Thomas C. Foster’s book is three years old, but it still holds the gold medal for Turnoff Title of the New Millennium: How to Read Novels Like a Professor. The author, who teaches English at the University of Michigan, attempts to sanitize his work with the subtitle, A Jaunty Exploration of the World’s Favorite Literary Form. But the damage is done. His title conjures up too many blackboard demands: “In Remembrance of Things Past is Marcel Proust saying farewell to high society, or suggesting that social milieus are a kaleidoscope of change? Discuss.”; “In Moby-Dick, the vessel that rescues Ishmael is called the Rachel. What is the significance of that Biblical name?” etc., etc., ad infinitum.
There is also another questionable aspect of Professor Foster’s thesis. Alas, the novel no longer seems to be the world’s favorite literary form. Certainly it is no longer America’s favorite literary form. In a recent issue of the Weekly Standard, Joseph Bottum observed that the last must-read novel for cocktail party discussion was Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. Everyone devoured Wolfe’s urban satire. But that was back in 1987. Since then there has been no such required reading.
According to Bottum there are several obvious reasons. The American culture has decayed so drastically that no one remembers any poetry after W. H. Auden’s—and the great Englishman died in 1973. Sculpture “got gobbled up by its own theory long before Henry Moore died in 1986. You can be a lively and cultivated guest these days without being able to name a living painter, composer or playwright you admire.”
This Cassandraic tone is fine for those who find Lamentations their favorite part of the Bible. Certainly American culture has fallen on hard times; the public appetite for fiction is largely satisfied by television dramas, some of them memorable (“Deadwood,” “The Wire,” “The Good Wife.”) It is also beguiled by the siren electronics of iPods, iPads, and Blu-Ray DVDs, as well as by the torrent of fatuous cinematic epics like Anonymous, and adolescent comedies with Ben Stiller and Jim Carrey heading the casts.
But these do not sound the death knell of the novel. Every week the New York Times lists some 15 works of fiction bought by readers throughout the country. These range from Harold Murakami’s 900-page doorstop IQ84 to the brand-name products of John Grisham (The Litigators) and Lee Child (The Affair.)
True, in the U.S. nonfiction outsells fiction by 40% or more. But only a few years back, there was an extraordinary literary phenomenon that reversed those statistics. It was called the Harry Potter series. Children, and later their parents, made the author richer than Queen Elizabeth II. More significantly, J. K. Rowling turned kids into readers of fiction. The young adults remain interested in hard-cover fiction to this day.
That hardly presages a renaissance in what Bottum calls the “public novel.” In our time there is unlikely to be another Sun Also Rises, Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye, or for that matter, Bonfire of the Vanities. But not everyone is satisfied with the merchandise on the multiplexes and the home screens. Not everyone reads to satisfy the demands of a college course. Some of us still find the skull cinema provides the best pictures. We’re the ones who still have libraries, electronic and otherwise, that can get hold of the latest Elmore Leonard and the four-centuries-old Don Quixote. And there are many of us in every one of the 50 states. Mourning in America? Much too early for that.