Book review: ‘The Novel, Who Needs It?’ by Joseph Epstein

For the eminent literary critic, there are few accomplishments more meaningful than producing a full-fledged theory of the novel. These are works that aspire to tell us how we read and why, to explain what literature offers and how it does it. Such projects tend toward the magisterial even when they are brief, and their authors — Georg Lukacs, Mikhail Bakhtin and others — lend their names to whole subfields of academic inquiry and argument.

There is, however, no reason that the theory of the novel should be a strictly academic affair. Almost all of us read novels, after all, and it’s worth thinking about what we’re up to when we do. Joseph Epstein, longtime former editor of the American Scholar magazine and longer-time literary culture gadfly, has attempted just that in his slim but ambitious new book, “The Novel, Who Needs It?”: It is, or at least initially seems to be, a theory of the novel for the rest of us. In that regard, it is an admirable effort. Unfortunately, it is not one that Epstein himself seems prepared to put into practice.

“Reading superior novels,” Epstein writes, “arouses the mind in a way that nothing else quite does.” Echoing some other prominent theorists on the subject, he seems to hold that this is an effect of the novel’s polyphonic qualities, its ability to let various voices jangle against one another. “More than any other literary form, the novel is best able to accommodate the messiness of detail that life presents,” he argues. “The novel, for those who love it, is the literary form of forms.”

Above all else, for Epstein this means that novels are good at getting us to experience other minds, mostly through our encounters with their characters: “What the novel does better than any other form is allow its readers to investigate the inner, or secret, life of its characters.” This capacity makes them powerful tools for human improvement, he says, expanding “one’s appetite for the richness of human experience.” It is the novel, he concludes, that guarantees our access to a “more complex view of life, its mystery, its meaning, its point.”

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Having established all of this, another critic might set out to show how these ideas function in various novels. Epstein, by contrast, is mostly interested in what doesn’t work. “The novel of ideas,” for example, “in so far as it features ideas over actions, is perhaps itself a bad idea.” Likewise, novelists who are too preoccupied with their own style (Vladimir Nabokov and John Updike, mostly) tend to leave him cold. As the book goes on, he increasingly turns away from discussions of particular writers and formal issues to instead grumble about the state of culture more generally. While Epstein can be lively when engaging with the thought of E.M. Forster or the scholarship of Ian Watt, his opinions here take on a familiar, reactionary bent, as if they had been extruded onto the page from a cake piping bag loaded with emulsified New York Times op-eds: Political correctness is ruining publishing, graphic novels are ruining our appreciation for complexity, the internet is ruining our attention spans.

Despite his distaste for our supposedly P.C. era, Epstein’s sternest complaint is itself quite censorial: Novels are too sexy now. It is this, he argues, that has limited the lasting appeal of the “novelists of my lifetime” and ensured that, of them, only Isaac Bashevis Singer, who died 32 years ago, is likely to achieve literary immortality. By way of demonstration, he insists that other recent writers would have ruined the classics with their “adolescent emphasis on sex.” “If John Updike had written George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch,’ Edward Casaubon might well have suffered ejaculatio praecox,” he frets. “If Alan Hollinghurst, the gay English novelist, had been the author of Willa Cather’s ‘Death Comes for the Archbishop,’ one of the two priests in that novel would likely have put homosexual moves on the other.” Horrors!

Another critic might have shown what a properly literary and restrained portrayal of sexuality entails by citing, say, Tolstoy. Epstein, however, apparently believes he has better materials ready to hand: three of his own short stories, from which he quotes at considerable length. “They embraced and she took him by the hand into the bedroom, where they did things together that the Count hadn’t even dared to dream,” ends one selection. Another concludes, “Although himself an easy A student in anatomy and the veteran of nearly forty years of medical practice, she was in possession of a few things about the physiology of the human body that until now had never occurred to Dr. A. Jerome Minkoff.” The erotic, as Roland Barthes wrote in “The Pleasure of the Text,” blooms “where the garment gapes,” but these grammatically dubious passages are like an oversize T-shirt with “I’m sexy and I know it” printed on the front.

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There’s nothing wrong with wanting to avoid graphic sex, of course, but Epstein’s discomfort with it betrays a still greater discomfort with the ugly truths of intimacy, which presents a challenge to anyone who wants to argue that reading should make us better. Like sex, reading is an intimate act, and insofar as it is intimate it is sometimes irredeemably characterized by desire and pleasure. We read for reasons that do not always resolve into some convenient lesson. Leisure time that never rises beyond the level of leisure alone is no worse for it. Art need not always arrive under the aegis of education; it can simply dance for our delight.

Allow for a moment, though, that there’s something to all of this: that novels put us in touch with other minds and expand our own, each new text improving us a little more — serving, in aggregate, as bildungsromans of those who read them. It’s possible that it does work that way sometimes, but it’s not clear that Epstein wants it to. Writing of “serious novels” near the end, he observes, “I like to think that fictional accounts … put a dent or two into the less-evil but still dopey ideas of ‘the open marriage,’ ‘the mid-life crisis,’ and other foolish passing fancies.” Here, as elsewhere, he characteristically proposes that good fiction offers a rebuke to bad opinions, meaning those he does not hold.

If Epstein believes his own theory, he should be able to read his way into a fuller understanding of the moment. The trouble, he tells us, is that he doesn’t read contemporary fiction at all, content to merely “check the publication of new novels in the weekly fiction section of the London Times Literary Supplement, and not many of the novels reviewed there seem, to me at least, promising.” It’s true that no one should be expected to read anything in particular, especially when there is so much to read in general. But those who want to make confident claims about the state of literature — and the world — now, as Epstein does, are under some obligation to get out of the bubble bath and slip their toes into the sea.

To re-appropriate a phrase that Epstein cites approvingly from an essay by my colleague Becca Rothfeld, he himself “displays no genuine curiosity about what it really means to be good,” so sure is he that he already knows. Who needs the novel? If we believe Joseph Epstein’s theory of the novel, then Joseph Epstein does.

Encounter. 142 pp. $25.99

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