The quaint phenomenon of the novel

At The Brooklyn Rail, English philosopher Simon Critchley takes on the subject of contemporary art in an article entitled “Absolutely-Too-Much.” It’s a fascinating article, but what struck me was his outright dismissal of the novel’s cultural import:

“It is simply a fact that contemporary art has become the central placeholder for the articulation of cultural meanings—good, bad, or indifferent. I am middle-aged enough to remember when literature, especially the novel, played this role and when cultural gatekeepers were literary critics, or social critics, often from literary backgrounds. That world is gone. The novel has become a quaint, emotively life-changing, and utterly marginal phenomenon.”

First of all I think it’s arguable that there is such a thing as a central placeholder these days. And as for cultural gatekeepers, the less said the better.

(A tangent: I find that whenever someone – philosopher, parent, politician – starts a sentence with “It is simply a fact” they are invariably stating their opinion, and that opinion is almost always wrong.)

So what is this quaint novel he is talking about? He makes it sound like an art form that has seen better days, a common enough sentiment among critics who equate the peaks of modern literature with Updike, Bellow and the like. Critchley is plainly not one of those though.

Again, he is referring to the broader culture and no one would argue that novels aren’t marginal in relation to that. But he drifts back towards judgments on what contemporary art should aim to achieve, and these could reflect on the novel as well:

“But what might art be when it exceeds the relative comfort of the almost-too-much of the sublime or the fearful and moves toward the absolutely-too-much of the monstrous? What happens when the uncontainable can’t be contained? When art bears at its core something unbearable?”

These are some of the questions he asks as he comes to his conclusion, and I would argue that it is the novel – certainly not the “quaint, emotively life-changing” variety favored in the English-speaking world, but the works of writers like Horacio Castellanos Moya, László Krasznahorkai and others – that will continue to provide attempts at answering this crucial question.

Photo – From the cover of Weird Tales (May 1934), with Margaret Brundage illustrating the feature story “Queen of the Black Coast” by Robert E. Howard.

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Categories: Essays


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