What Is The Novel? The Fundamental Concepts of a Literary Phenomenon
What do we talk about when we talk about the novel? The history of the field of inquiry which calls itself “the theory of the novel” — a field in which, curiously, the novel is less often an object of theory in its own right than it is an occasion to explore all manner of cultural phenomena, social and historical transformations, philosophical propositions, habits and practices of living, aesthetic movements — suggests that when we talk about the novel we are in fact traversing it on the way to the domains of human activity that surround it. Or we undertake the same adventure in reverse, reading culture and history into the novel. To talk “about” the novel often means talking around it, through it, alongside it; the theory of the novel is theory with the novel, the theorization of history, culture, politics, economics, aesthetics, and so on, according to how these domains — their conditions of possibility, ramifications, limitations, their very structures — can be differently illuminated by their refraction through the variety of lenses the novel provides. While this testifies to the power of the novel to push beyond the apparent and the given, to reveal truths irreducible to empirical fact, to expose the organizing principles governing institutions and ideologies, to challenge our understanding of the world in all manner of important ways — does all this not beg the question: What is it? Does literary criticism not have a responsibility, an intellectual and ethical obligation, to clarify the concept of the novel prior to its use as a theoretical instrument? Otherwise, does this instrumentality not risk depriving the novel of its status as literature?
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