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.
“On or about December, 1910, human character changed,” Woolf writes in the opening pages of “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” and all the rest of her argument stems from that simple statement: we, the moderns, are different, not just in our appliances or political sympathies, but in our fundamental being. “The Victorian cook,” she writes, “lived like a leviathan in the lower depths . . . the Georgian cook is a creature of sunshine and fresh air, in and out of the drawing-room, now to borrow the Daily Herald, now to ask advice about a hat.” Likewise, all relationships have shifted: “between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature.”
There is no crisis of realism in contemporary fiction; there is only a crisis of ownership.
Before Woolf, discussions of realism in the Anglo-European world focused either on content—the elevation of mundane or vulgar subject matter; the plight of the poor, provincial, or oppressed—or on style: Flaubert’s proclamation of the godlike, impersonal author; Gertrude Stein’s argument that composition matters more than comprehension. Woolf’s innovation, if we can call it that, is to insist that the spirit of “life” in modern fiction lies in neither content nor style but in perception, in the mind itself:
Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions—trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms . . . . Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; but a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying . . . spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible?
It is here that Woolf stakes her territory, with implacable certainty, between what she calls the “Edwardian” novelists of the day—Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy, and H.G. Wells—then at the peak of their careers and the younger “Georgians,” including herself, Joyce, and Eliot. (Conrad, strikingly, she dismisses: “Mr. Conrad is a Pole; which sets him apart, and makes him, however admirable, not very helpful.”) The Edwardians, in her view, build their novels brick by brick, with fastidious attention to detail, setting, and the satisfaction of a well-made plot. The Georgians, on the other hand, work in flashes of insight, or what William James called “streams of consciousness.” “Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind,” Woolf writes. “Let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance.” Her view of this generational shift is one of Manichean dualism, a refusal to give any quarter to the other side. “I wonder if we are right to call [Edwardian novels] books at all,” she writes:
The Edwardians were never interested in character in itself; or in the book in itself . . . they have developed a technique of novel-writing which suits their purpose . . . . But those tools are not our tools, and their business is not our business. For us those conventions are ruin, those tools are death.
Harold Bloom would call this simple agon, but there is more to it than that: we might call it the “autochthony principle,” the need to believe that one is unique, self-originated, unexpected, solely a product of contemporary circumstances. In the early 1920s novelty was everywhere—telephones, radio, phonographs, mustard gas, Zeppelins—and we can’t criticize Woolf for noting that the world had changed. But the great irony of the autochthony principle is that just underneath its radical faith in the new lies a profound, bathetic nostalgia. Human character may have changed in 1910, Woolf says, but nonetheless, her principles are no different from Laurence Sterne’s or Jane Austen’s: they, too, were interested in things in themselves; in character, in itself; in the book in itself. Woolf:
If, that is, you think of the novels which seem to you great novels—War and Peace, Vanity Fair, Tristram Shandy, Madame Bovary, Pride and Prejudice, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Villette . . . you do at once think of some character who has seemed to you so real . . . that it has the power to make you think . . . of all sorts of things through its eyes.
Again and again, the same self-serious, circuitous logic: the standard novel of today is decadent; it has lost touch with “reality”; it has become a set of meaningless conventions; it deserves to be exploded; we must invent new techniques, new “ways of seeing.” And yet we must return to “the real” as it used to be.
What is most astonishing is not the similarity between conservative and insurgent versions of the same argument but the near-hysterical urgency attested by otherwise-reasonable people, the belief that this is a question that must be solved. Where does this urgency lie? Look again at “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” and what you will see, palpably obvious though easy to ignore, is Woolf’s discomfort at the shifting of her upstairs, downstairs world, the possibility that her Georgian cook might not just borrow the Daily Herald but start writing a column for it. She is describing not a crisis of style but the anxiety of her own social position. Even amid her praise for her contemporaries, she worries about what their efforts mean for her own pampered class: referring to Joyce and Eliot, she writes, “their sincerity is desperate, and their courage tremendous; it is only that they do not know which to use, a fork or their fingers.” She frets over the “comparative poverty” of Joyce’s mind, the “sordidity” and “indecency” of his subject matter. Is it any wonder, then, that she appears so desperate to change the subject, to redirect our attention from the exacting observation and sociological heft of the Edwardians toward a literature of highly cultivated sensibility?
I wonder if we are right to call them books at all, Virginia Woolf said of some predecessors novels.
This is the autochthony principle at work. It changes the discourse in order to own it, to dictate the very terms of what counts as experience and contrivance, “real” and “false”: reasserting this or that critic’s right to declare what deserves our attention, what matters, in the deepest, most self-interested, sense of the word. What’s even more troubling is that so often the principle manifests itself—with its contrived sense of urgency and panic—at moments when actual power lies in the balance. Woolf knew, though perhaps she wouldn’t have said so, that soon enough people like her would do their own laundry and boil their own pots of tea. Her generation faced its own obsolescence, the circling-in, the tightening, of its sphere of influence.
Today, too, in the literary world, a certain aristocracy sees its sun setting: the aristocracy of critics, editors, publishers, and tastemakers, still overwhelmingly white, if slightly less overwhelmingly male, who may be just beginning to realize that—for simple demographic reasons, if nothing else—the future does not belong to them. And so over the last decade, all the features of “Modern Fiction”—the relentless need to bifurcate; the urgent declaration of the new; the overblown, almost apocalyptic, need for a single definition, a final answer—have returned with a vengeance.
David Shields’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (2010) is the autochthony principle distilled to a science, a book that announces itself in every way as something new, beginning with the wallpaper of ecstatic blurbs on the cover: “an urgent book,” “a wake-up call,” the “start [of] a much-needed conversation.” Ostensibly, its purpose is twofold: part polemic against the novel, part ars poetica for a new artistic movement centered on
a deliberate unartiness . . . randomness, openness to accident and serendipity . . . plasticity of form . . . self-reflexivity . . . a blurring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction: the lure and blur of the real.
To accomplish this, Shields assembles a chorus of quotations that flow together as more or less seamless chapters. It’s an impressive rhetorical feat, and in its own way it speaks to the vibrancy of contemporary literary culture: we see a few lines from one of Shields’s undergraduate students a page away from Goethe and Emerson, and we can almost imagine all three in conversation on Skype.
But, in one of the many unspoken ironies of this project, what Shields imagines to be a demonstration of contemporaneity is in fact a lesson in creative repackaging, a greatest hits of avant-garde, modernist, and postmodernist rhetoric from the last century and a half. Take, for example, the following passage, which Shields wrote himself:
Plot is a way to stage and dramatize reality, but when the presentation is too obviously formulaic, as it so often is, the reality is perceived as false. Skeptical of the desperation of the modernist embrace of art as the only solution, and hyperaware of all artifices of genre and form, we nevertheless seek new means of creating the real.
Take away the prefix “hyper,” and you could have John Barth, writing in 1968; Alain Robbe-Grillet, in 1954; or, minus the word “modernist,” even Woolf herself, in 1924. And then, a few pages later, again from Shields:
It’s important for a writer to be cognizant of the marginalization of literature by more technologically sophisticated and more visceral narrative forms. You can work in these forms or use them or write about them or through them, but I don’t think it’s a very good idea to go on writing in a vacuum. Culture, like science, moves forward. Art evolves.
Does it matter that this is an awkward paraphrase of Marinetti’s “Futurist Manifesto” of 1909, that Shields’s positivist faith in technological progress is as quaint as Tomorrowland? Only insofar as it should lead us to ask: what is the real urgency of this project, what lies at the heart of all this conjuring-up of a fictive crisis? For Shields the most bothersome thing about novels—as he tells us over and over again—is their falseness, their substitution of imagination for evidence. He takes for granted that an interest in “the real” means an interest in the self, the familiar, one’s own aloneness, and proudly proclaims:
I don’t have a huge pyrotechnic imagination that luxuriates in other worlds. People say, ‘It was so fascinating to read this novel that took place in Iceland. I just loved living inside another world for two weeks.’ That doesn’t, I must say, interest me that much.
It’s worth pausing for a moment here to consider that Reality Hunger, for all of its sprawling omnivorousness, is an exclusive club: only seven of its 618 cited quotations, and none of its fourteen blurbs, come from nonwhite writers. Shields is no tweedy, pipe-smoking atavist; he’s written an entire book about race in the National Basketball Association. So why is it that, when arguing his case for the future of literature, he appoints an all-white jury? Because, to put it rudely, even now, even in 2011, when mainstream American critics conjure up the categories of “important writers” and “important novels,” with very rare exceptions, they still think first of Philip Roth, Jonathan Franzen, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Safran Foer, Norman Rush, Cormac McCarthy. In the category of writing on fiction, the list would be even more skewed. Apart from Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, James Baldwin’s “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” and Chinua Achebe on Heart of Darkness, it’s a safe bet that your average well-informed critic today has never read a single work of criticism by a writer of color.
Critics think their role is to choose between innovation and convention, dig a trench, and lob grenades.
This is more than an accident, or a question of a lack of exposure or available texts. Our blogs and bookstores and Book Sense lists burgeon with novels from every corner of the globe, translated or originally in English. Nonwhite writers are widely taught, widely invited to read and appear, widely circulated in every possible way—except that their names rarely arise when critics speak of the Novel with a capital “N,” the novel writ large. What Shields is echoing is a widely, if perhaps unconsciously, held belief that a writer from elsewhere—and elsewhere might be Oakland or Newark, not necessarily Port-au-Prince or Mogadishu—puts “us,” the normative American reader, in a kind of obligative block: we have to acknowledge the worthiness of the content at the expense of saying anything at all about the artistic accomplishment that might accompany it. This, we might say, is Woolf’s singular achievement, her “Conrad exception”: by focusing our attention solely on authorial sensibility, she has made it possible to conduct a conversation about contemporary literature while excluding any writer for whom some other criteria might conceivably matter just as much.
The novelist and critic Benjamin Kunkel demonstrates this same bias in a 2006 essay on the future of the novel in his journal n+1, by dividing the field into “perennial” novels (“impressive but formally unadventurous”) and “a culture of novel writing,” formerly modern and now postmodern, “that does not take the form for granted, that does not behave simply as comes naturally, that instead finds in the artifice of the novelist’s art an occasion for debilitating self-consciousness” (emphasis in original).
Kunkel’s guiding assumption—that Beckett demonstrated, more than 50 years ago, how meaningless it is for a novelist to write “about” anything—leads him to give great credit to novelists who “foreground their research,” who crowd their texts with facts and reportage. On the other hand, he hopes that the psychological novel, one of extreme interiority and subjectivity, may re-emerge as a response to the decline of psychoanalysis and the rise of Prozac. Echoing Fredric Jameson and Benedict Anderson, he observes that the “perennial” novel largely survives in the hands of writers from
marginal communities or peripheral countries . . . this certainly owes something to the metropolitan reader’s flattery of the exotic; but it also has to do with the fact that standardized representations haven’t yet covered all things under the sun.
In other words, the literatures of backward nations are truly backward: they haven’t invented quite enough clichés or banalities, or cultivated enough powers of self-absorption, to be considered part of the literary vanguard.
Not every significant critic writing in America today is as dogmatically bigoted as Kunkel; they don’t have to be, because the battlefield of the “serious novel” comes already cordoned off. There are the forces of convention on one side, and innovation on the other, and the critic’s role is to dig a trench and lob grenades. We see this in Zadie Smith’s choice of Tom McCarthy over Joseph O’Neill in “Two Directions for the Novel,” in Jonathan Franzen’s choice of himself over William Gaddis in “Mr. Difficult,” in Ben Marcus’s corresponding evisceration of Franzen in Harper’s, in Dale Peck’s famous attack on Rick Moody’s The Black Veil. In every case, what is at stake is reality, the real, the material, “lifeness,” as a quality that hangs in the balance between two white, usually male, novelists: a very small number of angels dancing on the head of a very particular pin.
The critic who has tried to act as an arbiter and a skeptic among all these autochthonists—and who deserves credit for trying—is the immensely talented, and frustrating, James Wood. His How Fiction Works (2008) is a strange artifact of our times: a serious and somewhat dour work packaged archaically, like a 1930s Boy Scout Manual, a platoon of earnestness inside a winking McSweeney’s-esque Trojan horse of irony. Like John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist (1983), it is both a practical manual and an ideological argument, and as such, it can be deeply informative, even revelatory, particularly when Wood goes out of his way to defend writers—such as David Foster Wallace—one would expect him to despise.
In his final summing-up, “Truth, Convention, Realism,” Wood dismisses the anti-realist, anti-novelistic camp as “more or less nonsense,” claiming that it confuses representation with “mimetic persuasion,” and suggesting instead that we
replace the always problematic word ‘realism’ with the much more problematic word ‘truth.’ . . . Once we throw ‘realism’ overboard, we can account for the ways in which Kafka . . . Hamsun . . . and Beckett . . . are nevertheless harrowingly truthful texts.
What Wood really means here is: look, let’s all just admit that there is a consensus about what constitutes great fiction, and let’s call that consensus “truth”:
In our reading lives, every day, we come across that blue river of truth, curling somewhere; we encounter scenes and moments and perfectly placed words in fiction
. . . which strike us with their truth, which move us and sustain us.
To support this argument he relies on Samuel Johnson, George Eliot, Wordsworth and Coleridge, the “Neo-Aristotelians,” Henry James, and, of course, Woolf. After that—after 1910, say—the blue river of truth (or, as he later calls it, “lifeness”) presumably dries up into a broad, parched riverbed, full of bleached skeletons. It hardly seems necessary to point out that a more self-consciously avant-garde critic would say that lifeness is precisely what is not found in realist fiction, that lifeness only occurs when the reader’s mind is upended, twisted, torqued, hung out to dry. To Wood’s “we” one might reply, “which ‘we’ do you mean, exactly?”
Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty’s Dreams, Illusion, and Other Realities (1986), ostensibly a book about how dreams and the broader concept of illusion, or maya, are depicted in Sanskrit literature, is also illuminating reading for anyone interested in the continually renewed Western debate about the value of fictive literature and the meaning of the concept of the real. “When we speak of reality, we are usually referring to a cluster of assumptions,” Doniger writes:
We do not have a set of precise definitions of reality in our heads—indeed, we usually do not bother to define reality at all—but we somehow assume . . . that we all agree on what we mean. In general, we mean that reality is what we value, what we care about. But often we mean something far more specific, more debatable, less relative than this. Some of us mean that reality is what is solid; others mean that reality is what is not solid. We tend to assume that our way of thinking is simply an expression of common sense, the most obvious way of understanding and manipulating the everyday world. But since common sense carries with it an implicit definition of reality, to define reality in terms of common sense is to commit a tautology. Common sense . . . is an attribute of culture, not of nature, a part of myth rather than a part of reality. (emphasis in original)
Part of what we learn when we read non-Western literatures, or literatures that straddle the gap between the West and some other cultural sphere, is that our sense of what constitutes “reality,” let alone what we can define as “realism,” is partial, historical, and not all that useful as a criterion or a guide. Where is “the real” located in the four worlds of the Navajo origin myth? Or in Journey to the West, the sixteenth-century Chinese epic of the Monkey King? Or in the Native American writer Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, or Gao Xingjian’s autobiographical Soul Mountain? This isn’t a trick question, or an unanswerable one: the problem, for those of us whose feet are still stuck in Cartesian mud, is that we have to guess. We have to become accustomed to asking questions instead of automatically answering them.
Underneath the radical faith in the new lies a profound, bathetic nostalgia.
This simple observation may go some distance toward explaining why so many of today’s critics still fear, and resist, the intrusion of works by nonwhite, non-Western authors into the canon of “novels that matter.” Calling this resistance snobbery or racism or aesthetic ossification is a partial, but not entirely satisfying, answer: the issue is more basic, more existential, and has to do with preserving the myth of a social order in which questions of aesthetics can be debated without acknowledging the diversity of possible human experience—not to mention human suffering. (Of Edwardian novels, Woolf writes, “In order to complete them it seems necessary to do something—to join a society, or, more desperately, to write a cheque.”) The critics I’ve named above all feel a need to defend a position of omnipotence and omniscience—the novel as a kind of all-seeing eye—against various forms of partiality, contingency, arbitrariness, obligation. No wonder, then, that arguments about the real quickly become doctrinaire, dogmatic, near-hysterical: what critics are defending is not just the true definition of an art form, but the entire social order that allows, even expects, them to impose aesthetic judgments in the first place.
It is no wonder that criticism is a more conservative, more academically elite, more racially exclusive club than fiction writing itself. To be a critic in the manner of Virginia Woolf—the default position of the Anglo-American critic, from F.R. Leavis to Lionel Trilling to John Updike to Helen Vendler—requires more than a simple lack of humility; it requires a self-assurance that one is speaking from the center of things, that one is qualified to pass judgment on any aesthetic object that comes along. This kind of criticism isn’t interested in discussion or debate, except in a very circumscribed sense; what it seeks, above all, is a universal validation of the writer’s own subjectivity.
Which, according to certain standards, is exactly what the novel sets out not to do. Bakhtin tells us that a novel succeeds by introducing “dialogism,” a multiplicity of voices, an atmosphere that he calls, recalling Rabelais, “carnivalesque.” This might lead us to think of a certain class of cacophonous social novels bursting with subplots and colorful minor characters—Little Dorrit, Ulysses, The Recognitions, Underworld—but in its essence dialogism means much more than that: it suggests that fiction is at its greatest when it evokes tensions and fractures it can’t necessarily control. This definition of greatness spans Mrs. Dalloway and Gravity’s Rainbow, but more importantly, it allows us to look all the way to the horizon for novels with overlapping, dissonant perspectives, novels that may seem to be about “us” but really are no such thing.
To choose one example out of a thousand: The Stone Virgins, published in 2002, by the Zimbabwean writer Yvonne Vera. The Stone Virgins begins with a panoramic view of the city of Bulawayo, as impersonal and remote as the beginning of A Passage to India or Nostromo or, for that matter, a tourist brochure: “Selborne is the most splendid street in Bulawayo,” she writes:
You can look down it for miles and miles, with your eyes encountering everything plus blooms; all the way from the laced balcony of Sir Willoughby’s Douslin House (he was among the first pioneers with the British South African Company) . . . to the Ascot Shopping Centre.
Then, in the space of a paragraph, the lens widens. Selborne Road becomes the national highway that carries black laborers to Johannesburg—to toil in the gold and diamond mines— and back:
When they return here, neighbors give way and let them pass, and they enjoy suddenly being regarded as strangers in their own town, where everyone listens intently to their sun-dried whispers, examines their indolence and scorn, respects their well-decorated idleness . . . . Their readiness is buoyed by something physical . . . . Bright, colorful carpets from Nield Lukan to cover the cold township cement. No anxiety, even though in a week or less these new carpets will be choked with dust, and they have available to them nothing more than grass brooms.
The Stone Virgins depicts the passage of Rhodesia to Zimbabwe—the anti-colonial war from 1968 to 1979 and the horrific infighting and massacres preceding the formation of a unity government in 1988—with a shape-shifting disinterest in the consistency we expect from a novel. At times it has a dreamy stillness, chronicling the intimacy of two anonymous lovers in the countryside; at other moments it projects nightmarish fury, earnestness, or wry wit. To borrow a term from Tsitsi Dangarembga, Zimbabwe’s other great contemporary novelist, The Stone Virgins has a “nervous condition”: it can’t decide, and doesn’t have to decide, whether it wants to remain in Woolf’s “luminous halo” or be a scorching blast of protest on behalf of the war’s innocent, and forgotten, victims. It isn’t that questions of realism don’t matter in The Stone Virgins; this is a novel consumed by the problem of multiple, incommensurate subjectivities, those of torturer and victim, man and woman, old and young, “local” and “foreign.” The problem, as Vera herself might have put it, is that only those who believe indefatigably in one version of reality ever imagine that the question of realism has a single answer.
The Stone Virgins is not second-rate, “peripheral,” an obligation, a piece of required reading, an appeal to our consciences or our “flattery of the exotic.” The only check it asks us to write is a check to Amazon. If there is a canon of 21st-century novels that strives to remake the form, taking nothing for granted, The Stone Virgins deserves to be in it. Yet even if Vera had survived AIDS long enough to win a Nobel Prize (she died in 2005, at 40) in the eyes of most American critics she would mostly likely have remained—like Soyinka and Achebe (but not Gordimer and Coetzee)—merely an African writer. Like most of her contemporaries, like the great majority of novelists in the world today, she remains in the ghetto of the hyphenated, a marginal presence, a guilty afterthought.
What was it that Bakhtin said again? “The novel comes into contact with the spontaneity of the inconclusive present; this is what keeps the genre from congealing.” We need critics who set impatient standards, ask uncomfortable questions, and maintain an omnivorous appetite for the unfamiliar, the awkward, the angry, the untoward. Instead, we have a gated community, a velvet-roped garden party, a Brooklyn vs. Cambridge fantasy baseball league. We don’t need critics obsessed with the real, or with whether the novel is alive or dead. We need critics willing to look at the novels that are already out there, going about their business, quietly making the future of literature, whether “we” like it or not.