of novel-readers.) Women are not, as a matter of course, the wanton temptresses that their status as "daughters of Eve" implied for countless ages. And if there is a sine qua non to the development of the right of a woman to think for herself, then it is the novel. Generation by generation, ever since the Decameron, and at an ever-quickening pace, women have emerged from their de facto sub-human status. Not only that; they have begun to think about what kind of men they want in their lives, too. "[B]y enlisting readers in lengthy dramas of incompatibility, novelists subtly promoted the idea that bad marriages were not simply facts of life and fate."

The novel has also grown in parallel to democracy. Classical narrative invariably involved the great figures of history - kings and heroes. Step by step, the literary novel has come to accommodate the most demotic settings; Ms Smiley hails Anne Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant as an example. We can point to Mansfield Park as a groundbreaking novel in which the daughter of a misalliance, despite her somewhat rude upbringing, fully achieves the status of a fine lady of distinction. Since then, it has been less and less necessary for heroes and heroines to end up as "distinguished." The hero of Ian McEwan's latest novel, Saturday, is already distinguished; it's enough that he get through the day intact.

Novels depend upon imagination. That is what it means "to suspend judgment in order to read all the way to the end" of a novel. Imagination is what makes this suspension possible; without it, the novel simply ends at the first transgression and judgment is pronounced. The orthodox mind will always be disinclined to engage in imaginative suspension, because until an imagination has been stretched by repeated suspensions, the point of stretching it at all is very unclear. Without an imagination, you simply assume that everyone is (a) just like you or (b) defective. This is the most convenient way of looking at things, and institutional Christianity (as distinct from the teachings of Jesus) has gone only so far in mitigation - by insisting that you forgive the defective. The imagination teaches something utterly illogical, a truth that operates far below the plane of contradiction, in a world that perhaps only molecular neurology will explicate for us. For now we can only sense it: each of us is unique and like no one else, and each of us is just like everyone else. The paradox is compelling, and every serious reader of novels accepts it. How to live with it is not self-evident; hence the need for more novels.

Ms Smiley does not touch on this point, but it is the case that novel-reading rarely leads to violence. Not just the overt violence of demonstrations and uprisings but the covert violence of pulling out of the social contract. However dissatisfied a novel might make us with the current state of affairs, it is unlikely, at least among mature minds, to prompt antisocial reactions. The powerful novel usually makes the reader want to do something to make the world a better place, and novel-readers instinctively understand that progress is often microscopic. In the end, the orthodox have nothing greater to fear from fiction than the stability of their own orthodoxy. They cannot argue that to challenge orthodoxy is to endanger social stability. In the end, it is their reaction to change that sparks violence.

Ms Smiley does not miss the opportunity to make a few political points. Having remarked that she put Stendhal's The Red and the Black on her list of One Hundred Novels (see below) because Al Gore named it as his favorite novel during the 2000 presidential race, and then that she found his choice puzzling, she pulls back a bit: "But at least Gore's choice was a long and serious novel. The man in charge of the Western world had chosen a children's book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Eric Carle. Let's not remark that this book is a tale of gluttony; let's just observe that it isn't a novel, that its choice as George W Bush's favorite book perhaps reflects the fact that he doesn't read, or hasn't read, any serious novels." For Jane Smiley, this fact is ominous, and she ends her essay with a bleak vision.

When we talk about the death of the novel, what we are really talking about is the possibility that empathy, however minimal, would no longer be attainable by those for whom the novel has died. If the novel has died for the bureaucrats who run our country, then they are more likely not to pause before engaging in arrogant, narcissistic, and foolish policies. If the novel has died for men (and some publishers and critics say that men read fewer novels than they used to), then the inner lives of their friends and family members are to a degree more closed to them than before. If the novel dies, or never lives, for children and teenagers who spend their time watching TV or playing video games, then they will always be somewhat mystified by others, and by themselves as well. If the novel should die, what is to replace it?

My guess is that mere technology will not kill the novel. It is too different from movies and other forms of visual entertainment  to be replaced by them. Nor do I believe that novels are bannable. Too many of them reside in private hands; they would be as hard to get rid of as guns and bullets. But novels can be sidelined - dismissed to the seraglio, where they are read by women and children and have no effect on those in power. When that happens, our society will be brutalized and coarsened by people who speak rather like us and look rather like us but who have no way of understanding us or each other.

But this needn't come to pass. We can all, those of us who read novels, realize just how important imagination is to our human lives, how seriously engaged it is in our conduct, and, finally, how we must dump the idea that there is something optional about the humanities - of which the novel is the modern heart. "The Novel and History" is a call to arms - where bearing arms means nothing more or less than hailing the imaginative life.

"A Hundred Novels" forms an appendix of sorts to 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, consisting of brisk encapsulations of one hundred novels, by authors from Murasaki Shikibu to Jennifer Egan. It was in the course of reading these novels that Ms Smiley developed the ideas behind her thirteen looks at the novel. 

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