What is wrong with the modern novel?

What is wrong with modern literary novel, asks Julian Gough in the May 2007 Prospect.

Even if you don't think anything is wrong, this article delivers some interesting food for thought for readers and writers alike.

His basic premise is that Western culture undervalues the comic novel -- and he makes some pretty sweeping statements in doing it. But, if you can get past the hyperbolic nature of certain statements, Gough pokes at some sacred cows, right in the rump, with a sharp little pencil point:

The literary novel, by accepting the embrace of the universities, has moved inside the establishment and lost contact with what made it vital. It has, as a result, also lost the mass audience enjoyed by Twain and Dickens. The literary novel—born in Cervantes's prison cell, continued in cellars, bars and rented rooms by Dostoevsky, Joyce and Beckett—is now being written from on high. Not the useful height of the gods, with its sharp, gods'-eye view of all human classes, all human folly, but the distancing, merely human height of the ruling elite, just too high up to see what's happening on the street below.

And another jab:

With its cartoon event-rate, a classic series of The Simpsons has more ideas over a broader cultural range than any novel written the same year. The speed, the density of information, the range of reference; the quantity, quality and rich humanity of the jokes—they make almost all contemporary novels seem slow, dour, monotonous and almost empty of ideas.

And he really is bracing when he ruminates about the nature of the novel:

The novel, when done right—when done to the best of the novelist's abilities, talent at full stretch—is always greater than the novelist. It is more intelligent. It is more vast. It can change your entire internal world. Of course, so can a scientific truth. So can a religious experience. So can some drugs. So can a sublime event in nature. But the novel operates on that high level. Sitting there, alone, quite still, you laugh, you murmur, you cry, and you can come out of it with a new worldview, in a new reality. It's a controlled breakdown, or breakthrough. It's dangerous.

The novel cannot submit to authority. It is written against official language, against officialdom, and against whatever fixed form the novel has begun to take—it is always dying, and always being born.

Now, that speaks to me.


verbivore said...

This is great stuff - I've just printed the article so I can read it. Thanks for pointing this one out!

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bhadd said...

I totally agree that Gough's positives are busted kindof with his sweeping proclamations. Also that he identifies the problems facing modern books (which Proust and Kerouac do avoid) very sapiently--thanks.

The Hood Company

bhadd said...

Received thanks also means I owe you LK. Remember!

The Hood Company

litlove said...

Extremely interesting. I believe that Magnus Mills, who is a new literary name over here is (or at least used to be) a bus driver, so I guess there are exceptions to the 'elite' writing school. But I do see his point generally.

verbivore said...

Now I've read the whole thing and there's a lot in here to think about, I especially liked his idea of 'wangst' - made me laugh. But I'm glad he mentions Kundera, though, as someone who understands the novel's vocation.

Yogamum said...

That sounds like a fascinating article. I don't have much patience for lit crit anymore (still suffering from grad school PTSD) but I will definitely check it out. I like the insights you highlighted.

Dorothy W. said...

I like the idea that the novel is greater than the novelist.