1. The Historical Genre: Critical and Practical Discourse
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. 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." 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.
If we are to sidestep this dilemma and to recover, from beneath the hegemonic front of New Critical modernism, the polyvalent critical and literary history of twentieth-century fiction, it is necessary to renounce the genealogical project of the novel's meta-fiction. We do not need another modernism, a more usable past. The eventual direction and meaning of the modernist venture was an outcome of contemporary critical and literary debate--a historical event in need of explanation. As I see it, investigations into this literary history do not need to dispute the methods of New Criticism, revise its canon, nor construct new periodizations of literature. Such disputes have proved ineffective and counter-productive to understanding both the contemporary alternatives to New Critical modernism and the manner in which a small group of writers and critics managed to achieve and to maintain a hegemony that has lasted to this day. Rather, the task of literary history is to recognize New Criticism and canon formation as objects of historical import--illusions of consensus, but illusions with powerful consequences for literature and for criticism. That is, the illusion of consensus is constructed by, and an effect of, a domination which is real in that it has an impact on literary value, taste, pleasure, judgment--the acts of reading and writing. Taking these as formations within literary history will, of itself, require the development of alternative methods and an alternative view of early twentieth-century literature.
The development of alternative methods and understandings of early twentieth-century fiction requires, first and foremost, demystifying the meta-fiction of the novel. Not a definition, but the shape of an argument, the meta-fiction of the novel may serve as a guide to explorations of the contentious history of the novel. Most directly it allows us to identify many an apparently "idiosyncratic" element and "curious" turn of marginal modernist texts as components of a coherent polemic. We may begin to read their difference as arguments against the characteristic content and structure of the valued texts of canonical modernism, rather than failures to rise to its "universal" standards. The result is a double historicization of literature, for not only do many marginal and sub-literary novels emerge as vital parts of a contentious aesthetic discourse broader than any genealogy of the novel (e.g., Melville-James-Joyce-Nabokov-Pynchon), but also their recovery effectively rhetoricizes the long settled meaning and value of canonical texts, revealing their very "literariness" to be the product of critical and writerly collaboration rather than an inexplicable expression of Genius, or some abrupt outcropping of the dialectic of History.
The rhetoric of the novel's historical nature, as it functions to form paradigms and genealogies and to legitimate distinctions among competing novel forms, is the means whereby aesthetic hegemony is first sought and most convincingly maintained. To describe this process one must look beneath the meta-fiction of the novel to the lines along which the future of the novel is fought, and identify the various elements which contribute to the animation of the genre of the novel as a thing-in-itself. To do so I return to The Theory of the Novel, where Lukács accomplished this animation by collapsing two intertwined, but separable discourses: a critical discourse in which the novel's form is normalized as historical, and a literary, practical discourse in which history is represented. The locus of this critical discourse is not limited to critical tracts per se, nor is the novel's practical discourse confined to novels: novelist speak as critics, and critics may represent history in something approaching the imaginative detail offered in a novel. But while critics and novelists participate in both discourses, it is the dynamic disjunction between the novel's critical and practical discourses--between interpreting the historical meaning of the novel's formal organization and representing the realities to which the novel's structure must respond--that enables the genre's partisans to negotiate ruptures with the genre's past. A novel is most defensible when its formal composition is interpretable as an embodiment of the history novelists and critics agree the novel should represent. When the novel's practical discourse represents the facts of history to be such that "The Novel" must change, critical discourse justifies some changes as in the nature of the genre itself. It is this critical, normalizing discourse, propagated within and without the novel, that ultimately lends the illusion of integrity and continuity to the genre, legitimating transformations in novelistic practice by reconstructing the genealogy of the novel's form such that "intergenerational" ruptures plausibly may be ascribed to the natural course of history. It produces such an illusion even as extraneous, historical pressures from the marketplace, the academy, publishing institutions, and society at large induce novelists to make radical changes in the novel's characteristics.
Were the relationship between the novel's legitimating discourse and the practice of novel writing not disjunctive, criticism's powerful fiction-making capacity would be inexplicable. We are yearly witness to the fact that novels composed and initially interpreted under prior aesthetic regimes may be "modernized" by innovative critical methods. Such critical "modernization" has the effect of pushing back the origin of "Modernism," such that contemporary writers feel authorized by "tradition" to write novels that rupture, not only traditional novelistic practice, but those practices which until quite recently were considered "modern." These latest deviations require, in turn, critical adjudication and the projection of new genealogies of the novel: it is in imagining this cycle repeating that it becomes apparent that, in terms of literary history, shifts in theory and in practice are equal contributors to the genre's transformation. This is the dynamic of Van Wyck Brooks' "usable past."
To investigate British-American critical and literary activity of the early twentieth century, then, we face two interrelated tasks. First, it is necessary to denaturalize the prevailing aesthetic standards and the hegemonic interpretive techniques upon which they rest by reading them as particularly powerful and eventually victorious elements of the contemporary struggle to define the future of The Novel. Correspondingly, we must attempt elaborate and rehabilitate dissenting aesthetic standards and interpretive techniques in order to discern coherent historical alternatives to the hegemony of New Critical modernism. The two tasks complement each other, contributing to each other's completion. The interplay is necessary to the extent that, unlike Lukács, we do not seek an explanation of the novel's changing face in some determining, "last analysis" of the force of History. Rather, an understanding of the novel's history as a made history is predicated upon a thorough denaturalization and rhetoricization of all such searches for the historical ground of the "historical genre." This understanding cannot "fix" the historical genre--its meaning and its genealogy. But, without fixing the historical genre, literary history can take up the task of narrating how the genre has been fixed and refixed by the novel's critical and practical discourses. It can tell the story of how novels have been variously written, read, interpreted, and valued; and what difference these acts have made. In the last analysis, this is the only way in which it becomes possible to "read" texts marginalized by canonical norms, such as Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring, and Tropic of Capricorn, without mistaking them for weak products of New Critical modernism or dismissing them as outside the broad debate that constitutes the history of the modern novel.