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The Novel: The Name, the Genre, the Democratic Gesture #1

In talking about the ‘novel’ and ‘democracy’ here, I wish to go beyond the popular belief that the former is ‘democratic’ because anyone could read and/or write one or because the novel is popular as a cultural product.Without seeking to demean the legitimacy of these assertions, I do not wish to simply equate the ‘novel’ with ‘democracy’ but to argue that the novel, as a ‘genre’, bespeaks a certain democratic gesture, inherent in its perceived paradoxical nature both as a socio-cultural proposition and as a locus of intellectual inquiry. I contend that ‘paradox’ – contrary to, beyond or in the margins of received opinion (doxa) – is at the core of the novel as a ‘genre’and constitutes a useful interpretive leaver in theorising it in juxtaposition with the concept of democracy. I contend that the ‘democratic gesture’ may be located not only in the novel’s epistemological relationship with other genres but, more specifically, in its ability to exist both within and outside of the ‘law’: in other words, both within and outside of the socio-historical and morphological parameters that define it as a genre and establish a set of expectations in the consciousness of the audience. In this light, the novel’s ‘democratic gesture’ evokes Jacques Derrida’s theorisation of ‘democracy’ as a concept ‘to come’, which is, in itself, a paradoxical notion; that said, ‘to come’ not only does it not negate the material importance of democracy’s ‘present,’ but underscores and promotes its significance, thereby suspending the coming of an ideal or desired telos.

To start with ‘naming’: the ‘novel’, the ‘name’ of the ‘genre’ of ‘democracy’. The implied complexity of the terms ‘novel’ and ‘democracy’ does not suggest that ‘genre’ is any less complex. ‘Genre’ has been a sustained preoccupation of literary history since Aristotle famously defined ‘tragedy’ as something that is: estin oun tragodia. Given the extraordinary lengths Aristotle goes to in order to define the genre of ‘tragedy’, and that(on a surface level) he does not allow for any degree of philosophico-thematico-stylistic digression, further combined with the endorsement that his name extends to the definition of tragedy, ‘genre’ in our western European eyes always ‘is’. To be sure, ‘genre’ has tended to be a divisive agent, one whose prescriptive imperatives leave the author with seemingly little space for neoterisms of formalistic, stylistic or thematic nature. If this is what ‘genre’ is then we have a real problem when it comes to talking about the novel as one. I will return to this.

The act of naming, according to Derrida, could engender a network of significations independent of the will of the one who does the naming; naming alerts the agent to the possibility of linking that which has been named with death; it may consign the subject to a predetermined and irrevocable fate; it may, in the end, dilute the subject by separating it from itself, thereby submitting it to the realms of a life ‘different from itself’, to the life of a ghost, to the functions of something immaterial. The act of naming, therefore, is something we should not undertake lightly – which is precisely what the problem with calling the novel the genre of ‘democracy’ is. In ‘naming’ the novel, we do not only imply that which is not tragedy, that which is not epic and so on, but we submit the termto the violence necessitated by this implied need for classification. Nevertheless, it is only by naming that we commit ourselves to recognising the novel’s identity as a genre. And the immediate corollary of the act of naming should be the defence of the ‘name’ of the novel, our commitment to continually exploring its nature, charting its socio-political role, mapping its cultural and intellectual influence and guaranteeing its future. Ti esti, should not merely be a question but, more importantly, a commitment. But, I argue, in being committed to the term, to the name, the theorist of the genre is expected to not only address the name by saying what it is, but also what ‘it is’ by virtue of what it could become. A name need not point toward a finished account but may veer towards a gesture or aspiration of becoming. Arguing for a strict designation of the novel as something that only is, negates the plurality of its possibility, stymies the surprise of its morphological experimentation and consigns the novel to a strictly drawn theoretical topos and to pre-determined socio-cultural and aesthetic trajectories. That is not, however, to suggest that the ‘name’ of the novel should or could be arbitrarily expanded to include all kinds of fictive prose in western literary history; and this is due to a number of reasons that I will try to delineate presently.

The problem starts with the name of the novel or, to be more precise, its English name. Although this obstacle seems to have been overcome in the ways we talk about the novel in our everyday exchange with the genre, engaging with its name here should do more than just mention that, for instance, between the middle of the seventeenth century, and throughout the eighteenth, there was a general and scholarly confusion over what to call this new genre; or that in most languages the ‘novel’ is roman, or that the novel itself is the genre which may accommodate all others. More than a ‘convenient’ typological formulation, the name of the novel has immense significatory value, onewhich not only marks the national/cultural heritage which appropriates the genre itself, but also a number of important socio-political, anthropological and other traits of said heritage. In her important study The True Story of the Novel (1996), Margaret Doody meticulously argues that the Anglo-American literary-historical approach to the novel is, more than anything else, a means of appropriating a particular genre of important socio-historical and cultural significance for the sake of national(-istic) propaganda. Her overall argument takes issue with canonical theoretical approaches as advanced by Ian Watt, Michael McKeon and others. Doody’s argument may be justified to a certain extent, though, in my view, rather apparent; for when has literature in general, or a literary ‘genre’ in particular – despite its ability to inspire, interrupt, subvert – also not constituted a powerful potential legitimator of even the most unwelcome nationalistic agenda? Quintillian’s famous epigram – satura quidem tota nostra est (at least the satire is ours) – proves for Doody’s argument, as much as it does for mine, that the name of a certain literary genre – the ‘satire’ for Quintillian, the ‘novel’ for the Anglo-American literary critic – constitutes an important legitimator of state ideological influence and national(-ist) cultural appropriation. Case in point, the name of the ‘novel’ in modern Greek; the modern Greeks reserve the term ‘novel’, nouvela, predominantly for long, light-hearted narratives dealing with affairs of the heart, in other words, modern romances. Linking ‘serious’ or ‘high fiction’ with a seemingly unremitting commitment to history and reality, the modern Greeks call the ‘serious novel’ muthestorema, from muthos and historia, a ‘historical’ muthema, or even a ‘true lie’. Muthestorema injects the English name of the novel with an extraordinary store of legitimation, for if the modern Greeks had to come up with a modern onomastic designation for the ‘novel’ then it should equally be asserted that if, or since, the Anglo-American canon sought to appropriate ‘the novel’ as its own then the appropriation of its name should first be actuated: seen in that way, the name of ‘the novel’ in Anglo-American literary history arises as a necessity.

A fruitful space of enquiry into the novel as a ‘genre’ is the argument concerning its origins. Although the majority of scholars working in the field acknowledge the issues involved when the prose texts of ancient Greece and Rome are called ‘novels’, the name itself – ‘the Greek novel’ – has immense semiotic potency which renders such scholarly reservations redundant. The latest instalment to the important post-1980s scholarly work on the prose texts of ancient Greece and Rome is a collection of essays edited by Tim Whitmarsh. Although in his introduction to the Cambridge Companion to the Greek and Roman Novel (2008) Whitmarsh declares that ‘the English word “novel” [to refer to the prose texts of ancient Greece and Rome] is only a label of convenience, which does not correspond directly to any ancient generic concept’, the use of the term ‘novel’ in the title – combined with the significant scholarly legitimation that his contributors are in a position to afford, not to mention the academic prestige that CUP extends – valorises Hellenistic and Roman prose as a form of ‘novelistic’ writing. This, in turn, establishes in the public’s consciousness that the ‘novel’ is a potentially uncomplicated term which could be stretched to include all forms of prose writing, provided that they are works of fiction ‘of some length’, that they exhibit some sort of narrative structure, and as long as they promote a certain personal or collective ideal. Seen in that way, the name of the novel may indeed be expanded. The ancient prose texts of Greece and Rome did have plots, and gripping ones at that; they did, at times, betray a certain meta-language of address, noticeable especially in the Prologue of Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe; even in terms of characterisation and temporal experimentation there is a great deal of sophistication. In short, in terms of structure, plot, character development and so on – and despite considerable differences in terms of mode or style – there is little to choose between Daphnis and Chloe and The Sorrows of Young Werther or between TheAethiopica and Gulliver’s Travels; that is the case, however, only if we think of the novel as a genre in terms of formalistic convention. We are faced with serious issues when we consider the novel as a genre of historical and socio-political significance; we are faced, in other words, with the cataclysmic developments which coincide with the rise of the novel as a genre: its expanding readership owed to increasing levels of literacy; its cosmopolitan aspirations aided by the decline of feudalism and the strengthening of the global Imperial ideal; the coterminous rise of the complex structures of bourgeois societal formations and the steady rise of liberal, representational democracies; the formalisation of domestic and international trade which affords the novel the position of a cultural product that may be bought and sold; most importantly, however, we are faced with the novel’s awareness of its own place within ever-expanding fiscal, technological and cultural environments; in fact, and for the first time, we are faced with a genre’s ability to historicise(and in so doing doubt) itself. It’s no surprise, therefore, that Walter Siti calls the novel ‘the self-denying genre’.

In the Cambridge Companion, Simon Goldhill – one of the most important voices in the classics – bases his approach not on the particular formalistic attributes of each genre, but on the emotive expectations of the audience/readership. For Goldhill and other literary historians, the name of a genre presupposes a theoretical social contract which, in a reciprocal fashion, influences the public’s expectations whilst laying itself bare to influence from the very same public it strives to influence. For Fredric Jameson, ‘genres are essentially contracts between a writer and his readers’; in The Power of Genre (1985), Adena Rosmarin places genre at the heart of its interaction with its readership and with the literary critic, whilst Tzvetan Todorov situates the origin of the concept of genre in human discourse itself. Even as early as 1670 in Traitté de l’origine des romans, Pierre Daniel Huet approaches the concept of ‘romance’ predominantly in terms of its perceived obligations towards its audience. The individual formalistic characteristics of a certain genre are both the expectations of the audience and the ways in which the audience allows itself to be influenced. It follows that either we should look at ‘genre’ solely in terms of its formalistic tendencies – in other words, in terms of an abstract literary-legislative framework which would more or less negate the possibility of the intermixing of genres – or to conceptualise ‘genre’ as a set of thematico-formalistic injunctions which, nevertheless, have important historical resonance. That said, and although Goldhill seems to underscore the socio-cultural significance of ‘genre’, he dismisses the argument in favour of the novel’s modernity as excessively nominalist. There are, however, some urgent questions that need to be answered: can we argue that the audience/readership of those texts had more or less the same expectations as the audience/readership of the eighteenth-century novel? Equally, can we argue that those texts had the same cultural impact on the social and political reality of Hellenistic Greece and Rome as the novel had on the post-seventeenth-century European literary landscapes? And lastly, can we argue that they betray the degree of self-awareness that the novel does?

My argument here does not aim at undermining the prose texts of ancient Greece and Rome or at arguing that we cannot call them ‘novels’; rather, it suggests that there is more than just scholarly convenience riding on the act of naming. Indeed, what are the scholarly reasons behind the tendency to refer to such texts as ‘novels’, particularly since ancient commentators themselves make use of logoi, muthoi and fabulae? There is no doubt that the post-1980s resurgence of academic interest in these texts has awakened renewed attention to the importance of prose writing in the ancient world. Scholars have not only reversed the skewed, and very unfair, nineteenth-century bias against ancient prose narratives, but have importantly unveiled the intriguing nature of these texts in terms of structure, thematic concern and character development. However, I contend that the tendency to call them ‘novels’ is not only a case of grappling with the exigencies of the English language or a case of epistemological determinism; it also reveals a will, perhaps an unconscious one, to re-valorise them as a form of proto-novelistic writing, which would legitimise their inclusion to the novel as a genre. And, perhaps, there’s nothing wrong with that. However, to dismiss the argument in favour of the novel’s modernity on ‘nominalist’ grounds – in other words, to suggest that there is nothing ‘modern’ about the name of the novel – is to fall headlong into the same ‘nominalist’ trap that scholars of these texts wish to eschew at all costs. For ‘genre’ as a concept does not only presuppose a communal will to accept the existence of a particular literary kind, but the name of each ‘genre’ proscribes a diverse host of socio-political and cultural boundaries, has the ability to forge alliances and instigate ruptures and is impregnated with other, even more problematic concepts such as ‘influence’, ‘sovereignty’, and, of course, the concept of ‘law’. In other words, in formal academic discourse no ‘act of naming’ should be made out of ‘convenience’.

By virtue of its nature, the concept of ‘genre’ evokes and delineates boundaries of exclusion and separation. There can be no exclusion, however, without an attendant activity of ‘inclusion’, not least because of the fact that for a certain ‘genre’ to be acknowledged as one a certain number of common, or shared, conventions ought to be asserted. The concept of literary convention (cum venire) evokes the need for agreement, congress, or inclusion. In both its conceptual and performative properties, therefore, genre seems to be engaged in a two-fold act, working to both exclude and bring together, an act which is always, and at the same time, the single most important aspect of its significatory value (both in relation to its audience and in terms of its relationship with other genres). If we accept that the function of a literary genre does not, and cannot, wholeheartedly commit itself to either act but to both acts, and at the same time, then it may be argued that its influence does not so much depend on its internal, morphological characteristics, as it does on the receptivity of its audience and on the willingness of the literary historian to theorise it as one. And especially the novel – whether because of its perceived belatedness in the history of literary production, because of its problematic relationship with ‘canonical’ genres, or because of the immense socio-cultural importance invested in its name – is the only genre which advances such invitation to be accepted as one; that is, the novel advances an invitation to be thought of as a genre even when, in a feat of pride, it announces the death of genres, the death of literature, even its very own death.

There is another, more important, in my view, reason why there has to be a clearer demarcation between the ancient Greco-Roman prose texts and the novel, one which points towards the ‘democratic gesture’ I referred to earlier. In a passage often quoted by a number of literary theorists working on ‘genre’, Maurice Blanchot exalts the ‘book’ as a concept which transcends boundaries, pre-ordained rubrics and, of course, genres. ‘The book alone’, argues Blanchot, ‘is important, such as it is, far from genres, outside of categories—prose, poetry, novel, testimony—under which it refuses to be classed, and to which it denies the ability to assign its place and determine its form’. In addition to the fact that for Blanchot here the novel is a ‘genre’, his further development of the notion of the ‘literary’ seems to suggest that the novel, in its identity as a genre, illustrates a concerted effort to rid itself of the need for historical/philosophical/aesthetic classification. In other words, Blanchot refers to a certain ‘essence’ of literature whose task is to keep the ‘literary’ in perpetual motion, an ‘essence’ which compels it towards resisting any ‘assertion that stabilizes it or even realizes it’. Although Blanchot is talking about the concept of ‘literature’ at large, I don’t think I would be taking undue liberties if I were to use the same line of thought to describe the ‘essence’ of the novel as a genre. Although, in my view, the concept of the ‘novel’, the ‘name of the novel’, cannot be used to refer to anything prior to the sixteenth-seventeenth century, the concept of prose narrative itself surely belies such chronological designation. That said, I contend that the reason the novel cannot be addressed as ‘a novel’ prior to the advent of an ostensible conceptualisation of modernity, has to do with its perceived discomfiture in any kind of rigid designation of its aesthetic, philosophical and even historical aspiration. It’s true, in other words, that the ‘novel’ was born in the sixteenth-seventeenth century, but its essence – prose narrative – does not only look back to two thousand years of sustained development, but also, and much more importantly, to continuous development to come. ‘The novel to come’, to paraphrase Blanchot, reveals a certain ‘promise’ that is bestowed upon the concept of ‘the novel’ in ways that differentiate it from all other ‘canonical’ genres of the past. And this, in my view, necessitates a major dichotomy that needs to be drawn between the ancient prose narratives and the novel. By virtue of their historical situatedness, the former can demonstrate neither the same degree of self-awareness nor any kind of ‘aspiration’ inherent in all conceptualisations of ‘the literary’. Tasked with representing the essential paradoxes at the heart of human existence during epochs of continuous social, philosophical, aesthetic and technological re-evaluation, the novel alone, to paraphrase Blanchot one last time, betrays an anxiety which forces it to continually aspire towards an existence outside of itself whilst doubting its very ability to do so; to portray individual and collective concern, to depend for its survival on both the materialism of the everyday and on the aspiratory essence of the ‘literary’; in the end, to permanently doubt the significance of its role as an important cultural and intellectual proposition. The more pervasive its influence, the more anxious the novel seems to become. And this is one of the essential paradoxes at the heart of the novel as a ‘genre’.

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