Book Review: ‘The Decline of the Novel’ by Joseph Bottum

Review by Darren Dyck, who is an assistant professor of English at Ambrose University in Calgary, Alberta, where he teaches, among other things, courses on medieval literature and the 19th-century novel.

Whenever anyone writes a book, as Joseph Bottum has, lamenting that things just aren’t what they used to be, critics predictably rise up to decry the crotchety old author and his take. And Bottum’s provocative new offering, The Decline of The Novel, seems tailor-made to elicit just such reactions. No doubt more than a few skeptics will feel compelled to list any number of “good” or even “great” novels written in recent years, laying to rest any anxieties they might have about the obsolescence of this particular art form.

Now, it seems likely that Bottum would disagree strenuously with many of his critics about what constitutes excellence in novel writing. But he’s not really interested in arguing that no good novels are being written today. At the very least, that’s not his primary claim. His point is more that even if these good novels exist, nobody’s reading them.

But let me back up a little. Before I say anything more about The Decline of the Novel, you have to understand what Bottum thinks a novel is. (Here’s where things get interesting.) The entire premise of Bottum’s book is that the novel, as a genre of prose fiction, is “Protestant, all the way down.” He has a number of ways of expressing this thought: that the novel is Protestant in essence, for instance, or Protestantly inflected. Elsewhere, he calls Protestantism the “genus of the modern novel.”

What he means, I think, is that the rise of the novel as the modern genre of fiction and the growth of Protestantism go hand in hand, and that the novel, consequently, has certain features that tie it closely—integrally, even—to the Protestant faith. The most important of these, Bottum insists, is its emphasis on interiority, the inner lives of characters.

Responding to Disenchantment

As Bottum writes in the opening page of his book, “all human beings are interior selves and the characters in a novel are their readers.” Even in novels ostensibly about other things (like politics), interiority is, in a sense, always the thing the novel explores. But novels do more than just privilege their characters’ inner lives; according to Bottum, they map out the individual soul’s journey as it strives “to understand its salvation and achieve its sanctification.” And though this journey occurs within each individual soul and is typically marked by a growing self-understanding and awakening of virtue, it also needs to be made in the external world of people and things.

Which leads me to another of Bottum’s claims: Being modern (which both the novel and Protestantism are) means having to face the fact that the world has become disenchanted. Unlike medieval people, he might say, who lived in a realm full of meaning (and who didn’t read or write novels), modern people look around and see only indifference, a world in which meaning has gone underground. (This prompts us, the argument goes, to turn inward.) Accordingly, one thing that makes the novel both modern and Protestant is that it responds to this disenchantment of the world, this “thinness,” this “crisis” of the modern self. Indeed, in Bottum’s view, it is part of the novel’s work to depict, via interiority, the reconnection of reality and meaning.

And it can do this in various ways. In Sir Walter Scott’s Waverly, Bottum’s example, the world is made meaningful (or “thickened”) by an appeal to the past, an attempt to recapture what’s “missing from the modern experience.” In Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, meaningfulness is reasserted through the suggestion that there is a fundamental “unity of concept and thing,” despite the fact that “perversions” of truth abound and language is used almost exclusively in the service of power or desire. Words, in Dickens, are capable of naming reality.

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Source: Christianity Today