The novel is novel, but it is also, typically, news—the tidings of the world around us. … The novel reaches in and out at once. Like no other art, not poetry or music on the one hand, not photography or movies on the other, it joins the self to the world, puts the self in the world, does the deep dive of interiority and surveils the social scope. …
The self in society: the modern question. The novel is coeval with other phenomena that first appeared in full-fledged form in the 18th century—like privacy and sensibility and sentiment and boredom, all of which are closely linked to its development. Novel-reading is indeed unusually private, unusually personal, unusually intimate. It doesn’t happen out there, in front of our eyes; it happens in here, in our heads. The form’s relationship to time is also unique. The novel isn’t static, like painting and sculpture, but though it tells a story, it doesn’t unfold in an inexorable progression, like music, dance, theater, or film. The reader, not the clock, controls the pace. The novel allows you the freedom to pause: to savor a phrase, contemplate a meaning, daydream about an image, absorb the impact of a revelation—make the experience uniquely your own.
More than with any other form of art, the relationships we have with novels are apt to approach the kind we have with people. For a long time, novels were typically named after people (Tom Jones, Emma, Jane Eyre), but that is not the crux of it. What makes our experience of novels so personal is not that they have protagonists, but that they have narrators. Paintings and photographs don’t, and neither, with rare (and usually unfortunate) exception, do movies or plays. Novels bring another subjectivity before us; they give us the illusion of being addressed by a human being.
They are also exceptionally good at representing subjectivity, at making us feel what it’s like to inhabit a character’s mind. … The camera proposes, by its nature, an objectivist aesthetic; its techniques are very crude for representing that which can’t be seen, the inner life. (“I hate cameras,” Schmidt quotes Steinbeck as having remarked. “They are so much more sure than I am about everything.”) …
Novels call us out. “In the intensity of our engagement,” Schmidt remarks, “we ourselves are judged.” … As the characters are tested, so are we. What you read becomes a mark of election, and even more, how. (“Books—oh! no,” says Elizabeth Bennet to Mr. Darcy. “I am sure we never read the same, or not with the same feelings.”) The novel was a smithy, perhaps the smithy, in which the modern consciousness was forged.
The modern consciousness, but not the postmodern one. The novel’s days of cultural preeminence have long since gone. The form rose to primacy across the 19th century, achieved a zenith of prestige in modernism, then yielded pride of place to the new visual media. It is no accident, perhaps, that the modernist anni mirabiles after the First World War (the years of Ulysses, Proust, Mrs. Dalloway, The Magic Mountain, The Great Gatsby, and others) directly preceded the invention of the talkies—a last, astounding efflorescence.
This is not to say that great novels haven’t continued and won’t continue to be written. It is to start to understand why people have been mooting the “death of the novel” ever since that shift in cultural attention, as well as why the possibility is met, by some, as such a calamity. Privacy, solitude, the slow accumulation of the soul, the extended encounter with others—the modern self may be passing away, but for those who still have one, its loss is not a little thing. Schmidt reminds us what’s at stake, for novels and their intercourse with selves. The Novel isn’t just a marvelous account of what the form can do; it is also a record, in the figure who appears in its pages, of what it can do to us. The book is a biography in that sense, too. Its protagonist is Schmidt himself, a single reader singularly reading.