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Essay: Novels: reinforcing accepted morality and later, challenging it

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  • Novels: reinforcing accepted morality and later, challenging it
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Aestheticism as a philosophy has not dominated English literature or our critical understanding of it. Literature has long served as a vessel for discussing accepted morality and social norms, protesting injustice, and inviting readers to consider or rethink contemporary issues. This became especially apparent in Renaissance and Augustan literature, where prose satires such as Jonathan Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’ and quasi-biographical novels like Defoe’s ‘True Accounts’ evolved from the established forms of satire and journalism to mark a new era of the novel, whose popular success was enabled by the rise of the mass printing press.

From this point onwards, and largely due to the spread of mass education and literacy, we can observe the novel flourishing as an accessible form of fiction. It was no longer the privilege of the aristocracy alone to read for leisure, and so such classics as ‘One Thousand and One Nights’, and Aphra Behn and Marie de La Fayette’s prose fictions became available for popular consumption. Pierre Daniel Huete’s ‘Traitté de L’Origine des Romans’ (1670) argues that the novel offered insight into unfamiliar cultures, and compared them to Jesus’ parables because of the moral lessons he saw they could contain. This ethical function of fiction had been observed previously in utopias like Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’, satires and melodramas. As the novel became more accepted and prevalent, and these forms became less so (this shift in general consumption indicating that the novel as a form was readable enough and demonstrated enough imaginative potential to appeal to the general public), it can be seen as adopting it from them. This is evident in novels like Aphra Behn’s ‘Oroonoko’ (1688), which has been interpreted as offering a moral commentary on natural kingship and the rights of the individual, and later Samuel Richardson’s ‘Clarissa’ (1748) which condemns rape and fornication in line with contemporary Christian values.

By the 1800s, however, the novel was not only reinforcing accepted morality but, with the birth of the Romantic era, challenging it. Novels such as William Godwin’s ‘The Adventures of Caleb Williams’ (1794) and Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ (1818) took open opposition to the Industrial Revolution and upheld the plight of the oppressed peasant in line with Rousseau’s anti-capitalist philosophy, while Hawthorne’s ‘The Scarlet Letter’ (1850) challenged ideas about morality and legalism in a way that prompted The Church Review and Ecclesiastical Register to condemn it as ‘perpetrating bad morals’ (Wineapple, Brenda. Hawthorne: A Life. Random House: New York, 2003). Similarly, the beginning of the Victorian era in 1837 saw the conception of social problem novels like Dickens’ ‘Oliver Twist’ (1838) and Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Shirley’ (1849), which were more nuanced in their exploration of contemporary social issues.

As a result, then, it is clear that the novel as a form has been socially ‘useful’ in addressing moral and societal issues in England since its popular conception. However, with the rise of other forms of media and a shift in public taste, as well as the growth of mass printing and changes in education, there is cause to explore whether, in the late 20th and 21st Century, the novel has ceased to serve this function and does not hold the same level of social influence as it did before. Similarly, there seems to be less emphasis on (and certainly less prevalence of) what can be loosely termed ‘literary fiction’, as opposed to ‘genre fiction’. The difference between these two is difficult to define objectively, but can be attributed to things like an emphasis on style and concepts rather than narrative and characters on the part of literary fiction. Literary fiction is written with an artistic emphasis, using literary techniques like metaphoric language and intertextuality to achieve an effect beyond furthering the narrative. This is not to say that genre fiction cannot have stylistic features, but that there is not an overall artistic emphasis: ‘The Girl on the Train’, a modern example of genre fiction (in this case, a crime thriller) employs some descriptive imagery. This imagery’s purpose, however, is characterisation, and beyond this the advancement of the character’s storyline. Ultimately what matters to the reader and author in a piece of genre fiction is the storyline.

It is also necessary for this essay to define ‘fiction’,

Evidence for the decline of the novel can be found in (book sales, closing of book stores, literary supplements, primacy of non-fiction in publishing, people taking English lit up to degree level?!- Needs more solid research). It seems reasonable to conclude that there is less public interest in and desire to read literary fiction and literature in general, and the novel is suffering within this. However, this data does not offer a complete perspective because it doesn’t give a clear indication as to why the novel is losing popularity. This is a largely subjective issue, and to argue definitively that the novel is obsolete would be to ignore the fact that reading is a solitary pursuit. Because we read alone, and because we bring our own experience and interpretations to books, our personal response to a novel and the individual influence or effect it has on us does not become widely known and aggregated as data. There isn’t definite data available, then, to prove that the novel is ceasing to have the same personal effect as it did once for specific individuals who read it. What is clear is that sales of fiction novels are in decline while other forms of entertainment, including non-fiction, seem to take their place. Novels that are being published are decreasingly concerned with moral messages, and it seems that the novel and the novelist are no longer regarded as a credible source of moral or political ideology as they once were. Proving that the novel is losing its status, however, is extremely difficult to do. This is partially because discussions of the novel’s status are likely to be subjective, given that the people having them are often novelists or literary critics themselves, for whom novels remain personally important. Our culture’s mentality towards the novel is individually nuanced rather than collective because the idea of literature doesn’t have overt political connotations- unlike in, say, Stalin’s USSR, where government propaganda held that novels were an expression of dangerous individualism unless they explicitly reinforced state ideals (although the political connotations of the novel do warrant exploration). What this essay aims to do, then, is not prove categorically that every canonical novel (and even herein lies an issue, because there has never been a unanimous, official canon of English literature) is losing its status, but rather to explore whether a cultural shift with regards to the novel as a form is taking place and, if so, why this is happening on a political, social, economic and cultural level.

Point 1: Changes in demand, genres and purposes of novels (i.e. why do people read novels, what do they look for in novels in modern times) + why these happen (education, availability)

Although in England politicians tend not to take a Stalinesque stance on fiction, there is nonetheless evidence that politics has an influence on attitudes to novels in general. One of the reasons offered for the decline of the influence of the novel is that ‘difficult’, ‘academic’ novels with intentional social or artistic messages have come to symbolise something unpleasant for many potential readers. As Will Self argues in his May 2014 article for The Guardian, ‘The Novel is Dead (This Time It’s for Real)’, ‘throughout the second half of the last century, the literary novel was perceived to be the prince of art forms, the cultural capstone and the apogee of creative endeavour’, whereas now ‘the hallmark of our contemporary culture is an active resistance to difficulty in all its aesthetic manifestations, accompanied by a sense of grievance that conflates it with political elitism’. Here the writer addresses a political and sociological issue potentially at the crux of the novel’s social decline: what Self calls the ‘high art’ of the novel has ceased to be regarded as an aspirational indicator of education and sophistication, but has become associated for many with intentional esotericism and snobbery. This is despite the fact that literacy rates in the UK have continued to rise since the 1800s (from 60% in men and 40% in women in 1800 (Mitch, 2004), to 99% overall in 2003 (Historical Data Graphs Per Year: Indexmundi, 2015)), which could have otherwise been presumed to be facilitating a greater readership of literary novels. For Self, what takes place is a misinterpretation of the role of the novel which ‘actively prevents a great many people from confronting the very real economic inequality and political disenfranchisement they\’re subject to’. The rise of populism in the UK, and the anti-elitist sentiment it can direct towards various aspects of culture that seem inaccessible, has been observable since _____ (talk about populism and other examples across time/geography of its anti-art/ anti-literature concomitants). A recent complaint about an essay in The Paris Review generated a great deal of online discussion about this issue: a twitter user condemned the use of the word ‘crepuscular’ in the essay, condemning it as evidence of literature being elitist, because the majority of readers were unlikely to understand the word offhand.

The ensuing discussion involved many literary bloggers and columnists, including Elizabeth Catton for Noted who commented that ‘The idea that a work of literature might require something of its reader in order to be able to provide something to its reader is equivalent’…‘to the idea that a cut-price mobile phone might require a very expensive charger in order for it to function’ and argued that literature ‘simply cannot be’ elitist because ‘a book cannot be selective of its readership; nor can it insist upon the conditions under which it is read or received. The degree to which a book is successful depends only on the degree to which it is loved.’ (Catton, 2013). Despite these protestation, however, the fact that the unnamed reader expressed a sense of being condescended to by an author and the fact that their tweet about it gained popularity and sympathy would indicate that this is a widely felt sentiment about literature. The fact that literary experts like Catton and bloggers for literary websites were the ones to vehemently defend literature from the accusation of elitism, especially in articles that implied ignorance, laziness and churlishness on the part of the accusers, may ironically only prove this further. This select group who claim to truly understand literature better than an average consumer represent the sense of elitism that surrounds, if not the books themselves, the literary world, making it feel inaccessible and even haughty for those who aren’t members of the clique.

It is arguable, therefore, that classic, canonical literature carries modern cultural connotations of elitism and esotericism, and that a recent growth in populism in the West could be responsible for the rejection of things like literature which are felt to be elitist. As a result, novelists and their publishers who wish to sell successfully are inclined to produce genre fiction as opposed to literary fiction, and aim to entertain and immediately identify with their reader instead of looking to achieve artistically. Profit as an aim, although not new among career authors (Charles Dickens is known for having been paid by the word when his stories were serialised in magazines, and as a result an appreciation of length can be observed in all of his novels), means that publishers are increasingly under pressure to release novels with mass-market appeal, regardless of their literary value. This correlation means that the decline of literary fiction novels can be directly ascribed to a decline in consumer demand for them, and populism is one potential root of this.

Another potential reason for a decrease in demand for literary fiction is a cultural shift in our consumption of narratives. In his article for The Atlantic, ‘‘The Psychological Comforts of Storytelling’, Cody Delistraty highlights the inherent psychological attachment that psychologists believe human beings naturally have to stories: ‘Humans are inclined to see narratives where there are none because it can afford meaning to our lives’, he argues, they can be a way ‘for humans to feel they have control over the world’, and stories ‘inform our emotional lives’, helping us to gain empathy and conscience (Delistraty, 2014). One of the reasons that experts offer for the decline in the influence of the novel, then, is that the Western culture’s desire for a narrative is increasingly being fulfilled through non-fictional or semi-fictional media. This includes the rise of what is referred to by sociologists as ‘infotainment’, a hybrid of informational and entertainment-led narratives often exemplified in social media, newspapers and magazines, and television programmes like America’s ‘The Daily Show’ which report and comment on the news or give semi-fictional interviews in a comedic or satirical manner. As Rachel Donadio argues in her August 2005 article for ‘The New York Times’: ‘The Truth is Stronger than Fiction’, this means that ‘the line between truth and “truth” is growing ever more blurry, readers thirst for a narrative’…’and will turn to the most compelling one’. Similarly, because of the quick, constantly- updating nature of modern news reporting and social media, it is becoming impossible for novels, which can take years to write, edit and publish, to be as topical and therefore as ‘compelling’ as informational or ‘infotaining’ narratives that become available in seconds. The growth of social media as a source of not only personal news narratives, but also as a vessel for learning, sharing and commenting on public news stories within seconds of their occurrence, is an especially modern example of non-fiction narratives engaging and fulfilling in the ways that Delistraty describes fictional ones doing.

Social media and news narratives have another modern advantage: they are often short, concise, and explicit, and so don’t require very much time commitment on the reader’s part to fully understand them. Facebook, for example, provides an onscreen tab of headlines that users can hover over for a 10 word summary of a story as it takes place, and Twitter only allows its users to communicate in 140 characters or fewer. This means that individuals can consume narratives at a higher, faster rate than ever before, and in conveniently few words. From this point of view a novel can’t compete. A preference for quick, thumbnail narratives can be attributed to the amount of time that readers have available to them (are working hours longer now? Women have less time to read? Population less ~feudalistic~ so more people working/ fewer have time to read?)

In a similar way, the novel is decreasingly competitive versus film and television. For example, the final Harry Potter book sold 8.3 million copies in the US on the day of its release, a ‘record’ figure according to the New York Times (Rich, 2007). This pales in comparison with the estimated 45.5 million tickets sold in the US for the release day of the final Harry Potter film, and similar case studies can be observed in TV viewing figures compared to book sales. A successful modern novel like ‘The Girl on the Train’ …

The new purpose of the novel: solely to entertain/ crippling emphasis on profit, popular success. Talk about publishing figures; need articles, interviews, insights into the direction of the market/ popular consumption and the pressure on publishers to deliver what will sell. Talk particularly about the role of the media in deciding what will and won’t sell and how we are trained to view books before buying them (i.e. reviews in magazines, other things like feminist sentiment in v recent media that have driven sales of erotic fiction for women, for example). As a result, what genres are popular that weren’t/ weren’t around before? What do people look at before purchasing a novel? When do they read them? For what purpose? Consider TGoTT chapter length thing.

It is also worth exploring how shifts in education and the curriculum can potentially impact reading. For example, the inclusion of canonical novels in the secondary English literature curriculum is widely felt to expose students to a high standard of literature, encouraging them to read more and helping them to feel they can understand and access it. However, this was not always the situation: until the early 1990s the state school English curriculum did not include a literary canon, and as a result studying classic literature like Brontë and Dickens remained the preserve of the privately educated. This is likely to have contributed to the feeling that these novels were elitist, and will have meant that state school students (the majority of the public) at the time were not helped to access, appreciate or understand literary fiction. The continued effect of this on the British population is twofold: ex- comprehensive students who are now adults and potential book buyers may maintain a feeling of unfamiliarity and dislike towards classic novels, preferring to consume other forms of media or less traditionally literary books, like genre fiction; and this attitude is likely to have been inherited by their children. Even if the new curriculum encourages students studying after 1990 to access classic literature and read novels without stigma, the after effects continue to be felt culturally. For one thing, it will take a while for the stigma to dissipate, even as (hopefully) each generation will inherit a slightly more positive attitude to classic novels.

This change will in turn prompt a shift in the types of fiction that people are willing to pay to consume and, in turn, publishers will respond by emphasising literary fiction over genre fiction, which will increasingly normalise reading it. The issue is that this process, which is really an undoing of the previous process of stigmatisation, is gradual and far from completion. The previously discussed rise of populism may well serve to undo it.

Why and how do economics affect reading?

Point 2: Examples of modern novels that do/ have had social influence, explore why this has been (however, may have to counter these i.e. has it been the film of the novel that has actually garnered interest/ influence? Is it on the curriculum?)

It would be too sweeping, however, to claim that no modern novel has had significant social impact, or that no modern literary novel has ever been well received. What can be observed is a shift in the manner in which authors communicate a need for change, and perhaps their faith in the capacity of art to incite it.

Sylvia Plath’s 1963 novel ‘The Bell Jar’ has a reliable place in most lists of ‘canonical’ modern literature, despite its delayed and unwieldy rise to recognition and the complaint of critics that it ‘refuses to be the great novel you’d want a great poet’s only novel to be’ (Gould, 2011). This status, which has seen a ceaseless publication history, selling over 3 million copies, can arguably be accredited to its significance for 2nd Wave Feminism and its evocative depiction of mental illness. Gould comments that ‘feminists of the 1970s claimed Plath as a martyred patron saint of repressive domesticity’ (Catton, 2013), while many 21st Century critical interpretations of The Bell Jar laud it as a definitively feminist protest novel. From a psychoanalytical point of view, the novel has been praised for its radically honest depiction of mental illness, which has prompted some critics to read it as protesting the stigma and lack of sympathy surrounding those with mental illnesses, particularly women. Whether these interpretations are accurate, or whether they make the mistake of projecting too much ideology onto Plath’s very personal- practically autobiographical- story, as one school of critical thought suggests, they offer a reasonable explanation for

The Bell Jar’s sustained popular success. Novels that touch a cultural nerve and, whether wittingly or not, represent relevant social problems are very often successful in both their sales and the cultural significance they are able to sustain. Another relatively recent example of this is Harper Lee’s bestselling 1960 novel ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’: although not universally felt to be the most literarily accomplished novel (…), the story of a quest for racial justice was both topical and catalytic for the Civil Rights movement in the US. In her column for The Economist, literary critic E.W. affirms that ‘Atticus Finch, the lawyer who defends Tom Robinson, became the inspiration for generations of justice crusaders. His model of peaceful but persistent resistance resonated with activists’ while the storyline ‘brought the ugly realities of discrimination, especially in the South, to international attention’. (E.W, 2016).

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