It's a great article—ambitious, inventive, and important. Greif begins:
Criticism works by criteria it is willing to name and others it disowns. The “big, ambitious novel” is one of those categories used by nearly everyone to sift and sort new work. Yet it is not respectable. It is more common to conversation than to professional discourse… It exists as almost an atmospheric effect, apparently a natural consequence of the way that novels are written and the taxonomy by which they must be ordered—a category without a history. This essay argues that the “big, ambitious novel” in the contemporary United States does possess a history. That history entered a distinct phase sixty years ago, at the moment another disreputable but resilient concept established its hold in criticism: that of the “death of the novel.” “Death of the novel” discourse existed in modernist discussion before World War II, but its hardening after 1945 changed critical expectations for the major American novel and, ultimately, the sorts of novels that were written and won success. The “big, ambitious novel” as it emerged in the postwar period first appeared in response to, then came to depend upon, the maintenance of a conceit of the “death of the novel.” This was true even or especially after that idea passed out of the possession of critics and into the hands of novelists.The article mostly focuses on analyzing this post-war moment when the "death of the novel" was being discussed, as Lionel Trilling noted, "from all sides." Greif draws a lot from Trilling's essay "Art and Fortune" (published in Partisan Review in 1948, reprinted in The Liberal Imagination in 1950), making Trilling the spokesperson for this moment; his articulation of the "death of the novel" is clear and direct. The novel, Trilling argued, might be considered dead if its internal possibilities had all been tested, used up by modernist experimentation. It might be considered dead if the novel had a historical shelf-life: emerging from a particular social and cultural configuration of forces, if we have now moved into a significantly different configuration, the novel will no longer speak to our times. It might be considered dead if, although circumstances haven't completely changed, "we either lack the power to use the form, or no longer find value in the answers that the novel provides, because the continuing circumstances have entered a phase of increased intensity."
Trilling (and Greif) give more emphasis to this last possibility, and it is here that the "crisis of man" discourse I spoke of in the Kafka post makes its strongest appearance. Here is where Trilling bids contemporary novelists to take up the great task of their time: "the restoration and reconstitution of the will." And here is where Greif brings in the cases of Hemingway and Faulkner to demonstrate how seriously writers began to take this task, and how eagerly critics re-interpreted older texts in terms that would fulfill it.
Greif then turns to the younger generation, the generation of Bellow and Ellison, Mailer and Styron; these writers were consistently slapped down by their elders for being unable to provide the kind of "will of man" narratives which were thought to be necessary for a world reeling from mass death. Then, Ellison and Bellow came out with Invisible Man and The Adventures of Augie March in succeeding years (1952, 1953). This, Greif argues, inaugurated the tradition of the "big, ambitious novel." By adding the ethnic dimension to the "unmarked, universal man" that the "death of the novel" discourse rested upon, and by reviving old forms of storytelling (the picaresque), Ellison and Bellow were able to claim victory over death:
Of course both men were wrong to think they had ultimately won against the “death of the novel” idea. They had helped create new forms in which to ceaselessly disprove it, however; forms which would develop into the “big, ambitious novels” we still have now. In fact, serious critics ceased to ride the “death of the novel” thesis very hard; it had emerged from certain intellectual concerns of the postwar era that were no longer to be as interesting to them over time. What Bellow and Ellison could not yet see was that the “death of the novel” fear, and the need to disprove it, would not really die out among writers, even as it ceased to be so interesting to critics.Greif now turns to a few of these writers who took up the "death of the novel" banner: he describes a tradition of essays by novelists despairing over the possibilities of even writing: "Philip Roth’s 'Writing American Fiction' (1961) to David Foster Wallace’s 'E Unibus Pluram' (1993) and Jonathan Franzen’s 'Perchance to Dream' (1996)." There are a few titles that could be added, although I was disappointed to see John Barth's "The Literature of Exhaustion" (1967) left out.
At any rate, Greif continues to make a very strong case that it is only by focusing on this ineradicable challenge of the novel's potential "death" that we can account for the development and success of the "big, ambitious novel" genre: "Vitality becomes its own pursuit in an age when the 'death of the novel' is a presumption that never can be laid to rest." Vitality for its own sake, of course, being one of James Wood's most lashing critiques in his essay on hysterical realism. Greif notes, however, that not too long after Bellow and Ellison's inaugural efforts, this genre, and this sense of vitality for its own sake, came to be associated not with a reconstitution of man and his will, but as a deeper questioning, and even an attack:
How did a form of the novel whose birth came in answer to a demand for the “restoration of the will of man”—and first met these demands by speaking from outside, but directed to, the usual stories of human universalism—ultimately metamorphose into that form of fiction most associated with an antihumanism? How, that is, did it become a form understood to exist precisely in order to prove the true impossibility, or meaninglessness, of any “restoration of the will of man”…? This would be the essential question for further research.I think this is a valuable question, but I question whether it is the essential one; Greif notes that the idea of the "death of the novel" moved from critics to writers, but he doesn't touch upon the political (anti-Communist) valence this discourse carried when it was being bandied about among the Partisan Review crowd and others on the center-left. This valence did not, I think, travel when the "death of the novel" was picked up by the writers themselves. Absent the political context, the liberal humanism that attached to the discourse became superfluous and, I'd argue, contradictory: the "death of the novel" became attached instead to an idea of "man" or the self as inevitably fractured, not capable of being restored in the way Trilling envisioned. That understanding of man and the self was arriving from different vectors; it didn't mutate within the history of this discourse.
I have a different question about this history of the 'big, ambitious novel': it would seem to me that in 1948, the term 'big, ambitious novel' would more likely to refer to Michener or Wouk or Uris's novels or Gone with the Wind or its near cousin Raintree County, and I feel some accounting needs to be made for that context. Greif even quotes Michener. I think it would be valuable to recognize that this type of "big, ambitious [middlebrow] novel" must be included in our history, and I think that extends somewhat to the present day. Is something like Middlesex or The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay or The Corrections a "big, ambitious novel" or a "big, ambitious (middlebrow) novel?" I think it depends on which critic you ask, and if this genre or form is more of a conversational/journalistic than an academic one, it would seem to me that there is a non-trivial question here. I don't know if it's the "essential" question about this genre either, but it's one that interests me greatly.
At any rate, Greif's article is really great: again, like the Franzen interview, I'm afraid it's either subscription or a university affiliation or buying the single article, but I do think the essay is a very important first step to talking more seriously and more historically about this genre.