ARNOLD BENNETT, reviewing Dodsworth, observed that the novels of Sinclair Lewis “have always one admirable quality: they are about something.” What living novelist, intending praise, would make a remark like that about a distinguished fellow writer today? To do so would be an act of the gravest intellectual gaucherie. The art of fiction, insofar as it aspires to be regarded as art, is no longer expected to be “about” anything so mundane as (in Bennett’s words) “a definite, important, and understandable theme, which affects whole classes and even whole nations.” What suffices-what is, indeed, preferred-is a fastidious collision of ego and artifice. In what is sometimes called “the new fiction”-perhaps to distinguish it from those outmoded “old” novels that combined a minimum standard of readability with a cast of credible characters-the workaday details of common experience are steadfastly avoided in the effort to render, as perfectly as possible, a pure state of mind. Even that most encompassing of all fictional genres-the picaresque tale of adventures in unfamiliar worlds-has been effectively transformed into a chronicle of the mind’s errant lucubrations.
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