- Institutions of Scale
“To produce a mighty book,” Herman Melville explained in Moby-Dick (1851), “you must choose a mighty theme.” But to write a big book also required learning, so Melville’s author “swam through libraries” as his book grew “as if to include the whole circle of the sciences, and…the whole universe, not excluding its suburbs.” Some of the best recent criticism related to big books has helped us reconceptualise the formal and technical devices employed by the learned contemporary novels that follow in the wake of Melville’s leviathan: Rick Altman’s model of the multiple-focus narrative in his Theory of Narrative (2008), and Paul Dawson’s nuanced consideration of omniscient narration in Jonathan Franzen (in his Return of the Omniscient Narrator ) stand out in this respect for me. But what I think scholars of the form have yet to explore is the influence of the institutions where the learning that Melville described took place.
Melville may have sounded like one of the earliest creative writing instructors in the US when he laid out the elements of the “mighty book,” but the best accounts of the influence of creative writing programs (such as Mark McGurl’s justly celebrated The Program Era ) tell only half the institutional story. Somewhere in the middle ground between McGurl’s program writers and the emergence of what Judith Ryan calls “the novel after theory” is the story of the influence of the literary critical (rather than strictly theoretical) industries that canonized the big book, in its varied forms, as the high watermark for modern novelistic achievement. University educated novelists who were schooled in a literary canon formed in the wake of, say, Northrop Frye’s description of encyclopaedic authors who built their creative lives around one “supreme effort,” or Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg’s comparable definition of the “greatest narratives” as those in which “the most is attempted,” came of age in an atmosphere in which Ulysses (1922), in particular, was—in its size, architecture, and technical range—the dominant template. Telling this story, in its first instance, is a way of tracing how the institutional construction of modernism shaped the bigness of nascent postmodernism (and essays such as Harry Levin’s “What Was Modernism?” are quite explicit about the fact that defining the earlier movement is a way of measuring contemporary developments). But this story, in turn, leads to a description of the way that critical studies of postmodern scale shaped the next generation. Consider, for instance, Franzen’s use of the term “systems novel” in his essays, or the partially annotated copy of Tom LeClair’s In the Loop (1987) in the David Foster Wallace archive.
But while changing critical cultures might be mapped more extensively, the program is undeniably a factor for the shape of the millennial big book, in particular. When the later MFA-carrying generations write big books, they tend to build for bigness out of smallness: that is, their narrative’s fundamental building blocks most closely resemble the workshop-friendly short story that they were likely taught. Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996), Vollmann’s The Atlas (1996), Powers’s Gain (1998), Franzen’s The Corrections (2001), Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010), and Yamashita’s I Hotel (2010)—to take just a few examples—build their often long, coiled narratives out of comparatively short narrative units in a fashion that simultaneously stresses the discrete quality of the individual narrative components (and notably many of these smaller units were first published in magazines) and the interconnection between those components much more directly than the “molecular structure” that Frederick R. Karl diagnosed in earlier expansive postmodern novels. As these later books grow in size, they do so according to the additive processes of the story cycle, rather than the linear development of the traditional novel. The new bigness depends upon the small. [End Page 14]
Stephen J. Burn, Reader in English Literature at the University of Glasgow, is the author or editor of five books about American fiction.