O Novel, Where Art Thou?

In the last few decades, reading habits of people around the world have changed dramatically. Technological advances have altered what media we consume and especially how we comprehend what we read. Thoughtful reflections and careful deliberations are on the decline, as is art in general. Ideology has taken over the public square as well as the art world. It’s no longer enough for art to be political (as false as that philosophical assertion is), it must be purely ideological. The intention of art is to act as a big canvas for propaganda that neither elevates the humanity nor seeks the truth, but that renders the mind captive.

According to Joseph Bottum, this rather disorienting change in how we view the novel is not accidental, and it didn’t materialize out of nowhere. In The Decline of the Novel, Bottum tells us that the novel as an art form is in serious trouble and has drastically changed. Novelists are no longer interested in leading us into the interior lives of the character. Instead, we are witnessing deconstruction and abandonment of novel’s existential purpose. Bottum proposes that “The novel was an art form—the art form—of the modern Protestant West, and as the main strength of established Protestant Christendom began to fail in Europe and the United States in recent decades, so did the cultural importance of the novel.” For Bottum, the fact that the novel no longer holds an important place in people’s imaginations is not merely a problem of the novel but of our overly secular culture. The loss of the novel stems from the loss of religion.

The Loss of the Introspective Self

Bottum carefully and meticulously catalogues the books that are representative of the novel and in which way they either succeed or fail. But even so, he does not make the lines rigid as if he’s measuring temperature or performing a scientific experiment. We are, after all, talking about the novel’s impact on the human soul, which cannot be contained or fully defined. As Bottum writes, “The journey of the self is the deepest, truest thing in the universe, and the individual soul’s salvation is the great metaphysical drama played out on the world’s stage.” Has today’s novel accomplished such a task? The jury is out on that question but only partially. Despite the fact that novels in, for example, 1800s encompassed worlds larger than four characters in a post-modern play, the notion of character’s interiority was still achieved. A protagonist was chosen by the novelist, and as we read, we begin to enter into the interior world of that character: his or her thoughts, emotions, fears, and desires. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is a perfect example of one woman’s suffering and endurance told in broad yet deep ways.

Whereas the Protestant West served as a mirror into the individual souls of characters occupying the novels, today “To be modern is to experience the mind itself as a kind of exteriority; we see our desires and thoughts as though they were objective elements that we can catalogue, understand, and explain—and thereby perhaps manipulate and change.”

Although Bottum does not mention this, we could say that the main difference between interiority of the past traditions of the novel and exteriority of the modern mind is relationality. What makes Jane Eyre stand out as a novel of interiority is the fact that Jane is constantly relating to the exterior world, and we see an interplay between the individual soul and the society, especially its norms.

Today, the novel plays almost no part in most people’s self-education. As Bottum writes, “Over the past few decades, we have experienced a growing disbelief in the power of what Western culture once routinely understood as its most illuminating art, and something disturbing is revealed by this breakdown of the old agreement between readers and writers that novels matter.” But who is to blame for this? Bottum concludes that “The novel didn’t fail us. We failed the novel.”

This failure of the novel is manifesting itself concurrently with the metaphysical shift in society as a whole, namely from the notion of individual’s interiority to modern mind’s exteriority. The idea of the self plays a great part in Bottum’s book. In fact, it is this notion that connects the paths between the ‘ancient’ and ‘modern’ conceptions of the self. The divide between ancient view of the world and modernity that Bottum writes about is not directly connected to the old philosophical debate between the “ancients” and the “moderns.” Rather, Bottum’s objective throughout the book is to claim (and rightfully so) that the modern or contemporary novel has ceased to ask perennial questions about what it means to be a human being. The self is indeed in a crisis, and as Bottum writes, “Why does anything matter, what could be important, if meaning is invented, coming from the self rather to the self? The novel—already running down parallel tracks of interior and exterior life thanks to its Protestant origin—was uniquely positioned as an art form to present the vivid picture of that crisis.”

The key point here is the movement “from the self to the self.” Bottum is describing a society that has freed itself from any connection to the community. The only thing that matters is the self in relation to the self. This is not entirely impossible but it makes no metaphysical sense. If the self is merely relating inwardly to the self, then there is no reason to seek any meaning in life whatsoever because the impact on the self is inconsequential. In other words, the notion of Selbstbildung is irrelevant if the self is not interested in relating to the society at large.

For Bottum, this crisis is primarily a moral one because the novel is not merely an exercise in aesthetics but a way to build up a human being ethically. In fact, he writes that interior thoughts and feelings “were important even in the premodern Aristotelian and Stoic rational accounts of the good life, although they were understood mostly as tools: instruments to be left behind once virtue had been achieved.”

A Cultural Crisis, Unobserved

After a sweeping survey of the state of the novel from Cervantes’ Don Quixote to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Bottum turns to our contemporary troubles that the novel has been experiencing. Although he is not dismissing the contemporary novel, and even has some excellent examples, Bottum does not think that the contemporary novel has reached the potential inherent in novel as an art form. For the most part, I would agree. Much of literature today pays homage to ideology rather than to art or humanity, and Bottum indicates which works deserve more praise than others.

As much as the status of the novel was already in question during the Victorian era, Bottum acknowledges Charles Dickens—“the great unconscious genius of the age, the towering figure of the Victorian novel” —who is attempting “to express this problem in terms of truth.” According to Bottum, Dickens has done so in his novel, David Copperfield, in which “language… has the capacity to link the interior of the self to the exterior world. The journey within the self would be reflected by journey of the body through external space, and the art form of the novel could again not merely present but also solve the cultural crisis of the age.”

The book falters at one major point: Bottum offers a flawed analysis of Tom Wolfe. Although he acknowledges Wolfe’s contribution to the world of journalism and literature, Bottum implies that Wolfe is not a complete novelist as it were because he runs into metaphysical difficulties. It is the morality that is missing, according to Bottum, and Wolfe’s novels in some ways fail because “Wolfe needs a greater thickness than the world seems to possess. He needs, in fact, that general Protestantism of the Air, as we called it, the background assumption of cultural significance, to carry out his project. And he just can’t find it.”

Bottum asks us to ponder what metaphysical questions, yearnings, and desires are we losing as human beings if those aspects are missing from the pages of the novels?

But this is not entirely true. Whether in his novels or works of non-fiction, Wolfe has always chosen subjects who have exhibited strength of character. In A Man in Full, Wolfe creates a character, Conrad Hensley, who in prison is taken by the Stoic philosophy. In his account of NASA astronauts, The Right Stuff, Wolfe presents an American version of stoicism intertwined with the search for excellence.

In the final analysis, does Wolfe “fail” to produce a great novel, a novel in full, because he does not have faith? Because he is not Christian? That seems to be a strange thing to hold against a writer, and isn’t Bottum at this point demanding that Wolfe become an entirely different writer than who he is? Wolfe was not concerned about morality in his novels, at least not in the way we might expect. He was only interested in “reporting” on the affairs of the human heart and our often contradictory minds. The dislike of an apparent lack of morality in Wolfe’s work can surely be a position of an aesthetic taste or preference but not something that ought to be held against him.

Recovering the Novel

Art can be quite elusive, and in this regard, the novel is not any different from painting, music, or sculpture. As a result, we cannot preside over the fate of the novel with complete certainty. Not even philosophy gives us that kind of assurance, let alone literature, which deals with moods and secrets of the heart. Yet, despite this, Bottum sees that something is missing, that something precious has been lost. But not all moderns are lost. Perhaps the answer is in the work of Thomas Mann, whose literary contributions are also covered in the book.

Aware of the loss associated with the decline of the novel and reflecting on the genius and complexity of Mann’s oeuvre, Bottum writes that “Thomas Mann represents for us, I think, something of the last: the last true believer in high culture, the last heroic humanist, the last great writer to pledge his faith to the traditional novel—if only it be pursued with enough stern perseverance, enough single-minded conviction, enough scrupulous compunction.”

Reading this, you might ask yourself whether we are able to retrieve something, which we have lost in the novel? Will the novel remain in the same state of decline from which there is no recovery? Does the contemporary novel have any cures for the ailments of the soul? Today’s pickings are indeed slim. Few novelists in recent history write from a traditionally religious perspective, and today, the absence of faith is quite obvious.

Marilynne Robinson stands out as one of the Protestant novelists of today, who explores a Christian’s belonging in a secular world. In her novel Gilead (2004), Robinson sets out to depict Calvinists as human beings rather than caricatures that the secular world has made out of them. Robinson has stated that the “intentions” in her novels are always “theological.” Could she, like Dickens, be attempting to address the society by way of the truth and religion? But even so, can we still consider this a work that is interested in man’s interiority or is this a presentation of the post-modern faith?

Perhaps that is the main question for today’s Christian novelist. Stories have always shaped our lives. Man cannot live without narrating or recounting his life or even simply, his day. “And as Western culture stumbles along,” writes Bottum, “head down, no longer confident that modernity can be solved, the old project seems slightly unreal. So what ought we do for an art? What ought we do with ourselves?” Bottum has certainly tapped into the human desire to tell stories, and in so doing asked us to ponder: What metaphysical questions, yearnings, and desires are we losing as human beings if those aspects are missing from the pages of our novels?