Orphans of Dickens

The social novel at the end of society

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After the election of the forty-fifth president of the United States, something happened to fiction. Here I don’t mean, thank goodness and for once, the concept of fiction, as opposed to or distinguished from fact. While newspapers benefited (mildly) from a so-called Trump bump of new subscribers urgently wishing to be better informed about just what the hell was going on, the sales of novels—the once profitable form of fiction—continued to decrease in 2017. Information’s stock rose; artifice suffered. Or maybe artifice was taking on a new role in American public life—which is to say, a new old role, one it had for a while been playing in a none-too-fresh milieu, what we might have been inclined to think of as the already-outmoded narrative style of reality television. Artifice, fantasy, fiction, allegory, whatever you want to call it, was edited within an inch of its life, blown up to hysterical proportions, broadcast on an inane loop and unceasingly. This inauguration was the best attended of all time! This statement follows logically in no way from images you have seen and other narratives you have come to accept! You’ll believe me when I tell you because I (can) say it!

It’s now two years since. I have almost no ambition to rehash the disasters and debacles, but I do want to point out a little slip that will have some bearing on what I have to say here—which is, overall, about the state of American fiction, rather than the state of electoral politics. Here, in my opinion, is the slip: we tend to speak of the current executive’s maneuvers as “irrational,” claiming they emerge out of a lack of epistemic if not instrumental “rationality,” which is to say, a lack of respect for the efficacy of reason, but we speak less about their status in relation to narrative forms. Indeed, so much of the media we consume is non-narrative, in spite of the existence of presumably linear “timelines,” that it probably does not occur to us to note that what we mean by “rationality”—a concept that seems only vaguely word-like to me and might well be replaced by “reason”—is almost the same thing as narrative, the following-on of one event by another in an illuminating, usually causal way. His pronouncements are non-narrative, but then again, so is much of mediated social life these days. What journalists and other commentators frequently call “the narrative” (of politics, of values, of daily life, etc.) is a slot at the top of a recently refreshed feed, an instance of disjunction.

There is, I would argue, a notable hunger in American society for the comforts of narrative.

I mention these categorical slips—of reason for narrative, of narrative for widely read non-sequitur—because I think it has something to do with the rise of nonfiction as a category of profitable literary writing, a rise that began long before the 2016 election. There is, I would argue, a notable hunger in American society for the comforts of narrative. It’s a hunger for a species of meaning-making that is not specifically logical (though it may be that too) but which rather provides an account of how things, sometimes sentient, sometimes material, get organized across space and time and in relation to one another and sequentially, such that they become the way things are, after having been the way things were. Sure, narrative can be revelatory and informative, but it can also be reassuring, grounding. To attempt to understand and maintain one’s personal narrative is to be healthy, as the popular wisdom goes. Narrative can be incremental; it offers itself up to analysis. It promises to explain something about what human intention and agency are. It is attractively historical. The problem for the contemporary novelist—a problem less pressing for the author of a text on the history of codfish or the business practices of Uber—is that daily life, that classic subject and location of the novel, is, much like everyday consciousness, no longer narrative. I mean, it’s quite possible that human consciousness was never narrative (Thucydides for one seems to think so, particularly in his writings on pirates), but more and more people want narrative, a) because they want to know how we got here and, b) because they want to know what to do next. As the philosopher Galen Strawson has argued, a preference for diachronic, narrative description of human life predominates in contemporary culture, supported by “a vast chorus of assent . . . from the humanities—literary studies, psychology, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, political theory, religious studies, echoed back by psychotherapy, medicine, law, marketing, design.” As for Strawson, he’s happily “transient,” as he puts it, with a fundamentally shifting, episodic self. This position does not, I assume, automatically entail enthusiasm for social media, but there’s a sort of formal rhyme I can’t help pointing up.

In a way, I wish I lived in a time in which algorithms weren’t sowing chaos with respect to democracy and the public sphere, but given what I know of human history (another cherished narrative!), it’s likely there’d be some other largely invisible mechanism with a similar function. Meanwhile, as the idea that there is some counterintuitive explanation for the results of the 2016 election burns off and more and more narrativizing reports appear, it’s been interesting to observe fiction’s attempt to self-correct, to return to its former, if ambiguous, place of cultural relevance. It’s scrambling, but in a recognizable direction. This isn’t just a matter of markets, of course; it’s also personal, creative. Writers are citizens, too, and accordingly hold themselves accountable after the fashion of their times—sometimes presciently. Enter, therefore, what looks to be a resurgence of the social novel.

A Sentimental Education

We know a little of what the social novel was. At the very least, we know of Charles Dickens and what the literary historian Louis Cazamian calls that author’s “philosophy of Christmas.” I hope you will laugh a little here, as I think Cazamian is attempting to be at once ironic and precise. Dickens was arguably the first author to bring the urban lower middle class into the European novel as more than scenic decor; reflecting in various ways on his father’s time in debtor’s prison as well as his own stint as a factory laborer during that parent’s absence, Dickens described the precariousness produced by industrialization in generally moving detail—even if Americans are more apt to remember the amusing eccentricities of Tiny Tim and Miss Havisham than the sociological achievement of a work like 1854’s Hard Times, which stands as a sort of anatomy of the imaginary mill town of Coketown. Changes in the British political system and economy during the earlier part of the nineteenth century (expanded suffrage after 1832 and increasing readership of the press) meant that there was an eager audience for fiction that touched upon the organization of society. In the early 1830s, Harriet Martineau, a young, unmarried woman, became the author of a series of bestselling serial parables that explained basic economic concepts such as free trade, via “The Loom and the Lugger,” and unions, via “A Manchester Strike.” Martineau’s Illustrations of Political Economy (1832–34) emerged out of her conviction that the economic and the personal were not separate spheres, and her more than slightly didactic bent was surely influential for the style of serialized novel Dickens would first produce in 1836 with the Pickwick Papers. Dickens’s work built on Romanticism’s convictions regarding the importance of national history to contemporary identity, with the difference that the influence of modern (i.e., mechanized) systems on the individual were explored. In addition, unlike Sir Walter Scott, he of the sweeping national-historical romance, Dickens dealt unabashedly in coincidence, cuteness, and sentimentality—apparently hoping to motivate readers to philanthropic attitudes and works through minor styles of depiction designed to inspire pity.

It is worth underlining the strategies Dickens used to depict the social world, because even as his novels are among the most familiar to us out of the nineteenth-century Anglophone pantheon (try Googling “Scrooge McDuck merchandise”), their style seems, the contemporary American liberal maintains, anathema to what is valuable and appropriate in politicized art. The cool methods of the French realist novel have somehow won out, and we are inclined to side with Gustave Flaubert when he criticizes the pious deaths of children in that problematic American novel of persuasion, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, itself surely a Dickensian attempt and also notable as the best-selling novel of its century. Americans have learned, perhaps through the rise of documentary technique in the interwar period, that vaguely objective points of view can be not only manufactured but also popularized—via imitation of the action of the camera or the hardboiled tone of the press. Such ambitions to objectivity dovetail nicely with the lessons of modernism, in that both suggest that all representation is inevitably mediated. And, according to the tenets of the New Journalism, which sees its forebears in James Agee and perhaps the George Orwell of The Road to Wigan Pier, those desirous of socially relevant narrative can agree that the author is a mediator, a collector, a sociologist, a recording device well aware that “we tell ourselves [constructed] stories.” The culture, a collective invention, is out there to be absorbed. The culture is way more interesting than literature, as Tom Wolfe, for one, many times maintained.

I want to linger for a moment on the bizarre figure that is Tom Wolfe, who wrote so many interesting nonfiction books and then went on to write some of the worst novels of the late twentieth century.

I want to linger for a moment on the bizarre figure that is Tom Wolfe, who wrote so many interesting nonfiction books and then went on to write some of the worst novels of the late twentieth century. In November 1989, in a promotional push for the paperback edition of Bonfire of the Vanities, Wolfe published a modest summation of the state of affairs in Harper’s: “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast: A literary manifesto for the new social novel.” Here Wolfe establishes a position at once reactionary and revolutionary (his specialty, it seems). He argues that Philip Roth, standing in for general elitist aversion, steered the ship of the American novel away from realism, such that, “By the mid-1960s the conviction was not merely that the realistic novel was no longer possible but that American life itself no longer deserved the term real. American life was chaotic, fragmented, random, discontinuous; in a word, absurd.” Fair enough, but what was the solution? A: Read Bonfire of the Vanities.

I wanted to fulfill a prediction I had made in the introduction to The New Journalism in 1973; namely, that the future of the fictional novel would be in a highly detailed realism based on reporting, a realism more thorough than any currently being attempted, a realism that would portray the individual in intimate and inextricable relation to the society around him.

Wolfe goes on to excuse his rather unsympathetic attitude toward black Americans in Bonfire as prescient reporting and to saw endlessly away at that well-carved chestnut, POSTMODERNISM: RUINING EVERYTHING. But Wolfe would never wax so sentimental as to claim that he is an inheritor of the god-fearing orphans of Dickens. Don’t take him for some sort of Cold War puritan! Instead, he cites an earlier vein of the British novel: Richardson, Fielding, Smollett. These are Enlightenment coffeehouse thinkers, polite anthropologists of the figure of Modern Woman, pre-industrial wits. What Wolfe wants is detail, endless detail. And guess what, would-be novelists? All the complexity and detail of contemporary America is free. You just have to be prepared to go out and take it.

Mr. Contract

Wolfe’s Harper’s apologia of the awful late eighties would be more forgettable if it hadn’t been followed by Jonathan Franzen’s endlessly cited and diametrically opposed essay of the mid-nineties (1996, to be precise), published, of course, in the same magazine. Franzen’s splenetic “Perchance to Dream: In the Age of Images, a Reason to Write Novels” blames the information overload on television and the early internet rather than Philip Roth—overall, not a bad move—and concludes that if you want Americans to read your socially engaged books you will need to get maudlin. Although but a brief seven years had elapsed since Wolfe’s sales pitch, the takeaway is that white men are probably as irrelevant to American culture as, say, novels themselves. All the same, Franzen has much to say about both.

Franzen’s exemplars of social-novel success are less antique than Wolfe’s. He goes on a moderate tear about Paula Fox’s 1970 study of the vacuity and instability of white liberals, Desperate Characters. Fox wasn’t culturally successful, of course, according to Franzen. However, hers is the book to read. Culturally successful American social novelists—William Dean Howells, Upton Sinclair, and Harriet Beecher Stowe—are all dead and anyway wrote in a differently mediated age. Their research into the country’s social ills was universalizable. And if Franzen seems to flirt with the notion that novelists might not be omniscient, he eventually concludes that “a black lesbian from New York” and [insert default non-black person, not a lesbian] are cosmically united by their shared “guilty crush on Uma Thurman.” Part of me wants this to be some sort of shy three-way proposition, but I don’t think it is. Reading this now, it feels like an elaborate diversionary tactic—by which I mean, the whole essay. And although, like Wolfe, Franzen keeps his distance from Dickens (C.D. merits but a name-check), it seems safe to say that Dickens’s adaptation by Disney is at the embarrassing Midwestern heart of this matter. If you really want universal plus contemporary plus novel, Disney-fied Dickens is it: this synthesis is inoffensively Christian, magical, and also capitalist; it honors the self-abdicating poor, features race- and genitalia-free animals; kids can watch it. I’m not saying anyone should want this, by the way. I’m just saying, what is the point of an essay about abandoning the notion of an American social novel because of the ills of television plus civil rights that doesn’t address the neutering of Dickens by Disney? The closest Franzen comes to mentioning these cultural matters is a moment in which his imaginary lesbian is seen to be spiritually united with the default American through her shared propensity to buy Pocahontas-themed products at discount stores.

If you really want universal plus contemporary plus novel, Disney-fied Dickens is it: this synthesis is inoffensively Christian, magical and also capitalist.

Weirdly, as we all know, Franzen won. He courted his suburbanites, the people he explicitly named as the first generation produced by white flight, and he got their attention. In 2001, 2010, and 2015 they bought his novels—even the creepily titled Purity, which features a nominally Dickensian heroine, a girl named Pip. In an essay on the impenetrable verbal plenitude of novelist William Gaddis, “Mr. Difficult,” published in The New Yorker in 2002, a sort of poetics and apologia for The Corrections, Franzen explains how he cracked the relevance code: “ . . . a novel represents a compact between the writer and the reader, with the writer providing words out of which the reader creates a pleasurable experience.” Put otherwise, don’t say anything your reader will not instantly comprehend. Keep it all familiar. (Don’t be like Gaddis!) Fascinating frankness aside, I don’t think Franzen’s brand of social novel—which leans hard on the coincidence line from Dickens while discarding serious sociological content—is holding up against the news and nonfiction, not with our desire for tenacious narratives of development and explanation, as opposed to semi-soft narratives of chance encounters and quirky detail. Indeed, Franzen has always been most interesting, ironically enough, when, far from pandering, he goes light-speed postmodern. His self-reflexive commentary on the author known as Jonathan Franzen is some of his best work.

If I seem to be falling into a Franzen hole, or what amounts to a secondary Dickens hole, let me recalibrate. What I’m trying to say is that when it comes to the Anglophone social novel, the Dickens hole is way, way bigger, and even monumental American social novelists studiously avoided by Franzen, like John Steinbeck and Ralph Ellison, owe something to the Dickensian mode. So with Dickens prominently in the rearview, my question now is, given the contemporary hunger for narrative and fact—an obvious invitation for new social novels to proliferate—what will authors do?

Math and Sensibility

If you were reading the stories published in The New Yorker throughout 2018, the summer in particular, you have one answer. This answer is that topics pulled from headlines—extreme weather produced by climate change, the opioid crisis, #MeToo, the plight of migrants—make for worthy short social fiction. Although some friends rolled their eyes at these literalist tales, I had to admit I sort of liked them. Maybe I liked them for the same reason that I find Harriet Martineau’s parables interesting: they take a subject, work it through a narrative format, arrive at what seems like a necessary ending. In the ending is often contained a lesson—or, a reframing of the original social quandary. In Sana Krasikov’s narratologically flawless “Ways and Means,” set in an NPR-like milieu, the mechanisms and optics of workplace romance are explored. A female employee in her forties, a sound engineer, “dates” an older married show host; when the host ends the relationship abruptly, citing his wife’s cancer diagnosis, the sound engineer thinks little of it. Things become more complex, however, when the host is accused of harassment by an employee in her twenties and the sound engineer is asked to intervene. As the sound engineer learns more about the host’s activities, she realizes that she was not dumped because of the wife’s illness, but because the host preferred a more youthful work-paramour. How the tables turn! What emerges, through the revision of two apparently separate plotlines into a single causally linked series, is the host’s lack of regard for others. At the same time, Krasikov’s comparison of the two women, in their distinct reactions to similar events, reveals intergenerational difference. We can read the forty-year-old as thoughtful if naïve, the woman in her twenties as opportunistic; or, we can see the former as willfully blind to misogyny, the latter as brave and forthright—or perhaps some other permutation altogether.

I liked Krasikov’s story as a description of contemporary mores, but I liked it even more as a formal feat. It felt like a piece of math to me, and these days I’m finding I like math more and more. It’s that feeling that the numbers don’t lie, as the cliché goes. This is likely a species of the contemporary hunger for narrative I mentioned earlier: Krasikov’s story did something—something narrative—to explain how two women who might well be allies could as easily find themselves at personal and professional odds. “Ways and Means,” while not exactly an illustration of political economy, comes, as its title suggests, pretty damn close.

The New Yorker’s turn to topicality and didactic parables caused me to think more about the connection between not just the news and fiction, but social fact and (social) fiction. At the end of the day, even if the plot of Madame Bovary was once ripped from headlines, this, the ripping of material from headlines, is not a reliable means of selecting one’s fictional subjects (see my earlier contentions re: Tom Wolfe). The writer needs a descriptive thickness not necessarily or absolutely associated with sensationalism, if not a personal connection to events. Rachel Kushner and Gary Shteyngart’s recent social works, The Mars Room and Lake Success, respectively, go the thickness route. Carefully researched and lushly written, these two tales of a white woman serving multiple life sentences, inadvertently having abandoned her son, and a (white) finance bro avoiding prison while collecting watches and traveling the United States by bus, having intentionally abandoned his son, are largely concerned with the emotional experience of their subjects. While there is much to admire in each of these books, particularly stylistically speaking, there is a certain lightness with respect to information, in spite of what seems to be a non-negligible amount of research into how to describe the milieus in question. The books are extremely vivid, yet one does not come away from one’s reading better informed regarding either the American prison system or the American finance industry. One may learn more about human psychology, about fate and inheritance; the settings of these novels remain just that. These are not didactic works. They are portraits that discuss unique persons, not broader systems.

I can’t say I was altogether disappointed. After all, I had come to these novels in order to read novels. Shteyngart’s was particularly novel-y (in using this fake adjective, I recall an expressive redundancy once employed by a friend, “It’s a novel-y ass novel”). Lake Success features a despicable novelist as one antagonist of the finance bro, who himself, we learn, once harbored literary ambitions. I don’t want to say that Lake Success has zero sociological ambition; it’s just that most of this ambition seems to have been expended in the enumeration of appurtenances common to luxury condos in Manhattan, along with the particulars of very expensive watches, of which it seems the author is himself a collector. I know pathetically little about how trading works but learned nothing from this book about it. Given my renewed interest in the use of plots to explain other complex social systems, I couldn’t help feeling somewhat sad. “Explain the money part to me!” I wanted to yell as Shteyngart sent his reader into yet another one-percenter’s domestic space, which, I knew, was to be described in obsessive detail, à la Émile Zola, via a close third. But all I gleaned was which expensive things were allegedly worth buying, not where the money came from.

Kushner’s book is the more complex and astute of the two. I think this is because Kushner is particularly good on questions of inheritance and trauma, how it is that we often do not and cannot fully know our own narratives. Her protagonists, much like Galen Strawson, are transients as opposed to endurers. We are apt to come upon them in the midst of piecing together a narrative that stubbornly refuses to cohere. And within this non-coherence of the self, other events, usually tragic, intervene. It’s a moving and convincing sort of paradigm, yet Kushner’s writing on sex work in The Mars Room is far more believable than her writing on prison politics, and I sometimes found myself confused about what I was meant to glean from scenes in which the incarcerated protagonist exhibits admirable behavior, refusing to scapegoat others or to participate in white supremacy. Why depict a white woman whose relationship to identity politics is one of such pure forbearance? I asked myself as I read. Romy, the protagonist and a first-person narrator, seemed not unrealistic, exactly, but an exception, a philosopher with no formal education— which was, I had to assume, part of the point.

Let’s have more social novels that explore the disruption and near-impossibility of our cherished narrative forms.

In thinking about what Kushner does well in her book, which is to articulate the movements of human psychology in situations of extremity, I began thinking about another book, Matthew Desmond’s Evicted of 2016, which is not a novel but which, to great acclaim, accomplished what an idealized version of the contemporary social novel might do. Based on recordings and notes Desmond, a sociologist, made while living in poor mostly black neighborhoods and a mostly white trailer park in Milwaukee, Evicted, which has already received its due praise and does not need me to lionize it, explains the political economy of real estate in impoverished communities in the contemporary United States—from housing court, to eviction day, to shelter, to new apartment or trailer, and back again. The book also explains why it is profitable to provide substandard housing, unpacking the business of being a slumlord. There are deeply engrossing characters (their names changed) along with a tiny cat named Little who, like at least one infant, does not survive; the reader is moved, even as this remains a didactic text. I found, in reading it, that I could not tell if Desmond’s primary concern was to explain housing issues in Milwaukee or to think about the ways in which people talk and move around their homes, interacting with their neighbors. The book feels literary: people crack jokes, fall in love; coincidences occur. It is not that Desmond uses a convenient narrative form to illustrate his point, but that he finds narrative forms in social and economic relations (indeed, this seems to be a major part of the sort of analysis that interests him). As he writes of one of his subjects, “After being kicked out of her apartment with Vanetta, Crystal was admitted to a homeless shelter. Then through a weary, looping rhythm—make a friend, use a friend, lose a friend—Crystal found, for short bursts, dry and warm places to sleep.” The cycle of eviction is narrative, but unlike the sort of psychologically constituted narrative self Strawson, for one, has in mind, the self eviction shapes is constituted through geography and economic exchange, as well as interaction with others. As Tom Wolfe might contend, perhaps misguidedly, you don’t have to make this stuff up. Yet the way Evicted thinks about what analytic philosophers like to call the maintenance of personal identity is not novelistic. It is not drama; it is fact. In an important sense, we already know what happens.

To return to Shteyngart for a moment, I think about a certain scene early on in Lake Success, in which the protagonist Barry engages in a bit of interpretive thick description of a woman he sees in Port Authority,

“What do you want me to do?” the woman said. One of her mesh bunny ears drooped over her face. Her bottom teeth seemed to be where her top teeth should be and she had no bottom teeth. She was white. Just an hour into his journey, Barry was starting to get something about the Trump phenomenon. Like an idiot, he had thrown 1.7 million, almost two bucks, after Marco Rubio. What choice did he have? He had sat through a five-hour dinner with Ted Cruz in a private room at the Gramercy Tavern after which Joey Goldblatt had turned to him and whispered, “He’s a psychopath.” So they all bet their millions on Rubio. They should have met this woman first. There was nothing Rubio could do for her.

As I read this, I found myself wondering if metonymic details like this woman’s “mesh bunny ears” are effective. While they are clearly a symbol of extractive systems now inescapable in the United States, they remain symbolic. Harkening back to the Playboy bunny and indicating this woman’s simultaneous sexual availability and economic vulnerability, maybe even her status as a sort of permanent servant, the ears are probably made of unstable plastics and imported from China. I know Shteyngart wants to entertain his reader in this moment—and Barry’s flawed observations are meant to be fodder for the reader’s own criticism—yet this character, who prompts one of the more interesting moments of self-reflection in the novel, never reappears. She’s not much more than ears and teeth. The same could be said of a homeless man Barry gets high with and gives a blowjob to later on. These characters appear as bodies with interesting qualities, colorful extras; yet, their narratives are fundamentally separate from the central narrative of Lake Success. And maybe this is the point, that the finance bro really does have nothing to do with poor people and poverty. But if this is the case, why stage these sorts of interactions in a work of literature?

Life Sentences

In his recent novel, Moving Kings, Joshua Cohen describes movers. They’re part of the business of eviction, and though they wouldn’t show up in the Milwaukee-based Evicted, being New Yorkers and all, there’s something of Evicted’s understanding of the narrative nature of the cycle of eviction that occurs in Cohen’s prose, too.

Some houses they’d strike it rich, some would be busts—that was the gamble. That’s why there’d always be a guarantee of base fee from the landlord whose tenant they were tossing or the bank or whoever held the lien.

Around Thanksgiving, they’d tossed two houses with nobody home. In another residence they’d gutted, everyone was giddy and civil because mentally feeble. [ . . . ] Another woman had dandled her infant out a window. . . .

Moving Kings, I should emphasize, is a highly episodic work. We’re never entirely sure whose novel or story it is—and, because of this, it doesn’t leave us with the impression that we’ve witnessed a single event. Rather, the incoherence of the narrative of Moving Kings serves to emphasize the at once repetitive and disruptive nature of the temporal experience of kicking people out of their homes (as well as that of being kicked out), along with the sorts of personal disjunction associated with immigration to the United States. Rather than seek development and interrelationship, Cohen shows how the impulse to construct narrative survives, perhaps pointlessly, in an environment in which it is frustrated at every turn. I don’t know if Moving Kings is, given this tendency, totally successful as a novel, nor is it exactly a sociological work disguised as literature, but it is an impressive literary document about the experience of time and social life in this era. The hunger for narrative is dramatized in the thoughts and actions of the characters of Moving Kings via a contemporary emotional mode the critic Lauren Berlant has called “cruel optimism”; Cohen’s characters are themselves inventive, creative—we watch them tell themselves stories in order to survive.

The effective disorganization of Moving Kings thus furnishes one clue as to where fiction might go if it wishes to maintain its literary chops while also traveling further into the unfolding particulars of the current situation in the United States. And I think Kushner is embarking on such an exploration, too, though she perhaps remains excessively focused on first-person narrative—and one might well find Jackie Wang’s use of an autobiographical, critical first person in Carceral Capitalism, for example, more effective than this sort of speculative persona. Of course, The Mars Room is likely to have a broader audience than Wang’s theory, even though Carceral Capitalism is likely to be read for a longer time and perhaps more deeply, if at first by fewer people.

This leaves me with the thought that the problem and possibilities of the contemporary social novel are not exclusively tied to genre—i.e., they are not the classical problems of the novel, per se. They aren’t exactly the problems and possibilities offered by the familiar challenge of maintaining a balance between action and description (famously described by György Lukács in his rants on the political efficacy of realist prose). There’s something challenging in this unfamiliar territory but also something hopeful, not just because we seem still to like novels, but because it’s clear that literature can contribute, in a significant way, to contemporary events. And where literature can help is in its combinatory and experimental capacities. Novelists can do things and try things that academics and critics cannot. So I am advocating for that now. Let’s have more social novels that explore the disruption and near-impossibility of our cherished narrative forms. Let’s have more social novels that look for narrative—and even fail to find it. In their spectacular and detailed failure, such novels may more closely resemble us.

Lucy Ives is the author of the novel Impossible Views of the World. Her second novel, Loudermilk, or the Real Poet, or the Origin of the World, will be published in May. 

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