One day in a bookstore a college friend reached up to the shelf and pulled down Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being. He spent a minute or two reading the first pages and then replaced the volume with a scornful shrug: “It’s a misreading of Nietzsche,” he said, referring to the book’s opening musings on eternal return. Later, when I developed a liking for Kundera and decided to take a seminar on him, I was embarrassed to reveal my plans. The pleasure his novels gave me was tinged with guilt—I feared association with an author who had been branded as a philosophical lightweight.
In those days we were all steeped in the murk of postmodernism. In our seminars on critical theory, we had learned that plots, characters, and reading for pleasure were bourgeois and jejune. We carried around volumes by Derrida and Foucault, worked fashionable words like “logocentrism” into casual conversation, and, when we did read fiction, tried to cultivate a taste for French anti-novels.
And yet, despite our infatuation with obscure psychoanalytic and linguistic theories, more than a few of us were drawn to the literary life. When not reading Robbe-Grillet in translation, our youthful favorites tended to be difficult writers like Faulkner, Joyce, and Beckett (I later took to the authors of the Latin American “boom”). As for my periodic efforts to write short stories, they resulted in Borgesian pastiches, absurdist metafictions, or magical realist fantasies swooning with orchids and redolent of decay. Somehow, just writing about people like me interacting in the everyday, visible world I knew seemed too simple. I wanted to do something revolutionary, something more, like rethink the European novel from the ground up, play dazzling games with language, or deconstruct the Cartesian subject.
After graduating from college, I turned down a job at an academic publishing house and went to Paris to become a novelist. I signed on to teach at a French lycée, rented an apartment with a mini-fridge and a hotplate, and became a regular at the city’s Anglophone bookshops. Even many decades after the scene Hemingway paints in his Moveable Feast, this was not such an unusual trajectory, as I realized when I met the other English teachers in my cohort. One young woman announced that she lived in a garrett on the banks of the Seine and was writing a novel about the expatriate experience. I cringed: to profess my literary ambitions so openly, even to let slip any clue of their existence, would have embarrassed me to the core.
As the years went by, that discomfort became a kind of leitmotif, returning whenever a friend or family member asked me what I was writing. Confessing that I was at work on a doctoral dissertation or an academic article was easy. Strange though such projects may have seemed to most, they could at least be chalked up to a practical plan of career advancement. Revealing that I was toiling away at a novel, on the other hand, made the blood rush to my cheeks. The business of writing fiction seemed somehow undignified, frivolous. Much as I had put off revealing my interest in Kundera, I concealed my literary aspirations, afraid of seeming childish, or on occasion defiantly blurted them out, as if countering an accusation. Meanwhile, the short stories and novel fragments I wrote were (even I could see this) notable only for their mediocrity. And in the end I began to wonder: could there be some connection between my feelings of shame about the novel, and my inability to write one?
It may have been while reading Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey that I first realized others shared my embarrassment about the art of fiction. In a digression early in the book, Austen describes novels as both feats of human intelligence and sources of “unaffected pleasure.” And yet, she observes, they are often dismissed, even by the very people who most enjoy reading and writing them:
“And what are you reading, Miss –?” “Oh! it is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame.
It is not just that readers are ashamed to be seen with a trashy gothic ghost story (although Austen sees nothing intrinsically wrong with such works, provided they aren’t taken too seriously). No, she says, the same “affected indifference” greets the masterful, wise novels of Maria Edgeworth and Fanny Burney. On the other hand, she notes, no such shame is occasioned by reading the essays in the Spectator, despite their uneven and often tasteless content. The “abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England” are universally praised; the novel, which has “only genius, taste, and wit to recommend” it, is treated with condescension or even outright disdain.
Had I not detected it in myself, I might have assumed that such contempt was confined to a narrow historical period. In the early nineteenth century, after all, the novel still lacked the prestige it would acquire over the following decades, eventually becoming, as Joseph Bottum has written, “perhaps the major art form … of the modern world.” But in fact doubts about the novel’s worth long predate Austen’s era, and would endure long afterwards. In a 1955 article, René Girard points to the many twentieth-century French writers and intellectuals who “consider the novel an inferior genre” and “express contempt” for it. “The term itself,” he notes, “recalls this inferiority: le roman [the novel] is what is written in the vernacular, the dialect scorned by the intellectual class.” By the time Austen came along, the attitude she described in Northanger Abbey had already been around for centuries:
Just as the Middle Ages can only see the novel as debased epic and the seventeenth century as corrupt tragedy, naturalism sees the novel as imperfect science, and we see it as diluted philosophy.
Both critics and writers, Girard notes, have directed scorn at the novel. The latter group includes not only poets like André Breton and Louis Aragon, who together authored a malicious pamphlet against novelist Anatole France, but also novelists—Girard mentions Zola, Malraux, Saint-Exupéry, and Sartre, among others. In ways subtle or overt, these writers turn against the very genre they are practicing, seeking to “purify” it, to make it more “scientific,” or on the contrary more “metaphysical.” They seem, in short, to be ashamed of it.
But why? What is it about the novel that makes even novelists view it as inferior (“debased,” “corrupt,” “imperfect,” “diluted”)? Girard suggests that “the concrete character of the genre” is to blame. The novel, he says, is neither subjective nor objective. It superimposes the writer’s judgments on the characters’ interiority. This layering of interpretation and experience gives the realist novel its depth. A writer like Stendhal is a “complicit God” who invites us to share in the ironic “separation between the writer and his or her reality.” Thanks to the author’s insight, we understand the characters better than they understand themselves. And so the novel is a bit of everything, but not any one thing. It combines reflection and feeling, mind and matter, high and low. There are no pure concepts in it. And yet a novel is more than a positivistic collection of dry facts. The genre has an unsystematic quality that defies easy categorization.
In Mimesis, his 1946 study of the literary representation of reality, Erich Auerbach argues that this peculiar combination of traits goes back to the Bible, and in particular to the New Testament. Auerbach focuses on a key episode in the Gospel of Mark. After promising to be loyal even unto death, Peter, the leader of the disciples, betrays Jesus, swearing that he does not even know him. His exchanges with individual bystanders are recorded in direct speech; at one point his Galilean accent gives him away. Then the cock’s crow brings him to his senses, and he weeps. “A scene like Peter’s denial fits into no antique genre,” Auerbach writes,
It is too serious for comedy, too contemporary and everyday for tragedy, politically too insignificant for history—and the form which was given it is one of such immediacy that its like does not exist in the literature of antiquity.
The words used here are striking: “serious,” “contemporary,” “everyday,” “insignificant,” and “immediacy.” Mark’s gospel takes insignificant everyday contemporary reality seriously enough to represent it with great immediacy. It infuses the humble with sublimity, puts fishermen on an equal footing with powerful leaders, and treats ordinary life as the setting for world-historical events. This mixture of stylistic registers is unprecedented, Auerbach says. The writers of antiquity had internalized a strict separation between sermo sublimis (elevated speech) and sermo humilis (low speech). Christ’s Incarnation shatters this distinction. Both sublime and humble, or rather sublime precisely in its lowliness, it ushers in a new way of seeing and writing. Mundane events and unremarkable individuals acquire dignity. Small details make their way into the story. This new, concrete vision eventually finds expression in the novel, says Auerbach, particularly in the works of nineteenth-century realists like Stendhal and Balzac.
In Signposts in a Strange Land, Walker Percy has made even more explicit this link between fiction and the Incarnation which, in his view, “gave birth to the novel.” Only in a Christian ethos does everyday reality become charged with dignity and significance. “It is the narrativity and commonplaceness of the novel which is unique,” he writes. “Something is happening in ordinary time to ordinary people, not to epic heroes in mythic time.” Percy defines the novel’s specific temporality, which is neither mythic circularity, with its recurring cycles, nor the eternity of the afterlife. Ordinary events (a category that may include all sorts of shocking or absurd things) happen step-by-step, gradually unfolding. This is historical time, human time. And the novel’s heroes are life-sized, with everyday concerns. As Milan Kundera has noted, for example, neither Achilles nor Ulysses worries about how many teeth he lost in battle, whereas the characters in Don Quixote often discuss this subject (“For, Sancho, you must know…that a diamond is not so precious as a tooth.”). The prose of the novel, says Kundera, grasps “the concrete, everyday, corporeal nature of life,” not only to call our attention to what is low but also to reveal a new beauty, “overlooked til then.”
It takes an incarnational sensibility to savor ordinary events unfolding in historical time. Immersed in critical theory, with its many abstractions, and drawn to the shimmerings of language rather than to underlying meaning, my college friends and I were not just indifferent to but actually put off by the novel’s humble aesthetic. We sought the serious in Marxist philosophy, and—without quite realizing it—despised fiction. My shame at wanting to write novels bespoke an uprooting from our culture’s Christian soil. What one character in Jane Austen’s Emma calls “minute particulars” struck me as genuinely insignificant. Instead of making the effort to describe the objects I saw and the snatches of conversation I heard around me, I escaped into the realm of abstract ideas and romantic fantasies.
This personal experience suggests a wider cultural problem. The novel can only thrive on the bedrock of Christian anthropology, which was once (but is no longer) the default in the modern West. So it is no surprise when Percy links the genre’s decline to ascendant New Age philosophies, which recycle Eastern beliefs that “the self is illusory, that ordinary life is misery, that ordinary things have no sacramental value, and that reality itself is concealed by the veil of maya.” When esoteric teachings take precedence over “selves and happenings and things in an ordinary world,” he says, the inevitable result is bad fiction. In many of the so-called postmodern novels I was reading in college, the weight of events in historic time gives way to (as Percy puts it) “absorption with self or with the text, not the meaning, of words.” Such works are incapable of giving real pleasure, he says. They cannot penetrate to the intimate layers of experience, and so we do not recognize ourselves in them. After providing a brief high, their revolt against convention leaves us dissatisfied, even depressed.
In her essays on faith and fiction, Flannery O’Connor covers much the same territory as Percy. She, too, shows how a gnostic mindset is an obstacle to writing novels. To Percy’s diagnosis, however, she adds a look at underlying causes. Pride, she says, is what bedevils the efforts of many aspiring writers:
…most people who think they want to write stories […] want to write about problems, not people; or about abstract issues, not concrete situations. They have an idea, or a feeling, or an overflowing ego, or they want to Be A Writer […]. In any case, they don’t have a story and they wouldn’t be willing to write it if they did; and in the absence of a story, they set out to find a theory or a formula or a technique.
O’Connor associates an “overflowing ego” and the thirst for fame with “problems,” “abstract issues,” and “theory.” She draws a causal link between a liking for abstraction and having—or striving to maintain—an inflated self-image. This squares with my own fear of looking childish in the eyes of my college friends and family members. Though I was unaware of this at the time, my concern to be recognized as worldly-wise and above it all was in tension, if not outright contradiction, with the demands of my chosen art.
And just what are those demands? O’Connor sketches out the dispositions necessary for writing fiction: an interest in “people” and “concrete situations”; and having “a story” to tell. It follows that for a novelist to grow, some fundamental change is required, a shift from self-importance to intellectual humility. And indeed, O’Connor says that apprentice writers must learn “to descend to the concrete level where fiction operates” and “to be humble in the face of what is.”
In the essays and talks collected in Mystery and Manners, she offers at least two practical ways of making this ascetic move. The first is for writers to think of themselves less as theorists or reformers than as laborers or artisans (Percy, for his part, compares writing to carpentry). Novelists deal in the tangible. They put shoes on their characters, record sights and sounds, note accents and gestures. Big ideas and feelings come later, growing out of earthy details. At first, this might sound like naturalism, except that O’Connor underlines the need for selection, form, meaning—making the concrete into an absolute would be just an inverted way of undoing mystery.
The second way of cultivating writerly humility is to renounce intellectual control. Commenting on one of her own short stories, O’Connor observes that it “produces a shock for the reader, and I think one reason is that it produced a shock for the writer.” Without knowing where she would end up, she set out to describe characters who took her in unexpected directions as she followed out her story’s internal logic. Such a method subverts any abstract framework the author might try to impose. A good novel argues nothing so simple as “racism is the great evil of our time” or “freedom of speech is the democratic value par excellence”; it advances no easily summarized thesis, reduces to no political statement or ideological position. To be understood it must be experienced, contemplated.
This should not be taken to mean, however, that it has nothing to say. “The novelist makes his statements by selection,” says O’Connor. The artful arrangement of words, details, and incidents conveys “the intellectual meaning of a book” and “demonstrates something that cannot possibly be demonstrated any other way than with a whole novel.”
In Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, René Girard makes a very similar point. The great European novelists had to overcome the temptation to theorize abstractly. Crucially, however, this did not mean they ceased to engage in reflection; rather, they learned to embrace the novel’s incarnate thought, its distinctive method of saying with stories, characters, and metaphors something that could not be expressed in unfleshed propositions. Like O’Connor feeling her way forward as she wrote her short story “Good Country People,” Stendhal and Dostoevsky were explorers who used the novel as a means of intellectual discovery.
As a young man, Girard notes, Stendhal was an avid reader of the philosopher-economist Destutt de Tracy and of the materialist philosopher Cabanis. These and other thinkers of the eighteenth century influenced his youthful writings, which were “the only more or less didactic texts” he ever wrote. Some interpreters later sought a philosophical skeleton key that would unlock his masterpieces. Such an undertaking was hopeless: “…there is not a trace of [Stendhal’s] youthful theories in his mature novels,” writes Girard. By the time Stendhal wrote The Red and the Black and The Charterhouse of Parma he had embraced the art of fiction, grounding his ideas in concrete situations, events, and interactions.
“The true Stendhal has no patience for didacticism,” writes Girard. “His original thought is his novel and it is nothing but his novel…” Indeed, Stendhal goes astray “as soon as [he] escapes from his characters.” He comes to his best insights into liberalism and freedom through dramatic situations: a peasant bargaining with a local official; a woman falling in love with the young tutor her husband has hired; a party in the household of a powerful nobleman. “The judgments of abstract intelligence must be rectified through contact with experience,” Girard writes. Stendhal asks the same questions as his cherished rationalist philosophers, who wondered under what system of government human beings would be free and happy. Instead of resolving them “a priori by asking for one more or one less revolution,” however, he comes to an answer through the concrete substance of his novels, which Girard describes as a “laboratory of observation.”
What is true of Stendhal proves equally true of Dostoevsky. In his monograph on the Russian author, Girard analyzes Notes from Underground. He distinguishes between the first, more theoretical part, which many have taken to contain the novella’s message about human irrationality, and the second, narrative part, which describes a series of comic or pathetic encounters between the protagonist and some acquaintances. Girard finds the unalloyed fictional material not just more compelling, but also more revelatory of truth. “It is not the disincarnate thought that interests us,” he says, “but the thought embodied in the novels.” And later: “Dostoevsky is not a philosopher, but a novelist.” True, in his notebooks Dostoevsky may at first formulate abstract ideas and only then create a character; but it is through this character that he reaches deep into an existential problem, sometimes altering the original thought: “For Dostoevsky writing is a means of knowing, an instrument of exploration, it is thus always beyond the author himself, ahead of his intelligence and his faith. To say this is to say again that Dostoevsky is essentially a novelist.”
Novels are enfleshed statements about something impossible to say except through specific details, characters, and actions. They are thought incarnate. I knew this—knew it abstractly, on a hypothetical level. I just couldn’t apply it to myself. For years, the thing I most hated when writing was building up scenes. Everyone knows that you can’t construct a novel without scenes. It’s the simplest, most obvious thing. A lot of the fiction I admired in college, however—Borges, Garcia Marquez, Kundera—was remarkably scene-less. Borges writes mock reviews of imaginary books; Garcia Marquez’s novels are long, flowing rivers of narration; and Kundera uses concrete description sparingly. Arguably, all three are geniuses, but as models they let me dream of creating works that would consist of nothing but erudite parody, baroque sentences about cows standing on the balconies of crumbling palaces, and high-flown meditations on existence.
As I began studying Austen, Stendhal, Flaubert, and Proust, and later O’Connor, my aversion to writing scenes began to weaken. Honest feedback from family members, friends, and editors also helped reconcile me to the need for dramatic immediacy. But the real mental rewiring took place through contact with the sacraments. If the art of the novel rests on Christian foundations, it necessarily withers apart from the mass, with its concrete demonstration of how everyday things—bread, wine—acquire sublime dignity. We might even wonder (although this widens the debate beyond the scope of this essay) whether great Christian art is possible without a truly beautiful and reverent liturgy as its cultural anchor. What is certain is that the remedies O’Connor prescribes against gnosticism—seeing novelists as laborers rather than as theorists; letting go of intellectual mastery—require virtues that disincarnate theory not only is unlikely to foster, but may even work actively to discourage.
This, at least, is what I conclude from looking back at my hapless efforts to write novels without truly believing in their value. In retrospect, my snobbish urge to disavow or defensively justify my love for fiction calls to mind the Docetist heresy, which held that Christ’s body was just a hologram, leaving no footprints on the sand, casting no shadow, immune to pain and suffering. In chapter 5 of his treatise De Carne Christi [On the Flesh of Christ] Tertullian attacks this position, affirming the reality of Christ’s human body. The basic motivation behind gnosticism, he suggests, is shame:
For which is more unworthy of God, which is more likely to raise a blush of shame, that God should be born, or that he should die? That he should bear the flesh, or the cross? Be circumcised, or be crucified?
In a similar vein, Saint Paul begins his Epistle to the Romans by declaring that he is “not ashamed of the gospel.” He goes deeper into this theme when addressing the Corinthians. God’s weakness, he stresses, is stronger than men. According to Fleming Rutledge, Paul is reproving the Christians of Corinth for their boastfulness and spiritual pride. He places the crucifixion front and center to remind them that what looks like utter foolishness to the sophisticated pagan culture is actually a deeper wisdom. As a college student, and for a long time after, I was enthralled by that refined paganism. Learning to love the novel, and, however belatedly, to understand its intellectual dignity, was like breaking a spell.
Is the novel just bastardized philosophy, a misreading of Nietzsche, as my brilliant college friend declared, and as I then believed? No: it is something even more lowly, and yet also noble, like a king who enters a tavern incognito to drink with his subjects. Every novel (and every short story) worthy of the name is Christian anthropology in artistic form. It enacts a way of seeing that treats ordinary lives and everyday adventures with seriousness (such treatment being, paradoxically, a frequent source of the novel’s humor). To tell stories about people in concrete situations sounds easy enough. But as I discovered, it can be surprisingly hard to unlearn contempt for that dusty task, and to gain appreciation for the novel’s unassuming beauty.
Trevor Cribben Merrill has published essays and book reviews in The University Bookman, Education & Culture, The American Conservative, and others. His novel Minor Indignities is now available from Wiseblood Books. Follow him on Twitter @cribbenMerrill