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Against the novel


In the Irish Times, short-story writer Joanna Walsh decries the blandly conventional form and subject matter of most contemporary English-language novels. Novelists today, she writes, tend to tell stories about and for a small subset of readers—namely, bourgeois white people. Their novels also tend to resemble other novels instead of the messy, jagged experience of modern life. Here’s an excerpt from Walsh’s takedown:

Though famous for their amorphous, expandable capacities, why is it that so many contemporary novels continue to be encumbered by the realist demands of plot, character, place? Why do they seem less able to make less room than poetry, or the essay, for the truly “novel” varieties of language and telling we encounter every day, at home, at work, online? Instead, what many a novel most closely resembles is… another novel.

The stereotype of the Anglo-American novel can be measured in inches. Its characters are rounded and so are its contours. It’s a paper brick that takes the novelist 10 years to write, an endurance test for both writer and reader. The best thing about it is not reading it, but being able to say you have read it.

Why does the novel continue so often to be an endlessly self-referential, and self-affirming form? Could it be because of how it is read? The novel, at least in its Anglo-American incarnation, is largely a liberal humanist construction, relying on certain ideas about people and society, the novel’s place within it, and its intentions towards its reader. The place of reading within these parameters is something that is turned to in private, an alternative to the outside world, a place for personal reflection, a refuge. There is nothing wrong with this, but it is not the only way to read. And why have only cosiness when we could also have play?

Why, instead of novels that attempt to construct something, not welcome novels that try to break something down; instead of novels about people, why not novels about objects; instead of “believable”, why not “unbelievable” scenarios; instead of narratives that desire the affirmation of ending, novels that examine this desire? Why strive for “consistent” characters rather than explore the inconsistencies of subjectivity? Instead of the great insert-country-here novel, why not the slim novel of the particular, the non-“universal”; rather than “10 novels everybody should read”, why not many novels, not all of which suit everyone; instead of novels that strive to create a world, why not novels that highlight their own artificiality, stretching the seams at which language is stitched to meaning, shuffling experience as it is shuffled in memory?

Image of Joanna Walsh via the Irish Times.