The Novel: Who Needs It?
By Joseph Epstein.
Encounter Books, 2023.
Hardcover, 152 pages, $25.99.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Folks.

There are few books of literary criticism in recent years that are clearly written, free of jargon, and not weighted down by one sort or another of ideological bias. Joseph Epstein’s The Novel: Who Needs It? is one of these few, a book that is well informed, reasonable, and beautifully expressed. Not just that: by the end, Epstein goes a long way toward convincing the reader that the novel still plays an important part in civilizing the mind, or ought to. And by “the novel,” the author intends novels of the better sort: the classic works of “the great Russian novelists and short story writers…the Victorians Dickens, Eliot, Trollope; the Americans Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, James, Wharton, Cather,” and a handful of moderns and contemporaries including Faulkner, Roth, Naipaul, Waugh, Forster, I. J. Singer, Wright, and Narayan. In earlier pages, Epstein made it clear that he would have included Austen, Conrad, and Proust in this “personal canon” as well. 

Regardless of his personal likes, the importance of The Novel: Who Needs It? lies in its defense of an element of our civilization that today is severely neglected and whose loss would involve the consequent decline of a crucial human faculty: the ability to project into the minds and emotions of others and to develop a broad understanding of the often contradictory facets of human nature and a deep sense of moral understanding. Taken together, these virtues derived from the reading of serious fiction contribute to genuine empathy and humane feeling. Partly due to the expansive nature of the novel—in the Penguin Classics edition, War and Peace weighs in at 2.76 pounds and covers 1440 pages—fiction is the only genre of literature that uncovers the everyday thoughts and feelings of ordinary human beings and that traces the development and moral consequences of those inclinations. Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim is a supreme example but so too would be Jane Austen’s Emma and V. S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas

Not only is the novel a highly important form of literature, it stands out as a civilizing agent in contrast to other forms of contemporary media, from news commentary to internet posting to popular music. Unlike the wasteland of raw expression to be found on smartphones, tablets, and computers that can be streamed on larger screens, the novel affords a quiet, private, leisurely forum of expression driven by humane concern and gifted observation without the partisan ideological intent of most of what is published today, including much of what appears as “fiction.” Unfortunately, in the contemporary marketplace for ideas, thesis-driven writing has all but taken over, and Epstein’s discussion of this threat to the future of the novel is quite compelling. Since even those who lead us in society now obtain their understanding of others through brief, simplistic, partisan media commentary, there is little hope for wise and thoughtful direction. 

It is unlikely that The Brothers Karamazov, Clarissa, Remembrance of Things Past or even lesser works of serious fiction have much of a role in education today. The reading of serious fiction has been driven from the curriculum not just by the usual culprits of race, class, and gender but by a general dumbing down of education. What percentage of students, even at the college level, could tackle Henry James, Joseph Conrad, or William Faulkner? And it is not just among students that these more demanding writers are neglected: society as a whole has clearly adopted an intellectually vacuous, impatient, thoughtless, and passive sort of reading (or viewing) that is immensely less rewarding and less humanizing than the reading of novels. What has been called “Sanctimony Literature,” its characters and plot determined by childish notions of political correctness or wokism, now dominates the genre. As Epstein puts it, “[t]he spirit of the [true] novel entails questioning, complexity, irony, dubiety about much that others consider home truths.” What is at stake is the development of a sense of humane understanding, and the decline of this form of understanding surely has much to do with the mounting divisiveness and partisanship in our society today.

Obviously, Epstein is addressing serious matters, but he does so with a light touch that makes The Novel: Who Needs It? a readable and entertaining book. The author brings a lifetime of learning to the task, and every page is thoughtful and informative. For example, Epstein begins his discussion of “those novelists known for their style,” in particular Joyce, Nabokov, and Updike, with the admission that he admires their work “without being particularly nuts about them.” Surely, there are many readers who would concur. 

What Epstein returns to again and again is the fact that serious fiction plays a crucial role in civilizing the reader by way of expanding one’s sense of human experience. Human nature itself, in all its complexity, is the subject of the best novels, and few other forms of reading or viewing can offer the same depth of feeling and thought. I must, however, disagree with Epstein regarding the superiority of the novel over history, biography, philosophy, and other genres, the best of which, I believe, also contribute to a finer sense of human understanding. The novel is a vehicle for expressing and experiencing the wonder of human existence, but that sense of wonder can be encountered in other genres of writing and forms of expression. Indeed, the uniqueness of fiction is also its limitation: the reading of fiction makes possible a rare admission into the minds and spirits of others, but it cannot achieve the rapture of listening to the finest music, nor the stimulation of philosophy in its pursuit of truth, nor the sense of spatial perfection in the best visual art. The novel is one vehicle for probing human experience, but other aspects of that experience can be expressed in a number of visual and musical forms.

Despite this caveat, I find The Novel: Who Needs It? the most engaging and rewarding work of literary criticism that I have read in many years. Clearly, the author is correct in stressing that novel reading is in decline (Penguin’s War and Peace, which Epstein considers the greatest of all novels if not the greatest book ever written, currently ranks number 7,181 among books sold on Amazon), but what exactly has been lost with this decline? Though it is difficult to define and certainly impossible to quantify, a substantial shift is taking place, and it involves a serious loss of imagination on the part of those who restrict their reading to “factual” material on the internet or to second-rate fiction or popular biographies. Today’s citizens are not just “reading differently,” as Epstein claims, they are losing qualities of empathy, tolerance, and reserve that are the product of patient reflection and profound inquisitiveness, both of them central virtues of novel reading. As Epstein puts it, “[o]ne doesn’t read on the Internet quite the same way one does on the printed page of a book or magazine or newspaper,” and the difference is as great as that between “knowledge and wisdom.”

In contrast to “the age of distraction” in which we live, the novel, Epstein concludes, “seeks to discover deeper truths, the truth of the imagination, the truth of human nature, the truth of the heart.” This more profound understanding of human nature may well be all that protects us from rushing into a catastrophic war, sinking further and further into disastrous levels of government and private debt, or turning a blind eye to political violence. One who has read Proust, Tolstoy, or Austen with care will have attained greater awareness of the value of life and of the virtues of restraint and moral perception. Armed with an attentive reading of serious fiction along with an appreciation of the finest music, art, history, and philosophy, an educated populace may serve as a bastion against authoritarianism and social anarchy. As Epstein puts it, “the novel is an instrument of discovery, [and] what it sets out to discover are bits of that still unsolvable and greatest of all mysteries, human nature.” He reaffirms our faith in this truth and inspires a return to the study of the best and wisest that has been written.

The Novel: Who Needs It? is a book that will reward almost any reader with a clearer understanding of the cultural crisis that we face, what with the explosion of electronic media, the partisanship of news commentary, and the atrophy of educational standards, including the inability of many students to tackle serious fiction. Returning to the question posed in the title of his book of “who needs the novel,” Epstein asserts at the end that “we all do, including even people who wouldn’t think of reading novels.” With its perceptive discussion of the role that serious fiction ought to play in civilized society, The Novel: Who Needs It? makes a strong case for this assertion. The culmination of a lifetime of reflection and study, Epstein has written a rewarding and readable book that will be of interest to many readers. 

Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture, including Heartland of the Imagination: Conservative Values in American Literature from Poe to O’Connor to Haruf (2011).

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