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Mark Spilka, editor of Novel: A Forum on Fiction, dubs "anti-climatic" the euphoria of a 1977 conference held at Brown University to honor the journal's tenth anniversary. He means to note that, even as participants were celebrating their success in establishing a theoretical foundation for the study of fiction, consensus was disintegrating and the literary profession was entering a crisis—of confidence, method, and purpose. Spilka's malapropism underscores the anxieties evident ten years later. What is the climate for producing, consuming, studying, and interpreting the novel? Which contexts are central and which marginal to the experience [End Page 819] of fiction? Although its title is cast in the form of an answer, Why the Novel Matters: A Postmodern Perplex begs a crucial implicit question: "Does the novel matter?" And it belies the perplexities that pervade the book and the literary vocations.
Although its centerpiece is a transcript of presentations at Novel's twentieth anniversary conference, Why the Novel Matters also collects essays on the poetics of fiction that appeared in the journal during the past decade. Contributors—among them Charles Altieri, Nancy Armstrong, Leo Bersani, Peter Brooks, George Levine, David Lodge, Nancy K. Miller, Roy Pascal, Richard Pearce, Robert Scholes, Murray M. Schwartz, Daniel R. Schwarz, Patricia Meyer Spacks, Susan Rubin Suleiman, and Marianna Torgovnick—have been prominent figures in the history of Novel and/or in the study of the novel. The study of the novel—a peripheral activity five decades ago, before the founding of Nineteenth-Century Fiction (1945), Modern Fiction Studies (1955), Studies in the Novel (1969), Journal of Narrative Technique (1971), and Studies in American Fiction (1973)—has become the main event in literary academe. Novel, founded in 1967, has been more theoretically oriented than most other publications, and its offshoot Why the Novel Matters testifies to the continuing authority of prose fiction as well as to the fragmentation of its community of theorists.
By their own assessment, contributors to the volume are divided roughly into "humanist" and "posthumanist" camps—between those who read texts as linguistic performances forever estranged from anything signified and those who reject what Schwarz calls the "Theoretical Fallacy." "Had I been confronted in my undergraduate or graduate years with Derrida, Nietzsche, and Marx as primary texts—instead of Paradise Lost, Hamlet, Crime and Punishment, Lord Jim, and Ulysses," he confesses, "I would not be teaching literature today." Jacques Derrida, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Julia Kristeva figure conspicuously in the discourse of Why the Novel Matters, but so, too, do Miguel de Cervantes, Giustave Flaubert, George Eliot, Henry James, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov, and Thomas Pynchon. But the theoretician most frequently invoked by everyone, humanist or posthumanist, is Mikhail Bakhtin, whose notion of the dialogic imagination validates the heteroglossia that this motley collection enacts.
Although it is energized by anguish over the rift between academic discourse and the general reading public and between critics and novelists, Why the Novel Matters embodies the reflexive, autotelic form that postmodernists seek and find in the texts they study. Editors Mark Spilka and Caroline McCracken-Flesher preface the total collection and each section of commentary with their own metacommentary, and the whole concludes with a "Windup Session" whose critiques, questions, and responses review the entire enterprise. British scholar and novelist David Lodge faults the project for failing to heal the "radical discontinuity in the way the novel is talked about in academic contexts and the way it's actually written and received and circulated." Academician Charles Altieri accepts that discontinuity as irreparable but dreams of a more fertile sort of academic discourse, "a kind of bringing to bear all the kinds of education we've had on what the writers produce, and trying to show how much then can be carried off." Still, Steven Cohan deplores "the chasm between the activity of writing novels, writing novels...