The Novel, Who Needs It?, by Joseph Epstein (Encounter, 152 pp., $16.39)
Critics have long debated the state of the novel as an art form. The argument has intensified with the rise of the fictional memoir over the past 20 years and recent efforts to discern a novel’s “usefulness,” not as an aesthetic or ethical experience but as therapy to cure one’s ills and neuroses.
It might be easy to give up on the novel, but in his latest book, The Novel, Who Needs It?, Joseph Epstein argues against such despair. He not only affirms the novel’s status as an art form but also helps to rekindle the passions found in old stories. Balancing cultural criticism, meditations on particular novels, and personal experience, he invites us to take a journey, in an almost Homerian sense, through the world of the novel, asking what the form means to us and to our culture.
Epstein’s book covers many topics: plot, morality, beauty, good and bad writing, ideology, and even sex in literature. Never a moralist or a prude but always a thoughtful guide, Epstein engages deeply with each novel he discusses. He also tells the novel’s own story, rightfully concluding that that story hasn’t reached its end.
Again, some argue that reading a novel is a purely aesthetic or pleasure-inducing experience; others insist that novels contain a kind of inherent morality that helps us become better people. Epstein’s argument is different. In his learned yet approachable style, Epstein refuses to draw sharp distinctions between a novel’s ethical and aesthetic merits. A novel’s substance is far more elusive than that: “The knowledge provided by the best novels is knowledge that cannot be enumerated nor subjected to strict testing. Wider, less confined, deeper, its subject is human existence itself, in all its dense variousness and often humbling confusion.”
Epstein also understands that ideology is one of the chief killers of anyart form, the novel included. Writers who set out to persuade the reader to adopt an ideology are more likely to write bad novels. Such writers sacrifice the nuances of the human condition, good and evil, at the altar of politics. Epstein claims a good novel “attempt[s] to grasp and cage that elusive bird known as reality,” which “entails questioning, complexity, irony, dubiety about much that others consider home truths.”
A novel may not be true, strictly speaking, but neither is it an existential lie. On the contrary, novels contain “the truth of the imagination.” Epstein claims it is “moral imagination, carefully calibrating the meaning of human acts, that makes for great fiction.” Such imagination saves us from ideology, political correctness, and reduction of literature to mere therapy. Epstein writes that “Political correctness, if its rampages on the culture are allowed to continue to go unchecked, also figures to destroy the criticism of novels, and, for that matter, much else in the cultural and educational realms. How can a man possibly criticize the novel of a woman, a white criticize that of a black, a straight of a gay writer?” Such simplistic divisions not only obscure the most important reality that novels explore—being human—but contribute to the therapeutic ethos that is ruining literature.
In 1996, Oprah Winfrey introduced “Oprah’s Book Club.” Winfrey’s audience responded well to her new project, which mildly boosted Americans’ reading habits (and enriched the living authors she recommended). But Winfrey also had a penchant for therapy. In her discussions, she sought to use her selected novels as tools to work through one’s psychological and spiritual problems. While a novel can,and often does, help us see ourselves in a clearer light, such epiphanies and revelations should not be our primary purpose in reading narrative fiction. Such a singular focus hardly leaves room for morality or beauty.
We see the “evidence of the triumph of the therapeutic everywhere in current-day life,” Epstein observes. The therapeutic culture tells us to “let it all out,” but what does this mean? Does unburdening ourselves lead to happiness? As Epstein writes, “Great literature is about the role of destiny and moral conflict. The therapeutic culture is about individual happiness.” He seems to ask: Should we be so concerned about being happy?
One way out of the endless cycle of self-regard is to step outside of ourselves, to embrace what Mikhail Bakhtin called “dialogic imagination.” To do that, we must read not just for pleasure or therapy, but for life itself. Epstein’s book invites us to do as much, reflecting not only on many great novels but also on our connection to truth, reality, and—that most neglected of things—love.
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