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The Decline of the Public Novel

The novel — the public novel, whose release is a public event, the novel which everyone has to read or pretend to — “just doesn’t count for much anymore,” Joseph Bottum wrote in the Weekly Standard last week. It doesn’t pass what he calls the “cocktail-party test.” At a cocktail party, no one is ashamed to admit ignorance when asked for an opinion about this year’s five nominees for the National Book Award. Pretty much the opposite: you’d probably come off as a little strange if you could name three of the five.

Once upon a time the novel was “the device by which, more than any other, we tried to explain ourselves to ourselves,” Bottum says. Not any longer. “Even the hobbyists who read new fiction don’t look to such books for deep explanations of the human condition.” The last big public novel, he says, was Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, 24 years ago.

Well, Jonathan Franzen was on the cover of Time magazine last summer, and President Obama arranged to be “spotted” carrying an advance copy of Franzen’s big new novel Freedom. But Franzen’s real achievement, as Abe Greenwald observed in Contentions, was to pontificate about America’s guilt and inferiority to Europe in the style of a “disenchanted ninth grader,” and if his big public novel reached a mass audience, it was — as someone said somewhere — a “mass audience of self-regarding elitists.”

Bottum is impatient with such criticisms:

The common move at this point (among conservatives, at least) is to blame the writers. The nation’s novelists, you see, were ruined by the writing-workshop aesthetic that came out of the colleges. They were hurt as well by politics: the mainstreaming of left-wing thought, the sidelining of artists who failed to toe the line.

Since he is an old friend — we both got our start writing for the late Denis Dutton’s academic journal Philosophy and Literature — I can’t help but think Bottum is indirectly addressing me in these remarks. After all, I am one of those conservatives who has blamed creative writing for the fading significance of “literary fiction,” and my attack upon OccupyWriters.Com — “Almost a thousand of the best contemporary writers,” I wrote, have eagerly signed up to support “the goals of radical leftist tyranny” — nearly went viral when Salman Rushdie bit back.

Bottum assigns the blame for the novel’s decline elsewhere. Not in aesthetics and not in politics but in metaphysics lies the fault. “If novelists themselves don’t believe there exists a deep structure of morality and manners that can be discerned by the novel, why should readers believe it?” he asks. “Why should they care?”

I’m not certain that Bottum’s alternative is an either/or. Why can’t the explanation for the novel’s decline be both/and? Because they were socialized by a common training in writing workshops to adopt a common set of tastes and attitudes, and because these included a taste for liberal attitudinizing, American novelists lost all interest in morality and manners. Or because they inherited a metaphysical view of the universe as bereft of morality and manners, they were quick to adopt the substitute offered in graduate writing programs.

In any event, Bottum and I agree on one point. When conservatives call for a defense of Western culture, Bottum’s question is the first one to be asked: “What culture do you think we have left to defend?”