- Resisting Novels, Ideology and Fiction
At a conference at New York University a few years ago, Frederic Jameson scolded some Italian Marxists for being not wrong but simply "right and boring"—that is, purveyors of old values in a terminology that now seems old-fashioned. The Italians seemed perplexed. With this same dread of the old-fashioned, they wondered, how many other "obvious" questions have been left unasked by North American academics? In the strained novelty of literary criticism, simple courage sometimes looks like naïveté, so that when Lenny Davis declares, "on some level, I am arguing that novels are wrong and even that they are bad," he intentionally takes on the derisive laughter that is bound to follow. [End Page 759]
But Resisting Novels will laugh back. An impressive and original study of the ideology of the novel form, the book picks up where Bakhtin left off in his writing on the "chronotope" (the space-time coordinates of the novel's ideological landscape). He goes on to demonstrate exhaustively the political character of the genre itself, which is something other recent writers have begun only to hint at (Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities, Hayden White's The Content of Form, for example). Already an authority on the novel's origins from his superlative earlier study, Factual Fictions: the Origins of the English Novel, Davis draws evidence from the novels of three centuries, and does so in an elegant, often very personal, prose. Although part of the argument again looks back to origins (particularly Defoe and the early explorers' accounts), at least half of the illustrations are drawn from twentieth-century sources, and the entire theoretical framework is contemporary.
He begins by observing simply that novels are not life. At the same time, an unusual number of the novel's readers are socially immobilized by believing that novels are life. This wholesale surrender to the illusory is, as it were, a historical novelty. What Davis shows is that not all genres are designed to create this intentional confusion between the artistic and the real and that the novel's effect of creating an audience of solitary, socially passive readers is the result of its origins in the emergent European middle classes. As he puts it, "By making friends with signs, we are weakening the bond that anchors us to the social world, the world of action, and binding ourselves to the ideological."
One of the strongest parts of the book is his description of what this "ideology" of the novel is. After an opening chapter in which he reviews the major theories of ideology by such writers as Mannheim, Freud, Althusser, and Foucault, he spends the next four chapters dissecting the concepts "setting," "character," "dialogue," and "plot."
He shows ultimately that novelistic "setting" is not merely place but a terrain that is "settled" like Crusoe's island; novelistic "character" is not a subject of history but the prisoner of personal biography (which is why novels have such a hard time portraying collective action); novelistic "dialogue" is an invitation to participate "historically in the rise of the new, linguistic elect" made possible by mass literacy; and novelistic "plot" is not merely history or myth (whose stories are in some sense already known and shared) but "original," in the sense of being the author's private possession, as in the etymological illustration: my "plot" of land. Although he never says so directly, he means that the great ideological bias of bourgeois life—the solitary individual and his property—is inscribed into the very components of its major literary form.
The other side of this focus on the novel's functional role in society—a very neglected approach in North American criticism—is its courage to insist that novel-reading itself is suspect. Not very often do writers dare utter words like these: "yes, novels are part of the humanities and as such they inspire us . . . and they make us sympathize with the human condition. But they often do so by depressing us, dehumanizing us, and making us simply passive observers...