Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Novel as Revolutionary

The study of literature that in the U.S. of course falls under that discipline known as English which has sometimes been discarded as irrelevant, a thought I have entertained at different points in my life and yet continuously abandoned simply because of how satisfied one can feel when reading a good work. Something about good literature complicates and romanticizes humanity and its existence--perhaps undeservedly so--but nonetheless in a way that makes life fascinating.

Jane Smiley's 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel may provide an even more valuable perspective on why literature is so important. To be honest, I'm not sure whether Smiley does this in her book, because I have not actually read it yet (I perused it briefly in a book store last night), but I was wowed by the comment of a reviewer on about her book. This reviewer said:

The inner lives of humans didn't figure into the themes of novels until more recent times. Novels have done exactly what the Church and the Establishment once feared. They have caused women and men to think differently and outside the box of their little worlds or economic stratas. They encouraged people to marry for love. They encouraged people to think well of difference in others, or at the very least , give people credit for character and not caste.

That statement is incredibly fascinating--and probably well known to people who are more familiar with the history of the novel and of humanities in general in modern society. What it says is that novels are revolutionary. In a society where book review periodicals are published weekly and there's a Barnes & Noble in every midscale and upscale neighborhood or town, it is easy to forget it or not even realize it. Maybe there should be more study of the impact of novels on human history--that is, if there isn't already. What a fascinating subject.

1 comment:

Chris said...

I'm going to try and not get into semantics here, but I'm a little confused by the comment. The commenter talks about novels, which have only been in existence since about the 18th century - at least in the form we know them today. I gather s/he is not very familiar with "pre-modern" literature because the "inner lives of humans" have figured in the themes of many many works of literature over the centuries. If by "inner lives" s/he means "psychology' then, of course, not since psychological concepts weren't really developed until the beginning of the 19th century - Freud developed his psychological concepts based on literature, such as that by ETA Hoffmann.

I don't disagree that they encouraged what the commenter says they encouraged, but they weren't really novel in this sense. It was the Church contra Establishment during the reign of Charlemagne that proposed marriage based on love and mutual consent rather than on arrangement by parents.

Anyway, what was the novel about the novel, besides it's relatively new form, is that it brought literature to the masses - and actually, that's more because of the printing press rather than anything else. The Printing Press made Don Quixote and Luther's writings and other things like that possible to be disseminated. The creators of the novel of the 18th century capitalized on this and wrote specifically for their increasingly educated middle class audiences. So it goes back to the question of does art imitate life or does life imitate art. I can't answer that.