1. The Historical Genre: Critical and Practical Discourse

Georg Lukacs, The Theory of the Novel

Thus, the novel, in contrast to other genres whose existence resides within the finished form, appears as something in process of becoming. [....] As form, the novel establishes a fluctuating yet firm balance between becoming and being; as the idea of becoming, it becomes a state. Thus the novel, by transforming itself into a normative being of becoming, surmounts itself. 'The voyage is completed: the way begins.'
Georg Lukács, The Theory of the Novel (1920)
Mr. Joyce has written one novel--the Portrait; Mr. Wyndham Lewis has written one novel--Tarr. I do not suppose that either of them will ever write another 'novel.'
T. S. Eliot, "'Ulysses', Order, and Myth" (1923)
Harry Crosby, Stuart Gilbert, Eugene Jolas,
Theo Rutra, and Robert Sage, transition (1928)
Everything that was literature has fallen from me. There are no more books to be written, thank God.
This then? This is not a book. This is libel, slander, defamation of character. This is not a book, in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty . . . what you will. I am going to sing for you, a little off key perhaps, but I will sing. I will sing while you croak, I will dance over your dirty corpse. . . .
Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer (1934)

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The Meta-Fiction of the Novel

A rhetoric, rather than an internally consistent theory, the meta-fiction of the novel needs, finds, and reciprocates the support of comparable rhetorical claims maintaining the identities of other genres. Lukács' effort to codify the novel's likeness to history lends legitimacy to the meta-fiction through which poets and their readers have advanced poetry's claim to transcend history. Though neither Georg Lukács nor T. S. Eliot had knowledge of the other's work, The Theory of the Novel (1916/1920) may be compared directly with "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1919). Accomplishing for twentieth-century poetry something akin to what Lukács accomplishes for the novel, Eliot insists that the order of poetry remains a transcendent whole despite its history of "novelty":

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George Eliot, Middlemarch

George Eliot framed Middlemarch as an inquiry into the determining effect of "the conditions of an imperfect social state" upon the individual's nature and potential.[10] She went on, in an oft-quoted passage, to explain her novelistic practice to be a consequence of historical change:

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Henry James, The Future of the Novel

Henry James is often celebrated for elaborating the relation between the novel's form and authorial consciousness, but seldom for his equally strong sense of the intimate relation between the novel's form and history. In 1899, speaking of "The Future of the Novel" James invoked history as the guarantor of continual formal innovation:

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Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

Eliot asserts the meta-fiction that ascribes the novel's formal innovations to the force of history in her many authorial asides. James is willing to "suppose" it throughout his many essays. By contrast, Hemingway presents the case of a writer who deploys this meta-fiction almost in the absence of any other body of methodological reflection. Consider, for instance, Hemingway's famous diatribe on words in A Farewell to Arms, which directly attributes the laconic style of much modern literature to his generation's experience of war:

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Transforming and Relegitimating the Historical Genre

The four passages with which I began this chapter--quoting from Georg Lukács, T. S. Eliot, a group of transition writers, and Henry Miller--are representative of a larger chorus of contemporary debate. These writers are divided in their prescriptions for the future of the novel. Lukács, at the end of The Theory of the Novel, placed his faith in Dostoevski's form: "He belongs to the New World."[17] Eliot looked to Wyndham Lewis and James Joyce, with a joint endorsement that today may strike us today as anomalous, but which, at the time, stemmed from a perception of the equal ambition of the two writers, the equal authority with which they invoked the meta-fiction of the novel to legitimate their experimental fictions. The transition group looked to T. S. Eliot and James Joyce and their use of "mythic method" to create a "new unity." Miller harnessed Walt Whitman's "omnivorous lines" to traverse a Dadaesque world without center or promise of center, and singled out Faulkner as "the only possible rival I have today in America."[18] Though divided in their particular prescriptions for the novel, these writers and critics defend them in similar fashion. All rely upon the same legitimating meta-fiction, affirming the novel's double tie to history: the novel's content is a metaphor of history; its form a synecdoche. Like George Eliot and Henry James before them, they argue that the novel is truest to its nature when it changes its content to record the "new," and when it revolutionizes its form to become a part of the "new." When four such roughly contemporaneous, parallel passages appear distributed across a variety of documents--a treatise, a review, a magazine manifesto, and a novel--the task of the genre's legitimation has been taken up, not on an individual basis, novelist by novelist, work by work, but as a matter of public debate. Their collective invocation of the meta-fiction of the novel signals a consensus that generic transformation is at hand.

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Gramsci, The Modern Prince

In analyzing the local struggle among publishers, critics, and writers to define the meaning of the modernist venture, Antonio Gramsci's concept of "hegemony," with some adaptation, will prove useful. Hegemony derives from the Greek egemonia and egemon--a leader, a ruler; importantly, most often it refers to a ruler over a state other than his own.[20] In political discourse the word has come to connote a diffuse kind of domination, at once coercive and consensual, institutional and ideological--something akin to what Max Weber meant by "legitimacy." Gramsci's elaboration of hegemony sought to reconcile certain discrepancies in Marxist theoretics: it appeared to him all too evident that the powerful appeal of fascist ideology and party organization across class lines refuted any dogmatic contention that ideology reflects, or merely masks, class interests directly rooted in historical modes of production. Gramsci's concept of hegemony is, on its face, applicable to the analogous situation in which we seek to explain the permutations of another ideological discourse, that of the novel. Like politics--indeed, a politics of representation in its own right--the discourse of the novel transpires at some distance and independence from the more economic and socio-historical forces the genre purports to represent and embody. As it happens, "hegemony" is a concept we need not import to literature. The term first entered critical and literary discourse, along with the manifesto, as part of the "revolutionary" rhetoric of modernism. The "avant garde" modeled itself upon the "vanguard."

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Van Wyck Brooks, A Usable Past

To speak of the hegemony of New Critical modernism is to recognize that the major obstacle to a recovery of the multivocal critical and literary history of the novel is the very success with which a relatively small group of critics and writers have invoked the meta-fiction of the novel to naturalize a limited range of innovations, asserting that these innovations, over and against all others, represent the necessary development of "the historical genre." In 1918, Van Wyck Brooks called for the creation of a "usable past" to serve the interests of a new generation of active writers.[30] That "usable past" was not created as easily or as willfully as Brooks imagined it could be, but it was created nevertheless. As writers, readers, critics, and even literary historians, we are heir. not only to the hegemony of New Critical modernism, which constitutes our image of the recent past, but to the longer "history" of the novel created in Modernism's image. The historiographic difficulty is not simply that a "Lost Generation" has ordained a canon we need improve through a liberal elevation of heretofore neglected novelists and novels, or a canon we need reject, once again as Brooks imagined, through the literary equivalent of Freud's "family romance."[31] The difficulty is that the genealogy we have received in place of a full history of the novel is imposed, not by law and force, but by persuasion and consent. The aesthetic values, interpretive techniques, and reading pleasures we might draw upon to modify this existent genealogy or to trace an alternative "usable past" are themselves historical products of the literary and critical conflict of the early twentieth century. Even deliberately antithetical values and critical methods promulgated in the intervening half-century have had the uncanny effect of vitalizing the paradigms upon which New Critical modernism staked its claim to fulfill the historical promise of the novel. Or, they have left the field so strewn with genres and sub-genres, novels and non-novels, literatures and other literatures, interpretations and anti-interpretations that the possibility of a literary history seems to disappear--every text appears at once equally related and unrelated to every other text. Our hermeneutic dilemmas are a consequence of the hegemony of New Critical modernism. It is a general effect of hegemony that the grounds of ideological activity mapped by a historically hegemonic group are accepted, and hence recapitulated, or all conceptual distinctions and values are rapidly emptied of meaning, leaving naked institutional coercion and the demands of survival to accomplish what persuasion once did.

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The Historical Genre: Crititical and Practical Discourse - Notes

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