What Can Novels Do?

Perhaps it's time to have some unreasonable expectations

A Stack of Old Hardcover Books On Wooden Table.Studio Shot
Francesco Carta fotografo/Moment/Getty Images
Alex Pabán Freed

Is it good to go to war with contemporary literature? It’s at least a genre. A fun place to start is Elif Batuman’s eminently spicy “Get a Real Degree,” but there are many other places you could look: from Becca Rothfeld we learn that contemporary fiction has a problem with social media-born, anxiously-enacted, moral scrupulousness; from Parul Sehgal we learn that contemporary fiction has a problem with simplified trauma plots; Jackson Arn tells us the contemporary essay has, among other things, a problem with routine ambivalence; and the editors at n+1 tell us the contemporary review has a problem with grouping works by their thematic problems. Dip a bit into the archives, and you’ll find Jonathan Franzen and Ben Marcus going head-to-head in a thrilling, literary scrap, the “boys in the alley” as Cynthia Ozick would have it, same alley where, various years before, other boys David Foster Wallace, Gore Vidal, and John Barth all entered the fray — I’ve missed a few, but you get the idea: people like to go big.

Let’s try it out. The world’s structural problems require structural solutions: the novel’s pretty good at revealing the former and not really a part of the latter. We could do a bit of what the journal Chuang calls Scooby-Doo Marxism — where we take the mask off of whatever problems we have with contemporary literature and find capitalism lurking behind — but you probably live under capitalism, so unless you’re engaging in near-Olympic levels of denial, you already know it’s bad — if not for you, then certainly for other people. Follow these thoughts to their logical conclusion, of course, and you’re probably wondering: what can the novel possibly do to help bring about the end of all exploitation? What can the novel do at all? These are good questions to think about, so let’s think about them, starting with some of the claims made about the novel in Timothy Bewes’s recent book Free Indirect; I’m a civilian, but I have some friends in academia, and they tell me this is the new thing in the theory of the novel.

It’s not hard to see why: Bewes goes big. He works from Catherine Gallagher’s idea that the “founding claim of the [novel] form was a nonreferentiality that could be seen as a greater referentiality.” In not referring to a specific, real person (nonreferentiality), the novel can refer to an abstract type of person (greater referentiality). For example, while there was no real Don Quixote, there have been many Quixotes, people for whom the divide between literature and life is porous, at best. Quixoteness is a property that is embodied, or instantiated, by its namesake character, just as the color red is a property that might be instantiated by an apple. Like social types, ideas in a novel can be instantiated without being explicitly stated, and this general idea — that a particular entity can instantiate a universal quality — is called the instantiation relation; it’s the “organizational principle of every novelistic work.”

Another relevant literary term is free indirect discourse, in Bewes’s words, “a technique for the representation of a character’s speech or thought that avoids the conventional framing syntax of indirect speech (the words “he said” or “she thought”) in favor of a kind of immediate access.” Using a lot of theory and one metaphorical bridge, Bewes is going to argue that everything in a novel is “readable as free indirect discourse.” This is part of his argument about postfiction, which, as far as I understand it, can be reconstructed like this: the “collapse of the logic of instantiation” has led to the “universalization of free indirect discourse,” a world in which “everything in the novel, even an epigraph” can be read as “represented speech and thought,” thought that cannot be attributed to a real author but instead to “another order of diagetic consciousness,” one that always invites further interpretation. This principle, postfiction, “unthinks or deauthorizes the very claims made by the work.”

This sounds bad, but just because every thought that appears in the novel is deauthorized and unthought doesn’t mean that the novel itself can’t think. In fact, it’s this very novel thought that justifies the continued reading and writing of fiction: for it is in this thought that “the novel’s refusal of prevailing ideologies is located.” It is in this thought, a thought that takes on special importance “in a technocratic era where all possible options for thought . . . seem to have been anticipated and laid out in advance,” that the novel finds its worth. The only downside, we learn early on, is that it “cannot be paraphrased or inhabited by any critic or theorist.”

But doesn’t this sound a little familiar, thinks the stoner. After all, the way Bewes conceives of postfiction isn’t that different from the way most people conceive of smoking weed: just as every thought encountered in a work of fiction is deauthorized and unthought by virtue of being in a work of fiction, so every thought you encounter while high is deauthorized and unthought by virtue of you being high. As with postfiction, this is “less a genre than a logic.” Thinking when you’re nice and zooted is a bit like thinking in free indirect discourse; your thoughts are being focalized through the drug; there is, as in the novel, “another order of diegetic consciousness,” and it also invites further interpretation. As anyone who has tried to explain their stoned insights has no doubt realized, much like novel thought, weed thought tends to exceed the bounds of critical intelligibility, happening more in the interstices between concepts than in the concepts themselves. It’s less about what you’re thinking than how you’re thinking it.

If there’s some beef between, in Batuman’s words, Planet MFA and Planet PhD, I can only imagine their mutual disdain for this dispatch from Planet THC. But this homology is obviously a good thing: we wouldn’t bother to get high if it didn’t let us think differently than when we’re sober, just as we wouldn’t bother to read fiction if it didn’t do something nonfiction couldn’t. The extent to which comparing reading fiction to smoking weed intellectually diminishes the former is the extent to which we underestimate the latter. Both are ways to try and think “in a technocratic era where all possible options for thought . . . seem to have been anticipated and laid out in advance.”

But obviously some stuff is different. For one, fiction has an author. Bewes positions his own argument against what he calls a “rhetoric of fiction,” a critical idea that there is an “ultimate point of view (a consciousness) anchored within each work,” and that this ultimate point of view is what allows ideas to be communicated — a fundamental premise in Free Indirect is that “the question of the novel’s thought cannot be addressed successfully in a critical discourse that presumes a unity of the speaking subject.” I think I’m on team rhetoric of fiction. I think basically what British intellectual powerhouse Christopher Caudwell says in the D. H. Lawrence chapter of his book Studies in a Dying Culture: “art is not in any case a relation to a thing, it is a relation between men, between artist and audience, and the art work is only like a machine which they must both grasp as part of the process.”

Should we expect more from our novels than therapeutic rejuvenation? I’d hope we could start by expecting more from our therapy.

Bewes is concerned there is nothing formal that guarantees the distinction between fiction and nonfiction, but there’s definitely something social. The act of reading starts with an agreement between author and reader. I tell you that I’ll write a certain way, and you tell me you’ll read a certain way; we have mutual expectations.

You have a gender, so you know how this works: when I tell you that I’m a woman, I am telling you that I expect certain things from you, and that you should expect certain things from me. I may subvert these expectations, as may you, but they are the terms on which we’ll engage each other. Though there are conventions for it, gender, like genre, is not formally guaranteed: attempts to define womanhood formally, through a set of features, whether behavioral or physical, have historically always failed to align the group of people who think they are women, the group of people who fit the formal definition for women, and the group of people who are treated as women. Saying that you need to have a vagina to be a woman is a bit like saying that you need to have a specious etymological argument to be an essay — many seem to, but I bet you I can find examples that don’t and, nevertheless, are still read like they do.

When it comes to the novel, one of our expectations is that what the novelist thinks and what the novelist represents might be different. In this way, novels are always ironic, and because any idea represented in a work of fiction may be ironic, any idea represented in a work of fiction already contains its negation. The novel forces us to think both at the same time, and that’s why thoughts in a novel don’t work like they should. If I, a person writing an essay, tell you that “absent several world-historical socialist revolutions, the ongoing climate crisis will destroy the world,” then you can be sure that I believe it; if a character in my novel says it, you’re left wondering just how ironized that thought is. This is why people across the political spectrum say things like “show, don’t tell,” or, if they’re world-historical socialist revolutionary Friedrich Engels, “[t]he more the opinions of the author remain hidden, the better for the work of art.” A novel can show its ideas instead of telling them, but if you buy Bewes’s postfiction argument, you might start to question just how sincere those parts of the novel are, too. Given all this, you may wonder: is it even possible for a novel to have positive political commitments?

Rest assured: we’re back to smoking weed. Just as weed can only get you high, a novel can only think like a novel. This doesn’t preclude it from thinking politically; it just means it has to think about politics fictionally. This means, among other things, it can’t simply restate ideas that have been laid out in advance; it has to mobilize them in novel ways. Bewes’s idea that all thought seems to have been anticipated and laid out in advance is what Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer were worried about in their essay “The Concept of Enlightenment;” they call it “myth,” and they give us this banger: “[o]nly thought which does violence to itself is hard enough to shatter myths.” A great way to do violence to your thoughts is to put them in a work of fiction, where they, by virtue of being in a work of fiction, will shatter.

I agree with Bewes that the novel doing this is a key part of its thinking, but I think I disagree on what it means for the shattered thoughts. Bewes claims that “ideas make their way into the work only at the cost of their substance, which is to say, their transmissibility,” and one of the key assumptions in Free Indirect seems to be that a thought being represented and losing its authority means it “asks nothing of us.” Maybe it’s because I don’t have any, but I don’t really see why a thought losing its authority means you can’t take it seriously. I don’t smoke weed because I want to think sober thoughts, so why, if I wanted to encounter nonfictional thinking, would I open a work of fiction?

As it happens, the problem everyone else seems to have with the contemporary novel is precisely that it’s full of nonfictional thinking. According to its critics, the contemporary novel is instantiating ideas — thematic, moral, formal — that already exist and doing nothing interesting with them. For Rothfeld, for example, the contemporary novel is just instantiating moral ideas from social media and then leaving them intact, untroubled. It’s a total inversion of Bewes’s views: where Bewes thinks the power of the contemporary novel is that it dissolves the connection between the real world and the fictional one, Rothfeld and co. seem to think its powerlessness is that it overaffirms it; where Bewes says the contemporary novel enables us to think in a world in which “all possible options for thought . . . seem to have been anticipated and laid out in advance,” Rothfeld and co. seem to think the contemporary novel itself has already been anticipated and laid out in advance; for Bewes, all nonfiction is becoming fiction, and for Rothfeld and co., all fiction is becoming nonfiction. The novel isn’t being novel enough, it seems.

But maybe we’re asking too much of the novel. Maybe being anticipated and laid out in advance isn’t so bad; maybe people feel comforted by seeing stuff they’ve seen before, and maybe that comfort is good: exhausted from work, we just want to settle down with our comfortably familiar piece of contemporary fiction and try to restore just a little bit of sanity so that we can wake up and do it all again. In this way, as Mark McGurl argues in Everything and Less, reading is a key part of social reproduction, and the familiarity of genre a key feature of reading’s therapeutic qualities.

Should we expect more from our novels than therapeutic rejuvenation? I’d hope we could start by expecting more from our therapy. My understanding is that the point of therapy isn’t just to comfort you but also to change you. A lot of the work therapy seems to do is make you alert to your automatic behaviors; it reveals patterns of thought that might seem laid out in advance, and it invites you to break them. So maybe we can turn this on its head: what if therapy is actually fundamentally like the novel?

Novels and therapy are similar in that if you want them to do something positive in your life, you need a certain level of open-minded commitment; this is true on both sides of the equation. The insight about the novel I think about the most is something my friend Niall said to me once. He told me that he finds it frustrating when novelists and their novels refuse to be vulnerable because, in the act of reading, he makes himself vulnerable to novels and their novelists — after all, I’m letting you into my head; you should let me into yours. One way to be vulnerable is to be open to profound failure; if you expect your novel to do nothing — save, perhaps, some therapeutic rejuvenation — you won’t be disappointed when it does. But why not have unreasonable expectations for our novels? Why not let our novels have unreasonable expectations of us?

Doing so would involve taking a risk, something young people now are famously averse to, for plenty of good structural reasons. You can read about the effects of a precarious economy, a hyperfunded police force, and all the rest in Malcolm Harris’ Kids These Days, where he lays it out pretty directly: “[t]he Millennial character is a product of life spent investing in your own potential and being managed like a risk.” Risk isn’t the master key to the contemporary novel, but it’s a useful frame. I’m not really interested in scolding anyone for being risk-averse; it just seems pretty clear — given everything — that there are some we need to take. Because of the way it thinks, I think the novel is a good place to do so: it’s a space to shatter myths and work with the pieces. At the very least, it can model a certain kind of freedom. In their thematic, moral, and formal risks, most of my favorite novels from the past ten years — Jackie Ess’s Darryl, Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season — do just that.

But writers aren’t the only ones who have to take risks. Publishers have to take them, as do readers. It’s easy enough to dismiss all thoughts in a novel as hollow and ironized, but it’s important to learn to read ironized things sincerely. We have to be open to the idea that a thought with no authority is a thought still worth engaging. As any stoner will tell you, even the goofiest things can take on life-altering significance, and as any Marxist will tell you, even the goofiest things are worth ruthlessly criticizing. We have to read both ways: critically and openly.

Of course, the novelist also has to write this way. I think a lot about something the rapper now rapping under the name R.A.P. Ferreira, formerly under the name milo, says on the outro of his song “Rapper”: “[a]nd for following every rule, all you received was applause.” I’d hope the idea that artists should be aiming for more than applause is fairly uncontroversial. Art isn’t homework. It should do more than please. A novel doesn’t have to be exactly the same kind of communist you are to be worth your time, and the stronger, and I think truer, claim is that a novel can be exactly the same kind of communist you are and not be worth your time. But — given everything — shouldn’t it be trying to change things? That it probably can’t isn’t a particularly compelling reason not to try — something being very hard doesn’t make it impossible.

Alex Pabán Freed is a writer living in the Bay Area.