Essay June 2014

How the Novel Made the Modern World

And how the modern world unmade the novel

Martin Amis once remarked, apropos of the idea of writing a book about America, that you might as well try to write one about people, or life. Or, he might have said, the English novel. Yet here we have the fruits of such an enterprise in all their cyclopedic, cyclopean glory: Michael Schmidt’s The Novel: A Biography—1,100 pages spanning nearly 30 dozen authors, starting with the pseudonymous Sir John Mandeville (he of the 14th-century Travels) and ending 45 brisk, brilliant, intimate, assured, and almost unflaggingly interesting chapters later with Amis himself.

Such an effort represents the labor of a lifetime, one would think. In fact, it is a kind of sequel to Lives of the Poets (1998), a comparably commodious compendium. Schmidt—who was born in Mexico, went to school in part in the United States, and has made his career in Britain—is himself a poet and novelist as well as an editor, publisher, anthologist, translator, and teacher. Given the fluidity with which he ranges across the canon (as well as quite a bit beyond it), one is tempted to say that he carries English literature inside his head as if it were a single poem, except that there are sections in The Novel on the major Continental influences, too—the French, the Russians, Cervantes, Kafka—so it isn’t only English. If anyone’s up for the job, it would seem to be him.

Still, 1,100 pages (and rather big ones, at that). I wasn’t sure I had the patience for it. Then I read this, in the second paragraph. Schmidt is telling us about the figures he’s enlisted as our guides along the way, novelist-critics like Henry James, Virginia Woolf, V. S. Pritchett, Gore Vidal, and many others:

They are like members of an eccentric family in an ancestral mansion … Some are full of respect, some reserved, others bend double with laughter; the rebellious and impatient slash the canvases, twist the cutlery, raise a toast, and throw the crystal in the grate. Their damage is another chapter in the story.

It wasn’t the notion that Schmidt was going to orchestrate the volume as a dialogue with and among these practitioners, though that was promising. It wasn’t the metaphor of the eccentric family per se, though that was interesting. It was the writing itself. The language was alive; the book would be alive as well. Take a breath, clear the week, turn off the WiFi, and throw yourself in.

Schmidt’s account is chronological, but loosely so. Early chapters flash forward to the present or near-present, so that Aphra Behn shares quarters with Zora Neale Hurston, Daniel Defoe with Capote and Coetzee. Schmidt is weaving threads, picking out lines of descent: the Gothic, the exotic, the vernacular, the journalistic; manners, genres, voices, verisimilitude. Through Mandeville and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and The Pilgrim’s Progress, we see the novel (or rather, its precursors) find a sense of form, coalesce from a sequence of incidents into a coherent structure. Through Defoe and Richardson and Fielding, the 18th-century emergence, we see it becoming the novel.

A Biography: Schmidt’s subtitle is cunningly chosen. The novel begins as a bigheaded infant, takes its first uncertain steps, then slowly gathers its capacities. Once they’ve been invented, they’re available to all. “Earlier novelists address the reader directly,” Schmidt remarks in reference to Laurence Sterne in Tristram Shandy, “but not personally.” Later, in Austen, “something new and remarkable begins to happen”: by perfecting the technique of free indirect discourse, in which the minds of narrator and character merge, she creates protagonists who feel so real “that they can step outside the frame of their particular novel and companion us.” By the time of the Brontës in the middle of the 19th century (we’re a fourth of the way through the book), “the form had become versatile and capacious: Scott filled it with history, the Gothic writers with dream.” Chronology is change but also enrichment; fashions and phases will get our understanding only so far. Every novelist is free to reach back into history, pull out an old trick, and make it new.

In Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster famously requests us to imagine the English novelists not as floating down the stream of time, but “seated together in a room, a circular room,” all writing at once. In Schmidt, they get up and mingle. The book, at its heart, is a long conversation about craft. The terms of discourse aren’t the classroom shibboleths of plot, character, and theme, but language, form, and address. Here is where we feel the force of Schmidt’s experience as an editor and a publisher as well as a novelist. He knows how books get written, and not just in technical terms. He tells us that Fielding got £800 for Amelia, guides us through the office politics of literary London circa 1900, lets us in on who became a drunk, got divorced, had an outsider’s chip on his shoulder. The book is a biography in that sense, too: the lives of the novelists.

Schmidt understands that novels are written for readers—not “ideal” readers, not readers in the abstract, but actual people out there in the market—and he explains how books and buyers shape each other. Arnold Bennett, who made himself rich in the years before the First World War, played to the audience created by mass literacy. “He knew what the new reader wanted: authority, instruction, a way of feeling safe in the world of books, of not being wrong-footed by a natural liking or an exposed ignorance.” The literary novel—the modernist novel in the wake of Flaubert—arose against the same phenomenon. Its way, Schmidt suggests, had been prepared by Poe, who not only invented a genre, the detective story, “he invented, by extension, the reader of that genre,” who then “impacts upon the future writer with … techniques of suspicious reading, where every detail is interrogated and weighed.”

Presented by

William Deresiewicz is the author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, forthcoming in August from Free Press.

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