Whenever anyone writes a book, as Joseph Bottum has, lamenting that things just aren’t what they used to be, critics predictably rise up to decry the crotchety old author and his take. And Bottum’s provocative new offering, The Decline of The Novel, seems tailor-made to elicit just such reactions. No doubt more than a few skeptics will feel compelled to list any number of “good” or even “great” novels written in recent years, laying to rest any anxieties they might have about the obsolescence of this particular art form.
Now, it seems likely that Bottum would disagree strenuously with many of his critics about what constitutes excellence in novel writing. But he’s not really interested in arguing that no good novels are being written today. At the very least, that’s not his primary claim. His point is more that even if these good novels exist, nobody’s reading them.
But let me back up a little. Before I say anything more about The Decline of the Novel, you have to understand what Bottum thinks a novel is. (Here’s where things get interesting.) The entire premise of Bottum’s book is that the novel, as a genre of prose fiction, is “Protestant, all the way down.” He has a number of ways of expressing this thought: that the novel is Protestant in essence, for instance, or Protestantly inflected. Elsewhere, he calls Protestantism the “genus of the modern novel.”
What he means, I think, is that the rise of the novel as the modern genre of fiction and the growth of Protestantism go hand in hand, and that the novel, consequently, has certain features that tie it closely—integrally, even—to the Protestant faith. The most important of these, Bottum insists, is its emphasis on interiority, the inner lives of characters.
Responding to Disenchantment
As Bottum writes in the opening page of his book, “all human beings are interior selves and the characters in a novel are their readers.” Even in novels ostensibly about other things (like politics), interiority is, in a sense, always the thing the novel explores. But novels do more than just privilege their characters’ inner lives; according to Bottum, they map out the individual soul’s journey as it strives “to understand its salvation and achieve its sanctification.” And though this journey occurs within each individual soul and is typically marked by a growing self-understanding and awakening of virtue, it also needs to be made in the external world of people and things.
Which leads me to another of Bottum’s claims: Being modern (which both the novel and Protestantism are) means having to face the fact that the world has become disenchanted. Unlike medieval people, he might say, who lived in a realm full of meaning (and who didn’t read or write novels), modern people look around and see only indifference, a world in which meaning has gone underground. (This prompts us, the argument goes, to turn inward.) Accordingly, one thing that makes the novel both modern and Protestant is that it responds to this disenchantment of the world, this “thinness,” this “crisis” of the modern self. Indeed, in Bottum’s view, it is part of the novel’s work to depict, via interiority, the reconnection of reality and meaning.
And it can do this in various ways. In Sir Walter Scott’s Waverly, Bottum’s example, the world is made meaningful (or “thickened”) by an appeal to the past, an attempt to recapture what’s “missing from the modern experience.” In Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, meaningfulness is reasserted through the suggestion that there is a fundamental “unity of concept and thing,” despite the fact that “perversions” of truth abound and language is used almost exclusively in the service of power or desire. Words, in Dickens, are capable of naming reality.
To put it a little differently, Bottum thinks the novel isn’t just whatever any given novelist or reader wants it to be, but rather a specific thing with a specific purpose, and the work it does is fundamentally metaphysical: It teaches us how to have “modern selves.” The work of Bottum in The Decline of the Novel, by contrast, is to account for the failure of the novel to do what it was meant to do, what its form suggests it should do.
After introducing the novel as he understands it, Bottum spends the rest of his book looking at individual authors and works, which, taken together, bespeak a narrative of decline. From the already mentioned Waverlyand David Copperfield, he moves forward in time to consider Thomas Mann’s modernist masterpiece Doctor Faustus and then proceeds into the present age to discuss Tom Wolfe’s college-sex-romp satire I Am Charlotte Simmons and a handful of works of “popular” fiction (including graphic novels, children’s fiction, and what Bottum calls “middle-brow” literature).
Now, while I would love to spend an afternoon talking with Bottum about Thomas Mann, he’s really at his best and most pointed when discussing novelistic failures—novels, in other words, that don’t or can’t fulfill their metaphysical mandate. His last two chapters on Wolfe and popular fiction, in particular, contain a number of provocative assertions. To take just a couple examples: Alice Munro “has prose so fine it can’t lift anything heavier than a small cup of tea,” and “In November 1988, the novel as an art-form sputtered out and died. And a man named Neil Gaiman killed it.”
But beyond these occasional zingers, Bottum highlights in these chapters a critical difference between novels by Scott, Dickens, and their contemporaries and those authored more recently. As the influence of Protestantism on our culture has diminished, novelists and readers alike have lost a sense of the significant. Unlike classic novels, which treat significant things seriously—which is to say, in depth and humanely—modern novels tend to fall into one of two categories: Either they treat insignificant things seriously (think Munro’s teacups), or they treat serious things superficially (as with graphic novels, which grant the existence of good and evil but can only treat them unrealistically). Ultimately, this failure or inability to recognize and treat the significant seriously is a metaphysical one. We not only live in a disenchanted world, but we have forgotten or no longer believe that it was once enchanted.
One could take issue with any number of Bottum’s contentions in The Decline of the Novel. His central nexus of ideas, that Protestantism ought to be understood in terms of interiority and that the novel, in privileging—in being built on—interiority, is therefore Protestant, requires further examination. While Bottum clarifies that the novel isn’t Protestant to the exclusion of non-Protestant novelists, one wonders what to do with, say, Fyodor Dostoevsky, who was decidedly not Protestant but whose novels are known for both their psychological realism and their characters striving after salvation.
It’s also worth considering the very convenient selection of novels Bottum chooses to discuss. Even though his choices are meant to be representative, one could examine an entirely different slate of texts and come up with an entirely different narrative—and maybe not even a narrative of decline. Ultimately, it all depends on how you define novel.
It is undeniable that Bottum’s book is provocative. It makes claims that at times seem too grand for its mere 152 pages of evidence, but when these claims are discussed and debated by readers, then perhaps Bottum’s aims are accomplished.
But here’s the thing: If Bottum is right not just about the decline of the novel but about the decline of novel reading as a serious enterprise, those critics I mentioned at the beginning of this review won’t be rising up—or, at least, rising up in any great number—to contest his claims. For no longer, Bottum insists, is reading novels considered a necessary component of participation in public life; no longer is it a widely recognized means of gaining insight into the human condition; no longer is it a popular way to consider and critique society’s ills.
While the devout few likely still expect novels to express truths of one sort or another, for the vast majority of people, reading long-form, soul-exploring fiction as a “genuinely religious” act is no longer a possibility.
Darren Dyck is an assistant professor of English at Ambrose University in Calgary, Alberta, where he teaches, among other things, courses on medieval literature and the 19th-century novel.
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