June 11, 2018KR BlogBlogLiteratureReadingWriting

Against the Nineteenth-Century Novel

In a negative review last fall of Nathan Hill’s The Nix, Brianna Rennix of the leftist magazine Current Affairs critiqued what she described as the novel’s “postmodern” elements and argued for a return to nineteenth-century novels, which she claimed were “a literary form that delved intensely into individual psychologies, and examined webs of relationships between interconnected groups of people, and situated the small-scale experiences of characters in relation to larger historical trends and deep existential questions.” By contrast, “postmodern writing has a strong focus on literary style” (whereas I guess by contrast other writing doesn’t?) and “prioritizes conveying a mood rather than telling a story.”

But like right-wing YouTube star Jordan Peterson, Rennix doesn’t seem to understand what postmodernism actually is, and defines it as anything vaguely experimental. But modernists writers like Joyce and Woolf were obviously also experimental, and to an extent so were the nineteenth-century novels like Middlemarch that Rennix values, at least compared to what came before. “Experimental” is after all a very relative term. Postmodernism, by contrast, is something more specific, a post-WWII intellectual trend that Jean-Francois Lyotard famously defined in his 1979 book The Postmodern Condition as an “incredulity towards metanarratives”. This incredulity can be seen in experimental novels like Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, in which narrative logic itself breaks down in the face the destructiveness of WWII, but it’s also present in more traditionally written works like Don DeLillo’s White Noise, which expresses this breakdown in meaning through its content rather than its form, (particularly in the novel’s climactic scene in which the protagonist Jack Gladney learns, among other things, that not even nuns believe in God anymore).

But Rennix’s ultimate critical failure is that The Nix is not really postmodern at all—and ironically it actually conforms almost completely with her description of a classic nineteenth-century novel. Not only does it delve deeply into the “individual psychologies” of its protagonist Samuel Andresen-Anderson, a failed writer and failing college professor, and a host of other supporting characters (including his mother Faye, a gamer known as Pwnage, a college student caught plagiarizing, a cop who hates hippies, and even Hubert Humphrey) but it also “situates the small-scale experiences” of these characters in relation to “larger historical trends” like the failure of 1960s liberalism and way the country changed between then and now—and, most importantly, instead of ending on the bleak postmodern notes of Pynchon or DeLillo, Hill wraps his story up in a neat, happy bow, presenting us a positive image of reconciliation and redemption.

If anything, The Nix (despite how engaging and well-written it is) ends up being too much like a nineteenth-century novel, its final image of hope falling flat in the face of the political realities of the fall of 2016 when it was released. Regardless, though, Rennix’s critique misunderstands the nature of the novel, and worse, represents a kind of reactionary approach to literature common not only in right wing circles (Jordan Peterson, too, hates postmodernism, or at least his idea of it, and longs to return to the purity of ancient myths, or at least his idea of them) but also evidently in left-wing ones too. In a separate article for Current Affairs, Rennix and Nathan J. Robinson offered a similar short-sighted critique of contemporary architecture which called for a return to nineteenth-century aesthetic values. But the nineteenth century is not a universal ideal—like every literary moment, it’s historically specific. Middlemarch may have been a beautiful celebration of progress and the human spirit in 1871, but a novel like that written in 2018, with characters like Dorothea Brooke and Edward Causobon, would inevitably be insufferably tedious and bourgeois. It works only because it’s set in the nineteenth century. The present calls for a different kind of literature.

Perhaps its fair to say that postmodernism too has had its day, and that the existential pessimism of Thomas Pynchon and Don Dellilo is now as irrelevant as the bourgeois hope of the Victorian nineteenth century (though I personally disagree, as I’ve argued before). But whatever literary movement will become the style of our day, it won’t simply be a return to an older form. The nineteenth century may have produced incredible works of literature that do everything Rennix says they do—but that century is long over. It ended, as one would expect, in the year 1900, and it’s not coming back. We can appreciate what it gave us, but we shouldn’t simply run back to its comforting embrace. As writers, we need to look ahead as well as behind.