1. The Historical Genre: Critical and Practical Discourse

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.

The task of transforming and relegitimating the historical genre at such moments is served by the two uses of the meta-fiction of the novel I have already discussed. First, as in The Theory of the Novel, the meta-fiction is invoked to maintain a generic boundary between the novel and all other genres. Novelists and their partisans refigure the novel's formal distance from other encroaching genres--in the 1920s and 1930s, poetry and film--thereby reclaiming the novel's distinguishing relation to historical change. Second, as exemplified in the passages from George Eliot, Henry James, and Ernest Hemingway, the meta-fiction operates to sustain a sense of the genre's continuity despite a history of formal innovation. The rhetoric of the novel reclaims extravagant fictive forms with a contention that the essence of the "novelistic" is to surpass the known bounds of the novel. But the widespread use of this rhetorical strategy by rival novelists and critics during the "experimental" years of the early twentieth century points to yet a third, and more important, function performed by the meta-fiction of the novel--an explicitly prescriptive one. The promulgation of literary modernism was neither as transparent nor as unilinear as the consensual invocation of the same meta-fiction might suggest. The variety of forms prescribed for the "modern novel" during the first three decades of the twentieth century are at odds with each other, as are the distinctive accounts of historical conditions offered in the works of Lukács, Eliot, the transition writers, and Henry Miller, among many others. The genre's claim to represent and embody the significant elements and forces of the historical moment cannot be relegitimated without adjudicating such competing claims. An authoritative fiction, the "Modern Novel" is a consensual paradigm forged out of, and then obscuring, many contending alternatives.

The meta-fiction of the novel is sufficiently flexible that nearly any literary artifact may claim the status of "novel," provided it may be read to represent historical phenomena, and that some relation may be posited between its content and form. The ease with which any form/content distinction may be juggled--form becoming content, and content becoming form--makes these requirements minimal. Potentially, it allows the reappropriation of even the most radical deviation from established novelistic practice, permitting each novel, every ambitious fiction, to claim to be what the novel ought to become. Under these circumstances, all such claims are threatened with meaninglessness. Lest its cultural authority utterly collapse and its enterprise become a mere "game" in which all moves are legitimate, the literary community must make distinctions among competing novelists' claims.[19] Persuaded that the substantive and formal innovations of a particular novelist represent and embody the historical moment in exemplary fashion, writers, readers, and critics, alike, are necessarily committed to demonstrating that other novelist's innovations do not--a judgment at once aesthetic and political. The outcome of such struggles is the establishment of paradigmatic "New Novels." The meta-fiction of the novel, invoked in the service of these paradigms, prescribes particular novel forms and particular understandings of history which novelists must replicate and elaborate lest they appear to fall outside the genealogy of the novel, their novels marginalized as "bad," "old-fashioned," "merely popular," "curious," "inexplicable." The shared meta-fiction is, as it were, the common ground upon which and for which incompatible fictive forms and incompatible representations of the "modern" compete, each striving to claim the title and genealogy of "The Novel."

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