Wednesday, August 5, 2009

"Toward a History of the 'Big, Ambitious Novel,'" by Mark Greif

I mentioned this article in my post on Kafka; it comes from the same issue of boundary 2 that features the Jonathan Franzen interview I excerpted a few days earlier.

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.


Richard said...

Hm. I'm having trouble with all of the terms in use here. It would never occur to me to label Invisible Man or The Adventures of Augie March as "big ambitious novels". And the whole Trilling-narrative about the crisis of man seems suspect to me.

You quoted this from Greif: "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?"

I'm afraid I have no idea what this means. I don't buy that this "form", if it is a form, was born "in answer to a demand for the “restoration of the will of man”"--in fact, the idea makes little sense to me. Granted, I'm not a student of literary history, so maybe writers were bound up in these questions. More likely, it seems to me, is writers came up with, or opted for, the forms that they needed, for their own purposes.

Andrew Seal said...

I should take credit for your confusion; I think my condensation of Greif's argument has probably truncated its cogency.

The article is essentially an argument that we should start thinking of Augie and Invisible Man as establishing the terms for success by a "big ambitious novel," not that they have been linked up to this point with Gaddis, Pynchon et al. In fact, Wood, to whom Greif is in large part responding, no doubt would argue against this connection, though for different reasons than I think you, or Stephen or Dan Green, might.

So accepting (at least hypothetically) a connection between Augie and Gravity's Rainbow is the necessary precondition for the question about this "metamorphosis"--Greif's just asking how this form (I prefer to call it a genre, but that's because I don't think of genre as a very solid concept) can progress from novels which were read as explicit affirmations of humanity and human will to the kind of novels which critics have often denigrated as nihilistic (Pynchon, Gaddis, DeLillo).

Now, I think that it's very possible to read a lot of Bellow (and, in large part, Invisible Man) as something other than these explicit affirmations, etc., but what is important for Greif is that this is how these novels were greeted by contemporary critics--having read a large number of reviews of Bellow's books (and Bellow's own review of Ellison), I can vouch for that without reservation. Bellow was seen to be a savior of the kind of humanist fiction critics like Trilling were clamoring for, and his book was seen as possibly a step to redeeming his generation's fiction of malaise and anomie (again, that's how a lot of critics read these novels, even how they read his own first two books, which is not entirely inaccurate).

Similarly, I think we have to understand that Greif is also not trying to provide his own readings of Gaddis/Pynchon et al. as "anti-humanist" but is taking that from critics. I'd argue that Greif skimps a bit on this part and instead relies on Wood's judgment of them. He should have included some contemporary reviews to make this point--was Gravity's Rainbow read as anti-humanist by the same critics who gave it the National Book Award and tried to give it the Pulitzer? I don't know. What Greif believes is consistent here is that the books which were now criticized for being anti-humanist were still being received and read as answers to the question of the death of the novel.

But I think it's important to keep in mind, and I'm afraid I didn't stress this very well in the post, that Greif is really comparing the reception of these books, and is not directly making claims about the writers' own goals for their fiction. Or, at the very least, the reception history takes precedence--maybe he does sort of concur with Wood that Pynchon is anti-humanist. If so, too bad, but I don't think it invalidates the argument about how the books were received, and how this changed over time.

LML said...

The Greif essay sounds good. Though I can only respond to your summary of his argument, I wonder, like Richard, about the emphasis on the "will of man" stuff.

It doesn't seem at all clear to me that Bellow or Ellison would have cared about the "will of man," but it is very obvious to me that both cared about measuring up to the most intellectually ambitious of their European predecessors, whereas earlier American writers, even those as technically gifted as Faulkner, were mostly content to be taken as naifs. It took Bellow two novels to get faux-Dostoevsky out of his system, and Ellison came out of the gate with the chops to pay tribute to Dostoevsky without being subsumed by him. Both were among the first American writers who saw it as their job to be as conversant with the history of western thought as European writers were expected to be.

So I wonder if it isn't this increase in intellectual self-consciousness (assuming that my impression of that increase is accurate) that's behind the "big, ambitious" novel post-Bellow.

Reinforcing these thoughts is my skepticism about the notion that there's a humanist/antihumanist break between the work of Ellison and, say, Gaddis. Invisible Man is, in my memory at least, as fierce and sardonic a book as I've read, in addition to being antirealist and broadly comic, like the best big postmodern books.

Andrew Seal said...


Your point about Bellow and Ellison seeing themselves as conversant with European predecessors is very good, and is missing in Greif's account, which is fairly circumscribed by national boundaries. Yet I would say that this European connection is not a reason to doubt the "will of man" discourse, but to reinforce its relevance: Bellow's encounters with Nietzsche alone vindicate this thesis, I feel. But there is also Spengler, to whom Bellow found a strange attraction. And Bellow's (somewhat later) reactions to the nouveau roman were basically that it was a defeatist attitude, a flagging of the will to create. I can't give as good an accounting of Ellison, though, as I'm not as familiar with his essays.

But what I think is also critical here is that both men were reacting to an atmosphere that openly questioned whether any of the younger generation--their generation--could ever create with the same force of will that the previous generation could; the novel was being used as a barometer for the pressure that man could now exert after the exhaustion of WWII. In this atmosphere, writing to show the critics up (which I think is a fair if partial characterization of the brio of both books) was by nature a declaration of renewed will and vigor. Because the death of the novel/crisis of man discourses were bound so intricately together and were further linked to a sort of generational conflict, Bellow and Ellison were almost trapped into responding to that crisis. At this point, demonstrating that a great novel could be written by a young man was itself a statement about the possibilities of man after WWII, not too dissimilarly from Celan's poetry showing that poetry could be written after Auschwitz.

Greif unfortunately doesn't give us a quote from Ellison, but he points out that both men contributed to this collection of essays:
I've read the Bellow one before but not the Ellison, but the collection was meant as a sort of triumphal response to the death of the novel blather among critics. I'll try to get my hands on it and maybe post some excerpts from the essays in question.

Andrew Seal said...


Also, I completely agree with your point about the humanist/anti-humanist distinction made between earlier and later writers. One of the problems I see with Greif's chronology is that he overlooks the works that quite obviously belong in this conversation but which were written between '52/'53 and the seventies, when he picks the narrative back up. Adding in The Recognitions (1955) and Barth's Sot-Weed Factor (1960) and Giles Goat-Boy (1966) to this history would greatly nuance that rather heavy distinction between affirmative and "anti-humanistic" novels.

LML said...

You've convinced me that the "crisis" stuff was at least one factor motivating the shape those two particular novels took, and I can definitely see how Bellow in particular fits the template Greif sketches. Bellow's humanist zest is an unmissable signature feature in all his work, with Augie as standard bearer, and this feature seems related to postwar concerns about the future of humanity. But it also seems related to Bellow's personality and his view of the novel's history. I recall him saying somewhere something like, "How can the novel be dead when I am so powerfully affected by reading Tolstoy?" It also seems characteristically American, in line with Emerson's and William James's responses to European philosophers of doom. Which reinforces your point, as you say, but it also slants it in a way that privileges the canon over midcentury critical chatter.

And aside from the size and scope of Invisible Man, I'm dubious as to how closely it hews to Greif's thesis, though I need to reread it. It's been a while.

As far as their contemporaries and successors in the "big, ambitious" genre go, concern about the novel's death certainly recurs, but the concern seems more focused on how to write given the way the moderns changed the form than with how to write in a way that restores the will of man. My impression is that Gaddis, like Beckett, was grappling with the influence of Joyce. Barthelme claimed to write like he did because Beckett wrote the way he did. DFW, in that ubiquitous essay, was chiefly concerned with how to deploy irony like Coover or DeLillo without doing so in a cheaply reflexive way.

Maybe that's what Greif is wondering--how did the "death of the novel" concerns become so hermetic and formalist? But for me, the proposition that such concerns were ever necessarily other than hermetic and formalist for writers who weren't Bellow (or Celan--and of course there are others) hasn't been established.

All that said, I think Greif is brilliant, and I am very interested in this topic. So maybe I should shut up and read his essay. Thanks for drawing attention to it.