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Books about Nothing: On the death of the novel

What use do books have nowadays? In The Decline of the Novel, author Joseph Bottum paints a grim portrait. The novel is dead, and, if not, dying. Fiction is no longer about grappling with reality.

For almost three hundred years, 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.

Joseph Bottum

Novels used to emerge from storytelling. They were a more mature form of them that would let the reader take a look inside someone else. Yet, they have met their fate. Long gone are the days of Austen, the Brontës, Dickens, Kafka, or anyone else we can remember. Now, novels are about letting readers find something else to divert their attention or entertain themselves. Bottum delivers this story of stories through examples and illustrations of these changes in reading. He supports his arguments through an exploration of how the role art plays has changed over time.

The Catholic author Bottum began his research on the historic trends of Protestantism losing cultural significance in American and European life. He believes the first novel, Cervantes’ 1605 Catholic Don Quixote, and how the form of the novel began were meant to reveal the “thick self in a thin universe.” For the first 300 years of its life, the novel kept this purpose. In the midst of the Reformation, the “Protestantism of the air” set the scene for the writing of the time, even for non-Protestants. And it caught on by readers and scholars of religious groups, especially Protestants.

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.

Joseph Bottum

Society began embracing the idea that they were pushing forward humanity somewhere. With progress of all forms, the novel promised something more than detailed stories of modern selves. They would create stories of the crises of modern selves with the urgency and relevance for the readers of the time period. In some cases, they offered solutions to the problems of the self. Like a remedy for the soul, they could enchant the reader who hungered for stories to understand the world around them. In the reduction of existence to science and technology, government and bureaucracy, and commerce and economics, novels provided meaning in reality. They gave purpose to the natural and physical world in which there was none, making them supernatural and metaphysical.

With this power, the novel was religious, Bottum argues. At the time, the secular realm consisted of the social norms that built civilization enforced by power. Uncovering this social value was, then, a religious act.

But those were the days of the past. The novel’s slow and steady decline reflects society’s inability to address the issues in the supernatural and metaphysical realm. “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,” Bottum argues. With modernity of all aspects of society, “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?”

The dying began with the final decade of the twentieth century. Protestantism lost traction in Western civilization. “Of the authors who have published novels since the early 1990s, none are mandatory reading,” Bottum writes. How true this is depends on who you ask. It’s definitely possible that the novels over the past century don’t conform to Bottum’s view. Writers who are amazing with portraying characterization, dialogue, plot, and other features can still fall far from this purpose of a novel. The novel’s purpose in creating a meaning that transcends words themselves doesn’t follow from those aspects of writing. It’s something else. Many books over the past century start off well with a lot of potential, but don’t seem to reach this stage of a novel’s purpose. They, instead, leave the reader wanting more, circling around to how things started in the beginning, or use some other method of avoiding this transcendence. A lot of writers tend to shy away from metaphysical purpose and stick with themes that there’s no meaning in their work, that it was never meant to provide that to begin with, or some similar postmodern theme. We’ve come to associate these secular searches for truth by avoiding what Bottum has described as the purpose of the novel.

In thrusting the novel to the limits of postmodernism, one can ask “Where do we go from here?” Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai has tried pushing through this nihilism in his writing like The Melancholy of Resistance. His apocalyptic godless story has a description of a human body decomposing. In graphic detail of the chemical, it creates a redundancy of the form. Bottum argues that the American writer Tom Wolfe has a metaphysical component from the absence of a moral framework. Instead of having the ideal conception of ethics from which to measure distance of events and actions, Wolfe’s writing “needs a greater thickness than the world seems to possess,” Bottum says. “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.” The American George Saunders and French Michel Houellebecq have established themselves as post-postmodernists to this end. Beyond the boundaries of postmodernism, they’ve written stories that capture what Bottum has intended. They give life to the novel in a sort of resurrection. They provide a philosophy with aesthetics, metaphysics, and other characteristics that Bottum argues novels have lost.

Krasznahorkai and Houellebecq perceive Bottum’s problem with the death of the novel. They both attempt to provide solutions with a metaphysics of the imagination for the empty space in their work. Houellebecq creates worlds that use transcendence in fitting ways even when in the lost abyss. Krasznahorkai avoids the problem by making a testament to modernity in ways other writers don’t.

Works across popular biography, New Journalism, graphic novels, and genre fiction have explored new forms of novelism. Though these aren’t novels, we can turn to them in determining things that novels have missed. They don’t quite capture the movements that Dickens or Austen once created. Bottum believes this “signals…an end of confidence, about the past values and future goals of what conceived itself as Western culture.”

Bottum is cautious in arguing that, though the novel has died, the writers before our time did not have more genius than current ones do. He mentions Naipaul, Vargas Llosa, Byatt, Pynchon, Roth, DeLillo, Coetzee, Robinson, Amis, Rushdie, McCarthy, Murakami, Eugenides as examples who are talented writers, yet show something different than what Defoe, Dickens, Austen, Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, or Mann did in their work.

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 do we go? “Why, indeed, should we write or even read book-length fiction for insight into the directions of the culture and the self?” Bottum asks.

There aren’t many people nowadays who believe reading novels is essential to being part of the public sphere like reading the news or searching for a peek into the human condition. While Bottum’s book still suffers from issues in the way its constructed such as how it centers on essays that don’t resonate as well as they could, it still reveals this truth about our novel-reading habits. One may argue about why or how these changes have occurred. In the age of information technology, our communication has become more superficial and simplistic. Fiction no longer carries the mysterious aura of power it once did. Freudian psychoanalysis has made the human person itself instrument such that everything we do becomes mere mechanical processes. The novelist, in these dimensions, doesn’t have much to work with. There’s no transcendence.

It’s also worth emphasizing the times of religious authority in many areas of society no longer holds the same water given the advances in communication and culture over the centuries since Don Quixote. As the novel gained its own aesthetic and culture significance, it had already begun losing the curiosity of the elusive human condition.

Writing itself has changed, too. It’s become a form of seeking status. Nowadays writing is more about changing the world rather than investigating it, and many people are more concerned with the prestige and power that comes along with it rather than the long, arduous craft of becoming a better writer.

The media’s portrayal of reality, through all these trends, becomes more supra-fictional. The phrase “truth is stranger than fiction” may resonate with many readers nowadays. Some areas of fiction like crime and horror still try their best to catch our attention, though.

Overall, the story of the novel meeting its demise presents these postmodern and post-postmodern issues that many of us experience whenever we open up a book. When its story ends, we’ll see if a new one begins.

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