1. The Historical Genre: Critical and Practical Discourse

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":

The existing [poetic] monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new.[9]

Faced with a similar need to justify modern ruptures with past literary practice, Lukács and Eliot codify the complementary meta-fictions of the novel and of poetry. The novel is the genre that comprehends, or rather, defends, its formal mutations as historical, ascribing breaks with the past to the force of history it has internalized. Poetry confronts breaks with the past as additions to a pantheon which refigure and illuminate the whole as it internalizes them. Both meta-fictions are mystifications. They conceal the role particular interpreters--in this case Lukács and Eliot--play in sustaining a genre's integrity and continuity. The meta-fictions accomplish this mystification by attributing transformation and refiguration to the genres themselves: to the novel's historical nature and to poetry's transcendent striving.

Understood in this fashion, the generic distinctions between the novel and poetry are not due as much to properties each possesses as a genre-in-itself as they are the consequence of the distinguishing meta-fictions with which novelists, poets, and their respective readers explain ruptures in textual practice as integral to the genre in question. The same argument might be extended in turn to every other genre or sub-genre. The task of identifying the genre to which a text belongs is endless because there are no "finished forms"; no genre's boundaries are namable once and for all. Rather, the boundaries of a genre are policed by successive generations of writers and readers engaged in a continuous act of renaming and reframing. It is because the terms of this renaming and reframing must shift significantly over time in order to maintain distinguishing distances between many evolving genres that a universal taxonomy of literary forms is impossible. Within the broad discourse that is literature, the continuity, integrity, and distinctiveness of each genre is always a recreated illusion, a meta-fiction in furtherance of which writers and readers juggle contents to fit the container, and container to fit the contents. With this inversion of Lukács' understanding of genre, we no longer attempt to construct a theory of a complex thing that produces its own history--the novel as a "normative being of becoming"--but rather set out to trace a complex history within which a thing is reproduced--the genre of the novel. Whatever special relation the novel might have to history must be traced through the shifting grounds on which its partisans have reclaimed it as "a kind of history."

In these pages, I will be examining in depth one instance in the history of the British-American novel in which novelists and their critical partisans fought over the terms on which the novel's tradition might be reclaimed, its present boundaries redrawn, and its future redirected. Here, as throughout its history, changes in novel form have been accompanied by a meta-fiction that meets ruptures in novelistic practice with a reassertion of the novel's double tie to historical reality. The persistence of this meta-fiction may be suggested with three instances where, at crucial junctures in the British-American novel's transformation, the meta-fiction of the novel has been invoked to legitimate new fictive forms as "novelistic." I offer for consideration three writers with distinctive fictional agenda: George Eliot, Henry James, and Ernest Hemingway. Despite their differences, each argued that the novel is truest to itself when it changes the nature of its content to record the "new," and when it revolutionizes its form to become a part of the "new." A common rhetoric justifies disruptive dissent as lineal descent: the novel's content remains a metaphor of history, its form a synecdoche. Moreover, the example of these three writers usefully indicates that this meta-fiction is not strictly a creation of literary theorists such as Lukács, nor is its appearance confined to critical texts. Eliot engages it with authorial asides, James invokes in his critical essays, and Hemingway embeds it in a character's narration. The idealization of the novel as "the historical genre" is a resource novelists and critics have drawn upon in common.

« Previous | Main | Next »