The Decline of the Novel and the Fate of English

English departments have diversified.  Forty years ago, just about every faculty member defined himself or herself in literary historical terms.  One was a Medievalist, one a Shakespearean, one a Romantic scholar, one a philologist.  Large departments might have someone who does film plus a creative writer-in-residence.  Today, click on any faculty roster and the expertises amble far into social and psychological areas–critical race theory, cultural criticism, gender and sexuality, imperialism, etc.

In part, it has happened because English has kept pace with broader cultural changes in the United States in the last four decades.  That’s the implication of a short commentary by Joseph Bottum in The Weekly Standard last week.  It has the title “The Cocktail-Party Test,” which denotes a social injunction that no longer holds.  If you attended a cocktail party on the Upper West Side, in Cambridge, or any other intellectual haven, what novels do you have to have read in order to avoid embarrassment?  Back in 1952, Invisible Man would count; in 1939, The Grapes of Wrath; Gravity’s Rainbow in 1973; and many others from the 20s to the 70s.  But, according to Bottum, nothing since Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities in 1987.  The “fundamental art of Western civilization for almost two hundred years,” he says, “the device by which, more than any other, we tried to explain ourselves to ourselves—just doesn’t count for much anymore.”

Culture has moved elsewhere, which for Bottum puts defenders of Western culture in a difficult position.  They want to blame Leftist politics, or MFA programs that turn writers into tenure-achievers, and Bottum charges novelists themselves for losing confidence in their ability to broach Big Topics such as the human condition.

In any case, I think it patently true that the novel has declined in social import, and this spells a far-reaching problem for English departments.  As long as novels (and poems and plays and literary essays) occupied a central place in U.S. society, the English department maintained its power and prestige on campus.  There weren’t many other places where people go for discussion and study of this primary art of who we are and where we’re at.  Now, the publication of a great novel has a microscopic impact compared to the next development of Facebook, the iPod, and Mad Men.

With the decline of the novel comes the decline of English.  English tries to keep pace by spreading out into social concerns, media studies, visual culture, political criticism, and the like, but the diversification doesn’t help.  Before, nobody did the novel better than English professors.  But when it comes to media, race, sexuality, etc., there are other departments to be found, and they have handled those topics longer than English professors have.  Ask a film professor some time what he or she thinks of film studies in the English department.  The answer will be, “Well, they have some interesting ideas, but there are many aspects of film that English professors know little about [the technology of it, the history, the research base].”  Social scientists who study race and sexuality, and political scientists and economists who study capitalism and politics say the same thing.

This, then, is the choice for English professors: to maintain their credibility by focusing on a secondary cultural expression, or to take up primary cultural and social matters and be taken as dilettantes.


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

2 thoughts on “The Decline of the Novel and the Fate of English

  1. The author argues: “I think it patently true that the novel has declined in social import, and this spells a far-reaching problem for English departments.”
    My two cents: While it is quite easy to simplify the complexity of the various societal issues at work that are affecting the way in which our populations consume literature, I believe it is short-sighted to suggest that “the novel has declined in social import.”
    Which novels, I wonder, is the author referencing? The well-worn classics which have graced bookshelves all over the world and have speckled the pages of one literary cannon or another? Or, perhaps, the author alludes to more recent novels? If, as I believe the author suggests, it is the latter of these two, I argue that there exists today novels of great social import readily available at your local bookstore, library, (whether brick-and-mortar or digital).
    I challenge you to read any novel written by novelist Jodi Picoult, and try NOT to trip over some ethical or moral dilemma in which the human condition is placed front and center. Picoult’s novels broach those “Big Topics” you refer to that are central to what generations of 21st Century Americans face on a daily basis. She is just one example of a contemporary novelist whose work is tapping the American consciousness out of its deep slumber. Do not give up hope on the power and veracity of the American novel (and novelist) to engage a society of readers to ask those important questions: Who are we? What is our purpose? Where are we at? Where are we going?

  2. I would kindly suggest reading Michael D. Obrien’s novels. Although he is Canadian, he speaks for much of America – the America which is trying to come to grips with the mess of the 21st Century. Perhaps what angers critics is the fact that he is a Catholic and Christian
    and he is not satisfied to keep such faith under a basket…Perhaps his not being a part of any tribe – he writes neither from the perspective of academia nor matieralism and this is not in the mainstream – even though his themes are…and the fact that he is a self educated man.

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