How the Novel Succeeded and How You Can Too

[I post this at Tumblr yesterday in response to an anonymous questioner using that platform’s “ask” feature. I am posting it here because this is generally where I keep longer pieces I’ve written. The questioner asked me if I had any thoughts on how the novel rose to cultural prominence, despite the form’s many critics, and he said that his question was inspired by recent events surrounding Jack Thompson, a notoriously censorious opponent of video games. And this is my reply:]

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How did the novel get taken seriously, and how might other upstart art forms follow suit? Three ways, by my quickly dashed-off reckoning:

1. Constantly reinvent by parodying the prior trashy or unfashionable or outdated genres that have characterized the form. Don Quixote is the textbook case: prose narrative is characterized by stupid romances? Rewrite them to make them seem false and your own version true. And novelists took Cervantes’s hint. Austen does it to Gothic romances and Byronic poetry, Flaubert does it to romantic literature in Madame Bovary, Joyce does it to the domestic realist novel in Ulysses, and postcolonial feminism makes an industry out of it, with Things Fall Apart rewriting Heart of Darkness, Wide Sargasso Sea rewriting Jane Eyre, Foe rewriting Robinson Crusoe, and Beloved rewriting every nineteenth-century American classic in sight. “All those older novels were lying to you, but my novel is telling you the truth.”

2. Nominate yourself avatar of the world-spirit. People are saying your favored art form–in this case, the novel–is just some trash read by bored adolescent girls? Au contraire–it is the education of the heart, the bearer of moral virtue (Richardson, Rousseau), it is the instrument of total social reform and regeneration and redemption (Dickens, Stowe, Dostoevsky), it is the means of apprehending historical development and present society (Scott, Balzac, Tolstoy), it is the modern legatee of ancient epic narrating society’s self-conception and furnishing the means of progress (various theorists from Schlegel to Jameson). “Novels are not just entertainment–they are our world in a book!”

3. Focus on form. Your chosen art is a loose, baggy monster? Go to school with the poets and dramatists, then, whose chosen forms impose prior constraints on structure, from the customary twoish hour running time to the standard verse meters. Your novel must “carry its justification in every line,” says Conrad. Flaubert perspires over every comma, and he is joined by a long train of fellow sufferers; some of us are still sweating. Henry James invents a rulebook about the proper subject matter (the present palpable-intimate) and the proper way to treat it (through a sophisticated manipulation, toward ethical ends, of narrative perspective). And even those who will come along later to play with these deliberately wrought forms can only do so by being equally formalist. “Novels are not just for fun; they are carefully arranged art objects.”

Those are the most salient means by which novelists and partisans of the novel convinced the world that theirs was a sophisticated, serious form of art.

I take it your question implies an analogy between novels and video games, but I don’t know anything about video games, so let me make a lateral move to another contemporary “low” art form in the process of elevation, one I do know something about: comics and graphic novels.

Consider Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen, perhaps the most acclaimed of all graphic novels, the only one on the Time 100. It deploys all three techniques I outlined above: it parodies prior super-hero comics to suggest, with Cervantine metafictional devices, that its critical depiction of that genre’s subject matter is the only true one; it casts itself as a meditation on political power in the twentieth century and a thick description of nuclear anxiety, which made it seem politically relevant at the time of its release and makes it seem historical in a pedagogically useful way now; and it seeks and attains a formal closure (through the meter-like constraint of its nine-panel grids, its endless doublings and mirrorings at visual and narrative levels, and its obsessive patterning of a limited set of symbols) never before attempted on such a large scale in comics. And it worked: everybody took Watchmen seriously, and continues to do so.

While I have pledged myself to plod along with the old doddering novel, I recommend that the new forms of narrative art seeking their fortune follow something like the script above.



  1. I saw this on your Tumblr, and was wondering exactly what you had been asked, because I can’t quite see how an inquiry about Jack Thompson might have led to an discussion of the history of the novel. To try to elevate the video game to art, I can understand; but there are more formidable opponents to that than Thompson: Roger Ebert, for one, or Brian Moriarty. To ask of Thompson something pertaining to art is akin to ask of Elmer Gantry something pertaining to theology.

    Besides, the last I have heard of Thompson, he was being co-opted by, of all people, the Gamergate posse, which before then had gone out of its way to compare its enemies to him. That was a year ago; I haven’t heard about him since.

    • Yes, the whole Jack Thompson allusion was basically beyond my comprehension, and I know nothing at all about video games or the discourse around them (thank God for comic books or I would have no “emerging pop culture” cred).

      • That’s another reason why I don’t understand why he asked you personally. I have been a reader of your Tumblr for some time (I came across it by accident one day and never left — actually, I think it was your WordPress effort before this, which you deleted, if memory serves), and I remembered you had mentioned you never really played video games.

        So what I found intriguing was not only that he had asked about video games as art while being concerned over Thompson (whose objections were dismissed years ago), but that he had asked you specifically.

        I wonder if your interlocutor might have been of the Gamergate persuasion – an interesting proposition, insofar as – from what I’ve seen – the only ‘Gators’ who respect academics (and only those who agree with them) are cultural warriors who don’t really play video games themselves.

      • Vett, as the one who left the question, I asked John personally as I am a former student of his. More often than not I’d spend the entirety of the allotted office hours picking his brain on one thing or another, and asking him on tumblr seemed like a natural extension of such questioning.

        I must apologize if you found this motive to be sinister.

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