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An Essayist’s Defense of the Novel
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An Essayist’s Defense of the Novel

Joseph Epstein’s new book explains why serious fiction matters, and what we’ll lose if we stop reading it.

Picture via Getty Images.

In 1750, when the novel was still relatively novel, the English essayist and lexicographer Samuel Johnson declared that the primary audience for the literary form comprised “the young, the ignorant, and the idle.” Today, those are probably the last people you’d expect to find reading a work of fiction instead of doomscrolling. Not that novels are exactly all the rage among adults either: A mere 41.8 percent of American adults reported having read fiction in 2018, marking the lowest reading rate in the 21st century and a 3.5 percent drop since 2013.

With The Novel, Who Needs It?, the prolific essayist and critic Joseph Epstein describes why long works of fiction are worth reading, and what we lose as novels lose readers. It’s an accessible, charming, and persuasive apologia. 

Epstein focuses on what he calls “serious” fiction, or what might also be called literary fiction: works “that possess a certain unmistakable gravity—fiction that implicitly asks the right questions, even if it doesn’t supply complete or satisfactory answers to them.” He insists, crucially, that such novels (as opposed to romance, mystery, or other categories of genre fiction) are remarkable for their psychological depth, for their portrayal of  “the inner, or secret, life of its characters.” A great movie or an exceptional TV series can create complex characters and depict their actions in vivid and memorable ways, but they cannot convey their emotional turmoil, trains of thought, or psychological insights with the same precision and depth as fiction.

The novel also demonstrates what Epstein calls “respect for the complexity of experience.” Great fiction captures the unpredictability of human nature and the surprising ways that individual characters behave under moral pressure. In the process, it engages audiences in ways few art forms can. When readers don’t like a novel, they’ll often say something like, “I can’t relate to any of the characters.” Yet one attraction of great fiction is that it introduces us to different ways of living or thinking. As Epstein explains, this virtue brings other benefits: 

What a novel can do, by presenting a life or lives different from, sometimes foreign to, one’s own, is expand one’s sympathies (sometimes), alter one’s taste (often), widen the lenses of one’s experience (always), and take one outside of oneself (if one is lucky).

Epstein is especially provocative when he explains how great fiction can grapple with serious ideas—including political ones—without being didactic. When great novelists convey their political or social views in their works, they do so while still populating their stories with psychologically and morally complicated people. Great fiction replaces “argument with human illustration” and, in so doing, presents “a more complex, a higher truth than politics itself permits.” 

So what’s keeping readers away from the novel? In the book’s longest chapter, Epstein identifies several cultural and technological developments that have diminished the place of fiction in American life. He rounds up many of the usual suspects, including the internet (which trains us to read only for facts), political correctness (which limits what topics and voices writers can explore), the publishing industry (which has become too profit-minded), and graphic novels (which “represent a radical dumbing down”).

The most intriguing culprit Epstein identifies is therapeutic culture, which he argues produces a mindset of self-affirmation that is antithetical to the moral conflict and psychological complexity that drive great fiction. “Under the reign of therapy triumphant,” Epstein writes, “the goal of self-esteem has replaced the longing for strong character.” It’s a strong argument, and there’s no doubt, as Epstein writes, that Sigmund Freud once bestrode the literary landscape like a Colossus. Although Epstein does not provide examples of how this culture of self-esteem affects more modern fiction, his point seems to be that the modern-day novelist must be vigilant against the influences of this reductive mode of thought. To that end, he may be encouraged to know that a major living novelist he mentions not liking very much, Jonathan Franzen, casts a suspicious eye on therapy culture in some of his fiction.

As wide-ranging as the book is, I was surprised by how little attention The Novel, Who Needs It? devotes to a particular source of pleasure: beauty. Great novelists, like great poets, awaken us to the possibilities of language. The epiphanic effect of vivid imagery, the hypnotic nature of an elegant sentence, and the surprising delight of a clever turn of phrase remind us of the dynamism of the written word. Given the degraded level of most writing (and speaking) we’re subjected to over the course of a day, these encounters with the literary sublime can be exhilarating.

When Epstein does discuss style, he tends to be dismissive of it, as when he complains (justifiably) about John Updike’s “weakness for ‘fine’ writing.” Yet many novelists he singles out for praise for other reasons—such as Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark, and Willa Cather—are preeminent prose stylists. Readers would have benefited from discussions of beauty in their passages to contrast the emptiness of Updike’s. 

My candidate would be the moment from Cather’s My Ántonia, when the narrator and his companions see an abandoned plough framed against the setting sun: 

Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share—black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun.

Even while we whispered about it, our vision disappeared; the ball dropped and dropped until the red tip went beneath the earth. The fields below us were dark, the sky was growing pale, and that forgotten plough had sunk back to its own littleness somewhere on the prairie.

Cather’s clear and direct prose eschews the vague and obscure style of “‘fine’ writing.” She conveys the sublimity of the fleeting moment and hints at its impact on the lives of her characters and the narrator’s ominous sense of his own “littleness” amid nature and time. Epstein is certainly right to dwell on fiction’s ability to represent human nature and moral complexity—but a full defense of an art must also praise its beauty.   

Nonetheless, The Novel, Who Needs It? is an engaging and convincing defense of a great literary form. It might not get anyone who’s avoided fiction since high school English class to crack the spine of In Search of Lost Time, but it may remind lapsed novel readers about the pleasures they once enjoyed and inspire them to seek those pleasures again. It will also equip devoted fiction lovers with the vocabulary and rationale to persuade others to drop TikTok and pick up some Tolstoy.

Christopher J. Scalia is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.