An Essayist’s Defense of the Novel

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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: 

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