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)
THE NOVEL IS DEAD LONG LIVE THE NOVEL
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)
Georg Lukács, the most influential figure in twentieth-century genre theory, often wrote as though the novel were the only truly historical genre, as though the novel, by virtue of its endeavor to record history, alone possessed a history of formal transformations. The novel is accorded this privileged status of "the historical genre" in The Theory of the Novel, where Lukács draws a fundamental distinction between its "normative being of becoming" and the "other genres whose existence resides within the finished form." All genres, including the novel, occur in history: the cultural rise, vitality, and decline of different literary forms reflect different "historico-philosophical" moments in the development of western civilization. But the novel, whose birth coincides with that of bourgeois culture, displays a special, intrinsic relation to history: its protean form is both in and of history. Lukács' "historical genre" represents history's changing characters and events, but more distinctively it embodies the historical by reflecting in its formal permutations a series of historico-philosophical moments that might otherwise have called for the rise of yet another genre. The Theory of the Novel, which begins with a historical survey of genres, tellingly concludes with a chronological "Typology of Novel Forms." By "surmounting itself," the singularly historical genre becomes something of a genre to end all genres. Against the many theoreticians of the poetic, Georg Lukács was a partisan of the novel form.
All genres have their partisans. Most directly, the history of a genre is the story of its advocates: a story they tell each other and whatever audience they may find and persuade to listen and to believe; a story retold from generation to generation, changing along the way, not simply to encompass new instances of the genre, but to reshape the past into a coherent account of the present. In another sense, the history of a genre is the story of these stories: an account of a genre's partisans which embraces, not only the story of the genre as it has been retold, but the many stories that have ceased to be told or were told but to a few. In this second sense, the past ceases to be a coherent account of the present, or becomes so only in the less tangible sense in which the past must also be asked to account for what the present is not. My interest lies in the history of the novel in this second sense, that is, in telling the story of the novel's partisans' stories. Inevitably, the difference between telling a story of the novel and telling the story of the novel's stories is only paper-thin. But this difference--ultimately the difference between a theory of the novel and a history of the novel--must be maintained. It may only be maintained by interrogating the fictions of genre told by novelists and their critical and theoretical partisans, by disbelieving them and their very project of bringing coherence to the novel's past. Very likely this means telling a bad story, denying oneself the pleasure of bringing the past to a satisfactory conclusion in a right, just, and inevitable present. Compensation comes through an understanding of the history of the novel as something made--not determined by Form and History, but fashioned by a host of competing writers, critics, and readers who shaped the novel's history by telling persuasive stories with consequences for themselves, their contemporaries, and their successors.
A rhetorical structure supports Lukács' theory of the novel. His fundamental distinction grants, without interrogation, a formal integrity to all other genres so as to reserve for the novel a form that embodies the force of historical change. The other genres strive to realize an ideal "finished form"; though developing in history, the logic of their development transcends it. The novel's form, by contrast, is contingent on historical circumstance; closer to life's "normative being of becoming," the logic of its successive transformations, of its development, is historical. Driven by the force of history, the novel represents and embodies what Lukács calls our "transcendental homelessness." Did these propositions not resonate so powerfully with similar propositions spanning the entire history of the novel, their nonsense would overwhelm their sense. In Lukács' hands, the novel acquires the attributes of a modern-day Delphic oracle: a sign of the changing times, if only interpreted properly, its course of development augurs ill for the future of western civilization. We see this, but Lukács' grandiloquent claims for the historical genre are so consonant with claims advanced time and again by novelists for their own work, and so intimately bound up with what we surreptitiously seek in reading fiction, that rather than question his definition of the novel's "normative being of becoming," we are tempted to fix his "Typology of Novel Forms" to correspond to our sense of western history, or to plead the extenuating circumstance that History is itself nothing but a grand fiction within which novels are better, more consequential fictions than most.
The Theory of the Novel owes its plausibility to its ratification of the novel's long-standing claim to be "a kind of history." Outside the culture--the cult--of the novel, Lukács' fundamental distinction between the novel's "normative being of becoming" and the "other genres whose existence resides within the finished form" does not bear up to scrutiny. It cannot be maintained that change is any more built into the novel than into any other genre. Poetry, no less than the novel, has been subject to formal mutations which might as well be described as intrinsically historical in Lukács' sense. The consciousness of time and place animating, for example, Walt Whitman's mockery of the traditional sub-genres of "Epic" and "Lyric" poetry only reveals that division to be a reification of a history of experimentation, combination, and deviation, wherein poets have deployed even the lyric to record the passage of latter day "national-racial," "epic" events. A less partisan survey of the range and variety of western literature than Lukács' must recognize such a degree of semiotic, structural, and thematic instability that the task of merely distinguishing one genre from another is formidable and endless. As Jacques Derrida indicates in his taunting "The Law of Genre," this instability is not simply due to "an abundant overflowing or a free, anarchic and unclassifiable productivity" of the text or of the writers of texts, but is an inescapable consequence of the productivity of critical classification. Any attempt to refine a generic taxonomy of texts, recovering on a single conceptual grid of class and sub-class all the "traits" by which texts have been said to participate in this or that genre--this and that genre--inevitably breaks down into a system within which exceptions rule, each text constituting a genre unto itself while simultaneously belonging to every genre. Lukács directs our gaze toward the novel, but were we to maintain his distinction in all earnestness, we would need to consider its implications for his "other genres." In doing so we would quickly find ourselves in Borges' "Library of Babel," endeavoring to discover the key "finished forms" about which the vast, varied array of all that has passed for poetry, drama, the tale, autobiography, the short story, novella, the screen-play, etc., spiral as mere variations.
The Theory of the Novel, by advancing a theoretical posture that views the novel as somehow of history while other genres only occur in history, perpetuates rather than illuminates a rhetorical strategy which, henceforth, I will refer to as the meta-fiction of the novel. This meta-fiction comprises two interrelated claims: the true novel represents and embodies historical reality. The novel is "a kind of history," revealing the real by representing actual events, presenting fictional events as actual, and interpolating events that might as well have been actual. But also, and essentially, the novel's structure is a part history, changing to mime, to reveal, to diagnose, the forces of the "historio-philosophical" moment which bring about and order the world the novel represents. When for the first time in its history the novel was receiving concerted academic treatment, The Theory of the Novel lent a certain conceptual rigor to the second of these claims, superadding the novel's formal attributes to the list of substantive adaptations that the novel, by virtue of which it is said to be the novel, makes to reflect changing historical circumstance. Lukács strengthened the sense in which the novel's substantive and formal transformations alike are understood to be predicates of the genre-in-itself, and evidence of its intrinsic historical nature. In this light the persuasiveness of The Theory of the Novel does not stem from Lukács' sketchy analyses of particular novels, nor from the dialectics with which he codifies the "becoming" of the novel form. Where Lukács' Hegelian, and later Marxian, dialectics might have confined his influence to a more circumscribed sphere, he owes his general influence upon twentieth-century literary theory to his elegant reformulation of a pre-existent, widespread agreement that the novel is, indeed, "a kind of history." Lukács' theoretics may be disputed, but his hold over us, his place in the history of the novel, is rhetorical.