More Fiction, Less Phone Time: Now There’s a Novel Idea

REVIEW: ‘The Novel, Who Needs It?’ by Joseph Epstein

Photo by DekiArt
August 20, 2023

In his latest book, Joseph Epstein, master of essays personal and literary, makes the case for the novel as our indispensable art form. His timing, comic and otherwise, is excellent.

It has been years, decades even, since any novelist has riveted the attention of the cultured public. One thinks of all the other candidates put forth as the great artist-explainers of our times: the writers and show runners of prestige television, behavioral scientists, pop therapists and positive psychologists, the TED talkers and Silicon Valley savants, a small fraction of podcasters, highbrow journalists, and, of course, the growing militia of pundits, professional and amateur, screaming into the void with their own close reads and loose screeds on what happened at the White House or on cable news or somewhere in American life in the last 10 seconds. The process by which we describe and explain ourselves to ourselves involves many new hands, few of them steady and even fewer of them students of Henry James.

If not the novel itself, then, indeed, the whole culture of deliberation needed to read Middlemarch and not fall asleep seems, rather sadly, a thing of the past. New novels, some quite good, are still written and published. And during the pandemic one even heard of people—all but locked in their homes, of course—returning to ambitious novels for connection and intellectual nourishment.

But the urgency and recognition are gone. A minor illustration: A well-educated and intelligent friend of mine wanted me to recommend contemporary novels for him to read. Had he already tried Zadie Smith, I asked. No, he said, he’d never heard of her. This I found amazing and depressing. On the bright side, my friend was quickly converted into a fan of Smith’s work, but it left me with the bitter reflection that maybe the naysayers are right and that outside the readership of a few magazines and a shrinking set of arts sections, the writing of serious novels had lost its rightful claim on the attention of thoughtful people.

The world has changed on me, I thought, in the admittedly pathetic manner of an aging grumpy newspaper reader. The strongest currents favor other ships. This way novels, that way Taylor Swift, Donald Trump, social media, and woke politics.

What is lost? According to Epstein, quite a lot. Not, of course, just a few readers’ enjoyment of a few writers but a culture that expects and rewards patience, where a mindset for complexity is understood to be the proper tool for probing the mystery of other people.

The Novel, Who Needs It? is very much an example of the culture we seem to be losing. Its discussion builds on a lifetime of literary self-assignments so numerous and of such discrimination that few of us won’t find fresh reading suggestions within. It aims to say what the novel does especially well and what the novel does for its readers. It takes stands within its own discussions, inviting disagreement, under the pressure of evidentiary standards but within a manner of thinking and speaking that allows for contradiction and sometimes paradox. And it does so sweetly, with humor and self-awareness. It treats of literary subjects without becoming a treatise. It helps the reader, in a literary context, name the appetites and passions that drive human beings without inviting the reader to become an object of those same irrational forces.

What the novel does especially well, to gloss Epstein, is it makes art from human existence in a way that magnifies the limited, even self-defeating, perspectives of human beings. It doesn’t explain or state or reduce. It elaborates and shows, dramatizing the illumination of character through circumstance, action, and events. It is intimate, a theater of the mind and the heart, a drama of households and friendships and loves. It follows us into hidden spaces and gets right up in our business. It draws on other areas of knowledge as needed, usually without asking permission.

Epstein quotes the Bloomsbury critic Desmond MacCarthy, "It is the business of literature to turn facts into ideas." When he talks of novels producing ideas, Epstein makes clear he does not have in mind concepts that might help identify market forces or say why so many marriages fail. He has in mind ideas that take up residence in an individual mind and animate human action—the perceptions and fixations that lead to decisions that lead to us becoming or not becoming, like David Copperfield, the heroes of our own lives.

Another point Epstein makes is that novels offer an education. There is the benefit of vicarious experience: Right now I am reading City of Angles by Jonathan Leaf, which, among other thrills, is updating my knowledge of the lives of struggling actors in Hollywood. Fine writing also teaches us to notice and name what might seem too subtle for words. I think fictional characters—Dorothea in Middlemarch, Sherman McCoy in Bonfire of the Vanities, Bigger Thomas in Native Son—can make us better students of human character. We become less gullible to how people present themselves, knowing there is so much more going on. Our sense of the limitations and trials of other people improve with reading, and, one hopes, without eroding our sense of the new and the curious in the actual people we meet.

It is a pleasure to follow Epstein’s conversation on the page especially when it leads to judgments for and against individual novels and novelists. Personally speaking, I disagreed with him more than I expected—like him, I adore Willa Cather; unlike him, I rather like Alice Munro and Graham Greene. Unlike him, I don’t mind that postwar novelists entered the bedroom and even the bathroom. Our humping and defecating may not say as much about us as certain authors insist but the time we spend naked and coiled together is not trivial either.

All this said, I would enjoy reading, I think, an essay attempting to pull together all available evidence of novelistic vitality in the service of describing, in Anthony Trollope’s phrase, "the way we live now." Not just a case for the novel in general but a case for new novels. Epstein mentions, in addition to Smith, some other writers making headway in this direction in recent years. Lionel Shriver is one: In addition to being a formidable novelist and a serious student of our times, she has a definite gift for drawing attention. Michel Houellebecq is another. These latter two are especially provocative examples but there must be others. We have nothing if not strong raw material—the best of times and the worst of times.

The Novel, Who Needs It?
by Joseph Epstein
Encounter Books, 152 pp., $25.99

David Skinner writes about language and culture. He is the author of The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published.