The Rise of the Info-Novel

What was it you wanted from that big new novel? If you’re looking for an education
about Victorian brothels, Dante studies during the 19th century,
iconography and iconology in art history, the structure and function of railroads,
the Allied retreat to Dunkirk, British scientific expeditions in the Himalaya,
Bobby Thomson’s Brooklyn-crushing dinger or any number of other subtopics in
history, philosophy, business or law, then you’ll likely find it satisfying
enough. But if you’re looking for the promise of invention, for a world created
and set in motion, for characters who grapple with ethical and moral dilemmas
that radically transform their perspective – the elements that make a great
and true novel – you’ll be disappointed.

I’m not arguing that the novel is dead. Partly because it’s not – sales of
both new literary fiction and classics are up over the last few years, if anemically
– and partly because it’s such a tedious argument to make. (And inevitably,
someone else will make it.) Rather, it’s become a bloated, creaking mess. The
contemporary novel, as Jonathan Safron Foer recently remarked, is ‘stuffed with
crap.’ It’s filled to the gills. What happened?

Novelists have traded a critical literary mission for one dictated by literary
critics. Indeed, it’s not even true literary critics who have mislaid the course
of the contemporary novel. Rather, cultural theorists posing as English professors
but primarily engaged in interdisciplinary studies seek to understand literature
in terms of another field that is, invariably, their real interest. The list
of theorists and their disciplines is long and marvelously varied. Anthropology
and sociology animated Claude Levi Strauss and informs the work of Structuralists;
linguistics preoccupied de Saussure, Chomsky and Barthes; communism and the
relationship of labor to capital drove Terry Eagleton and the dialectical materialists
years after the end of history; psychoanalysis was the true profession of Lacan
and Kristeva; queer theory and socially constructed ideas about sexuality were
Foucault’s overarching interest, just as cultural hegemony and colonialism remain
Edward Said’s focus (we are to understand Pride and Prejudice in terms
of the exploitation of far-flung colonies, which made the English estate such
a magnificent place for a fling); gender studies is the passion of Judith Butler;
race the central concern of an array of critics such as Appiah and Gates; and
of course semiotics and its derivatives the play of Derrida and his merry if
baffling band of pranksters. These critics have widely divergent aims, yet they
share a single prejudice: each has relegated novelists to aimless scriveners
and novels to texts no more authoritative than advertising copy or the back
of a cereal box. The kind of close reading favored by the New Critics, which
presupposed a view of literature as worthy of analysis on its own terms, hasn’t
been seriously undertaken in a half century.

It’s not surprising that critics celebrate novels which reflect their own prejudices
and presuppositions. Fiction built on nonlinear narratives, informed by indeterminacy,
skepticism, and of course moral relativism, and stuffed with reams of data about
topics in finance, philosophy, technology and history, usually with swatches
of intertextual material (letters, legal briefs, patents, pop songs, schema
and diagrams) are fashionably media-friendly. There is also a discernible political
element to the trend. Theorists tend to reside on the Left, and they invariably
conflate conservative aesthetics with right-wing politics, essays and reviews.
The kind of well-made novel that John Irving produces is implicitly denigrated
as conservative regardless of its characters impressive capacity for extramarital
sex, drug use and general debauchery.

Critical theorists have been the real stars of the academy for nearly three
decades, their supremacy challenged only for a few years in the late 1990s,
when intellectual property mavens, electrical engineers and an assortment of
related technologists briefly eclipsed them. The popularity of the technologists
has proved only modestly more durable than the stock market bubble they inspired,
while the influence of theorists prevails. It does not stop at the university
gates; it suffuses the popular, book-reviewing press. Novelists are hip to critical
theory as well, particularly now that so many of them spend less time in cafes
than classrooms, the royalties from their art insufficient to cover the cost
of a latte.

The Info-novel is the inexorable result. Novelists have proved impressionable,
quick studies, recalibrating their aesthetic objectives to reflect those of
the critical theorists they emulate. In an effort to lend weight to narrative
and justify fiction at a time when literary criticism has displaced literature
and technology has displaced religion as a source of meaning (to the extent
it can be ascertained), fiction writers have unmoored blocks of sociological,
industrial, pop-culture, linguistic and political information and dropped them
in, largely undigested, into their work. Just as theorists have brought interdisciplinary
studies to bear on fiction, novelists have taken whole subject areas and downloaded
them into their novels. It is as if, confronted by the infinite amount of information
available online, they have decided to cram in as much of it as possible. Perhaps
writers believe information is the representative condition of our time, and
the novel must reflect it.

If so, you’d expect characters who tangle with overwhelming mass of information
and complexity, who are either defeated or alienated by it – a L’Etrangere for
the information age – but the Info-novel is something quite different. It exists
to convey information rather than comment upon it. It is more interested in
its structural and technical components than in utilizing them in the service
of an imaginative world. And it represents a radical diminution, a failure of
nerve, a crisis of faith in the project of fiction.

Mailer once despaired of timid talents, exhorting younger authors to write
as if they were running for president. (This was the political Mailer of the
late 60s, and he meant it as a great complement.) The old pugilist hasn’t mellowed
– in a recent talk with Charlie Rose, Mailer demanded the same of Franzen –
proving he’s more perceptive than the critics, who have mistaken the Info-novel
for literary ambition. Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Judith
Shulevitz gushed, ‘Novelists, in short, have become our public intellectuals
– our polymaths, our geographers, our scholars of the material world.’ Shulevitz’
sole reservation is that the characters in works by Delillo, Franzen and Eugenides
aren’t themselves intellectuals, or even particularly perceptive. For a really
smart and self-aware fictional character, she writes, you have to wade through
a Richard Powers novel.

Powers’ characters are a well-educated and hyperarticulate bunch, but they’re
not, as Harold Bloom wrote of Shakespeare’s leads, capable of interpreting their
own thoughts and actions, changing and growing as a result. Shakespeare may
set too high a bar, but even with more modest expectations, encyclopedic novels

It is a truism of creative writing programs that in serious fiction character
drives plot, not the other way around. In spy novels, murder mysteries and prefabbed
legal thrillers, characters serve plot, which tends to chew them up and spit
them out. In literary fiction, characters fill and organize the story around
them. Fully realized characters demand to be understood on their own terms.
The big new tomes violate this maxim, which is no less true for being tired.
Franzen’s The Corrections has much to say about campus politics at second-tier
schools, the aftermath of the 1990s technology bubble, corrupt business practices
in post-Soviet economies, even restaurant operations, but its characters can
barely find their way through the maze and are hemmed in by towers of information.
They are slathered with it, and drowning. This is not to conflate Franzen, who
won last year’s Pulitzer Prize, or Andrea Barrett, whose collection, Servants
of the Map
was nominated for this year’s honor, with John Grisham. A Grisham
thriller has very different ambitions, and they usually succeed on their own
terms. The same cannot be said for Barrett, whose characters are 19th-century
botanists, biologists, physicians and explorers, and who exist primarily to
convey the historical and scientific information that animates them – unless
Barrett’s real interest is the history of science, particularly Victorian-era
science, and not fiction. But then why is she wasting our time?

American critics have trumpeted Franzen, Delillo and Powers, but the Info-novel
is hardly a U.S. phenomenon. Michel Houellebecq’s wildly celebrated Atomized,
contains tracts of political and moral philosophy, chemical and nuclear science,
even modern French social history more befitting a monograph. Julian Barnes,
who might have been expected to know better, called Atomized ‘a novel
which hunts big game while others settle for shooting rabbits.’ The sort of
hunting Barnes got so excited about typically runs something like:

Individuality, and the sense of freedom that flows from it, is the natural
basis of democracy. In a democratic regime, relations between individuals
are commonly regulated by a social contract. A pact which exceeds the natural
rights of the co-contractors, or which does not correspond to a clear retraction
clause, is considered de facto null and void.

And big game included tracts that might otherwise have passed for hack journalism:

A number of other important events in 1974 further advanced the cause of
moral relativism. The first Vitatop club opened in Pars on 20 March; it was
to play a pioneering role in the cult of the body beautiful. The age of majority
was lowered to 18 on 5 July, and divorce by mutual consent was officially
recognized on the eleventh, thus removing adultery from the penal code. Lastly,
on 28 November, after a stormy debate described by commentators as ‘historic’,
the Veil act legalizing abortion was adopted, largely thanks to lobbying by
the left.

The agnosticism at the heart of the French republic would facilitate the
progressive, hypocritical and slightly sinister triumph of the determinist
worldview. On temperate climates, the body of a bird or mammal first attracts
specific species of flies (Musca, Curtoneura), but once decomposition has
begun to set in, these are joined by others, particularly Calliphora and Lucilia.
Under the combined action of bacteria and the digestive juices disgorged by
the larvae, the corpse begins to liquefy and becomes a ferment of butyric
and ammoniac reactions.

Barnes wasn’t alone. Magazines and newspapers described Atomized as
a novel of ideas. It isn’t. A novel of ideas is something else, in which characters
grapple with ethical and moral challenges. The Magic Mountain, for example,
is among other things a richly animated version of Nietzschean tragedy. A reader
finishing Mann’s masterpiece has a serviceable understanding of Nietzsche’s
opposing forces: the Apollonian, which represented order, reason, clarity and
harmony; and the Dionysian, denoting wild creativity, free-spirited and usually
drunken play. Many philosophers incorrectly interpret Nietzsche’s conception
of tragedy to elevate the Dionysian over the sterile Apollonian, but Nietzsche
was a subtler thinker, and Mann was subtler still. Just as Nietzsche demanded
an ethics beyond good and evil, Mann created characters who balance, at least
for a time, Apollonian and Dionysian forces in their personality and the world
they inhabit.

Other great writers have approached the novel of ideas similarly. Tolstoy understood
the difference between fiction and historiography, and probably for that reason
his discourses on military history in War and Peace are segregated in
separate chapters. It was as if he didn’t want to spoil the novel itself. Even
without these discursions, War and Peace is a novel of ideas, for in
one respect it is about how people function in wartime, continue to fall in
and out of love in a rapidly changing society. Maybe there’s something about
the Russians. Brothers Karamazov may be the apotheosis of the novel of
ideas. Dostoevsky’s fiction examines good and evil, faith and despair, realism
and mysticism – all without telling the reader anything, without requiring a

The novel of ideas need not run on for 800 pages, nor is it the province of
long-dead white guys. Alice Munro has been turning out brilliant stories for
the past two decades. Sebald evoked memory and time as well as Proust, and a
lot more economically. And while Updike and Mailer have slowed and turned out
their weakest work in decades, and Bellow is powering down the laptop, the last
three or four Philip Roth novels have been daring and brilliant.

The most celebrated younger writers have ignored these examples to pursue Tom
Wolfe’s prescription for reflecting modern society whole, attuned to its cartooned,
pop-culture components. Their novels are usually delivered in a steroid-juiced
voice that critic and novelist James Woods has called ‘hysterical realism:’
clever compilations of consumer references splattered throughout essays on politics,
business and pop culture. This has happened before. The naturalistic novel,
particularly in its 19th century French instantiation (Dickens never
lost sight of his story), was preoccupied with the mechanics of recently industrialized
society, and its vast plots impressed characters into an overpopulated chorus.
Naturalism had a long hangover, even in English, as anyone who’s tried to wade
through Dreiser must know. And yet from naturalism sprang the multivalent brilliance
of modernism. There is hope.

The novel has no Platonic form, and there is certainly no requirement that
writers adhere to a formula or set of rules. The novel is not a haiku or sonnet,
nor even a movie, with its well-observed limits of length and perspective. Fiction
must have room to grow, reinvent and reassert itself. As readers, we must stand
aside and grant it some latitude. Yet we can be both open-minded and demanding.
As Dr. Johnson said, the essence of poetry is invention. Art strives to answer
the question, What is life? The Info-novel, bereft of poetry and barren of invention,
succeeds only as a clever construction, an amalgamation of data, posing again
and again the same stupid question.

Peter Lurie is general counsel of Virgin Mobile USA, a wireless voice and
internet service. The views expressed are his own.

Comments are closed.