To be great, a novel must show an old thing in a new way. It's equally disastrous to espouse tradition for its own sake as to propose novelty for the sake of novelty—only together can these elements have meaning.
Modernist and postmodernist authors are infatuated with newness as a thing in itself. They subject language to increasingly complicated gymnastic maneuvers, play with ideas rather than defending them, and generally wreak havoc on established forms. This results in novels that may or may not be aesthetically pleasing, but are surely meaningless.
If we adhere too closely to the forms of the past, however, we run the risk of shortsightedness, bigotry, and prejudice. Humans too often must be shaken from their stupor, made to see things as others see them in order to promote equality and peace and goodwill. A good novel rooted in universal ideals freshly presented can do just that.
Novels are seldom the impetus for social movements, but they often augment cultural change. As a literary form, they came into being because writers wanted a venue for espousing or exploring ideas that wasn't rooted in history or "real life." They wanted, in short, to write fiction.
Before the novel, works modern readers would view as fictional were generally considered in a different light. Either they were actual history, or they were meta-narratives, or they were religious, or they were simply narrative philosophy. The idea was to impart truth, not simply data. As writers became more concerned with the world-as-it-is and scientific understanding, they turned toward forms more consistent with the Enlightenment emphasis on knowledge-acquisition as a means to truth.
The novel was such a form. Symbolism was never abandoned wholesale (except by certain eccentric groups at various times), but a new attention was paid to detail—not just detail integral to the story or signifying something else, but detail that set the scene, that gave the reader a sense of place, mood, circumstance and character. It was this attention to detail that helped fiction emerge as a respectable genre.
For ancient and Medieval writers, the seen world and the world beyond were indistinguishable. The famed Celtic knot was intended to show the interrelatedness of all things, how each realmbled into the other and held everything in place. Pre-Enlightenment writing reflected this view, and any detail provided in a poem or narrative was intended, not to portray physical or human "realities," but to demonstrate truths consistent between realms.
When the Enlightenment came around and proclaimed scientific observation and empiricism the new guides (replacing revelation and divine authority), a new approach was needed. No longer were things primarily representative of other things, things were essentially what they were—meaning things were eseentially physical.
Description evolved to fit the new ethos, and creative literature evolved with it. The novel, prose rather than poetry, devoted to detail and incident rather than sweeping generalization, was one of the best weapons in the Enlightenment arsenal. Writers were no longer primarily concerned with affecting readers' attitudes and hearts, they wanted to change their minds. Western culture has never recovered.
Fortunately, the novel was never stagnant, and never fully enslaved by Enlightenment practitioners. Novels have diversified: there are philosophical novels, poetic novels, experimental novels, comic novels, historical novel, all of them aimed at the reader in such a way that the encounter is either devastating or uplifting, frightening or comforting, horrible and sad or fresh and beautiful.
We don't pretend to carry every important novel ever penned. We don't apologize for that....or for the fact that we carry novels at all. It's easy to look at fiction as mere escapism, much harder to engage it seriously hoping to be transformed. Our goal is to offer books (whether "classics" or not) that offer new ways of seeing, opportunities for transformation, encounters with the sublime as harrowing as they are exhilerating.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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