1. The Historical Genre: Critical and Practical Discourse
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:
I did not say anything. I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything.
This passage has been a frequent touchstone for analysis of Hemingway's style, the experience of the "Lost Generation," and modernism in general. In making this passage its touchstone, such criticism speaks as if Hemingway's generation had a peculiarly defining encounter with history, as if "History" suddenly ruptured the complacency of the literary world, changing it forever. But it should be noted that Hemingway's claim echoes that of George Eliot, who also finds it her task to write in the aftermath of an era: gone are the days when "copious remarks and digressions" in "all the lusty ease of [...] fine English" could fill spacious summer afternoons and slow winter evenings. The peculiarities of the Great War are hardly at issue: Hemingway simply reiterates a persistent meta-fiction of the novel.
Eliot, James, and Hemingway's common defense of their deviations only suggests the extent to which the meta-fiction of the novel's intrinsic historical nature has been called upon time and again to legitimate departures in form and content as integral to the novel's continuously discontinuous course of development. In some sense every ambitious novelist recognizes and makes use of this meta-fiction to the extent that every novel may be understood as a restatement of what the genre is "about." But to identify this meta-fiction as a rhetoric is to point beyond the private satisfactions novelists may find in their work to a public discourse in which works are compared and judged, by rival novelists and rival critics of the novel. In this respect we may discriminate between relatively quiet stretches of novelistic production, within which the meta-fiction of the novel lies latent in contemporary literary and critical consensus, and moments of perceived crisis, when innovation and its assessment seem, not simply the onus of each novelist and critic, but of all novelists and critics. In "The Future of the Novel" Henry James, with less indirection than usual, calls his contemporaries "stupid" for believing that the novel, with society, has its "face is set once and for all in one direction," and argues that complacent stretches of novelistic production are short-lived, if not entirely illusory. We tend to believe him, for his works hold such a prominent place in our sense of the novel's genealogy of deviation and innovation that they obscure the many works of the contemporary writers and critics he insults. But the virulence with which he recalls the meta-fiction of novel's intrinsic historicity from the unspoken center of his own largely formal criticism testifies to the existence of a consensus he sought to change, to a public discourse of the novel within which his defense of innovation was a minority position. It is in such times of literary and critical consensus that most novels--even many ambitious fictions--are produced in accord with established convention, each novel only implicitly asserting that it is, as written, what the future of the novel ought to be.
By contrast, we may recognize stretches of novelistic production and critical consumption when arguments such as James' do not need to be made, or are made with such frequency and such fervor that they serve purposes other than protest. The rhetoric of the novel's historicity becomes visible, public, authoritative, whenever the future form of the novel seems to writers and their critical partisans most uncertain and, in that uncertainty, most promising for those whose ambition it is to shape the genre's course. At such moments of transformative crisis, when there arise a general expectation that formal innovation is the order of the day, the novel's meta-fiction proliferates. Statements, explanations, theories of the novel's historicity become manifest, propounded in every text even remotely concerned with the novel's form: novels, criticism, reviews, theories, histories, autobiographies. At such times, each novel, every ambitious fiction, at least implicitly, and more likely explicitly, invokes the meta-fiction whereby it claims to be what the novel ought to become.