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The fundamental truths of fiction

The slow atrophy of the English novel is contributing to a decline in empathy and the rise of “stay in your lane” identity politics

This article is taken from the May 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Once a year, in a tradition that now stretches back many decades, the editors of the world’s largest cultural magazines gather in a dimly-lit room at a secret location. The reason for their clandestine meeting is to choose among themselves who, that year, gets to write the highly coveted annual scarepiece about the death of the novel. In 1965, it was Frank Kermode for the New York Review. In 2008, it was Allan Massie for the Spectator. In 2014, it was Will Self for the Guardian. Each time, the final combination is decided by drawing names from a hat — and, once writer and rag are picked, the editors sign in blood and usher in the night’s depraved entertainment.

I jest, but there is something comical about the atomic clock regularity with which these articles seem to pop up. I guess in a culture that values cynicism as one of the highest intellectual virtues, pronouncing the novel dead is, for the aspiring grump, a dead-cert way to demonstrate a certain kind of weary, cigarettes-and-spirits sophistication. 

But let’s be honest — it’s unlikely, having already survived several journalistic assassination attempts, that the novel will suddenly disappear. What is true, however, is that, over the last century, the novel has come to play an increasingly peripheral part in our lives. And while we have managed, as a culture, to transplant many of its organs into other bodies — storyline and spectacle into film, social commentary into documentary and journalism — we still have yet to find a home for that one thing that made it most unique: the ability to describe, at length, the internal thoughts and feelings of other people.

There’s a good case to be made that, without the novel, a great many of the things we take for granted would never have come about

This matters. Like any emotional or intellectual muscle, empathy requires constant exercise — and at its height, the novel was simply the best workout going: an obstacle course for the imagination, challenging readers to wriggle through the crannies of a stranger’s cranium and to experience, by proxy, the full range of their emotions. Indeed, there’s a good historical case to be made that, without the novel, a great many of the things we take for granted today — political liberalism and universal suffrage among them — would simply never have come about.

But then it is easy to forget just how influential the novel, at its peak, really was. Between 1700 and 1900, literacy in England shot up from roughly a third to over 95 per cent of the population. And these millions of new readers were given, by the novel, the opportunity to house-sit the minds of people from across society — people of a kind they would likely never meet — and to understand them not in terms of their social roles, but as fellow human beings.

The individual self, already validated in theological terms by Christianity, became an object of literary fascination — characters were no longer always simply heroes or villains or jokers, but endlessly nuanced people just like us, whose daily hopes and fears were as meaningful as the achievements of brave men in ancient epics.

At its height, the novel was simply the best workout going, an obstacle course for the imagination

And by letting loose into the streets of the social imagination a hundred Philip Pirrips, Jane Eyres, Dorothea Brookes and Anna Kareninas, the novel gave concrete expression to the abstract truth that all lives are made up of the same fundamental molecular experiences — love, regret, loss — and that, beneath the ephemeral spume of social categories, we are all of the same basic, incontrovertible moral value.

Simply, the literary imagination is one of the cornerstones of the modern world — and we should expect its deterioration to have a marked effect. Fewer people are reading novels today, and those still picking them up are, generally speaking, looking for less demanding stuff — and yet it’s hard to think of anything else that helps us to inhabit the minds of other people in quite the same way.

Take film — perhaps the most obvious contender for the crown of fiction. While film has undoubtedly taken certain novelistic tropes to new and magnificent heights, it still always struggles properly to convey subjective experiences: it’s one thing, after all, to watch somebody having a breakdown in glorious high definition, and an entirely different thing to read, at length and in detail, about what that breakdown actually felt like.

That isn’t to say, of course, that swapping books for films is going suddenly to make you a square-brained dullard. But in the same way that, over time, cultures become gradually more left-wing or nationalistic or religious — all because of billions and billions of infinitesimal individual experiences trickling into one central estuary — it seems entirely plausible that our society could become, simply as an average of the changing habits of millions of people, less emotionally imaginative.

Now, the decline of the novel is obviously not the sole cause here, but we are already starting to see — I believe — the early signs of a culture-wide dwindling of empathy: an upsurge of political tribalism, “stay-in-your-lane” identity politics, calls for legalistic “emotional consent” between friends, lists of approved and unapproved words, the banishing of intentions from moral discourse, widespread anonymous trolling, and endless bursts of seething irony from those who are “very online”.

It’s one thing to watch somebody having a breakdown and an entirely different thing to read what that breakdown actually felt like

Even in what remains of the literary world, the consensus now seems to be, as Zadie Smith wrote in 2019 in the New York Review of Books, “that we can and should write only about people who are fundamentally like us: racially, sexually, genetically, nationally, politically, personally. That only an intimate authorial autobiographical connection with a character can be the rightful basis of a fiction.” Rarely a week goes by without some author or other being smeared for trying to imagine the experiences of the “other”. Just a few months ago, for example, Dawn French was challenged for presuming to write from the perspective of a black woman.

But though the publishing world is blocking up the vents, the steam built up by the invention of the novel is still within us, looking for a way out. After all, when something so profoundly changes the way a culture thinks, its axioms continue to bubble deep down for some time — often surfacing in quite unexpected ways. An obvious example would be the Christian championing of the meek and lowly, which finds its godless form, today, in the assumption that the most victimised or the most aggrieved in society have a moral authority over the rest of us.

And in the same way, the emphasis placed by the novel on our day-to-day subjective experiences has reappeared today in a curiously caricatured incarnation: gossip magazines, soap operas, the Jerry Springers and Jeremy Kyles, and, of course, the endless broadcasting of our dirty laundry on social media.

Indeed, perhaps the closest modern day imitation we have for the novel — in the sense of a popular, mainstream medium that allows us to read about other people’s experiences and cultivate some kind of empathy in ourselves — is in fact something rather unusual: the internet forum.

Think about Reddit. This labyrinth of forums attracts 330 million users every month, many of whom siphon themselves off into one of its rooms to discuss, in candid terms, their day-to-day emotional experiences. A quick scroll through a subreddit like r/relationships, for instance, yields, every day, hundreds of lengthy posts — and replies — about all manner of things: romantic issues, abusive work environments, family problems. The writing is rarely Pulitzer-worthy, but for those involved, the exchanges are like a hot meal in the tundra: the nourishing realisation that somebody, somewhere, feels the same way as you do.

Younger generations report that they are lonelier, and feel their lives are less meaningful, than ever

It might seem absurd, but perhaps for younger generations there’s genuinely some kind of an echo here — however distorted by digital technology — of the psychological rewards of fiction. And who knows — maybe in a few hundred years time, historians will look back at the advent of forums at the start of the twenty-first century and see them not as a way for brain-fried, decadent millennials to pass time, but as the West’s ingenious way of replacing the novel: the creation of entirely new arenas in which to explore our subjective experiences.

Still, from the perspective of the present, you have to wonder if it is working: younger generations report that they are lonelier, and feel their lives are less meaningful, than ever. And in any case, the gulf between novel and forum appears vast: for one, online, we are encouraged only to seek out experiences that reflect, and thus validate, our own — we only ever really flesh out in our minds, therefore, the finer details of our own circumstances, not the depths of the human condition as a whole. 

But then perhaps, as a culture, we have simply lost faith in the very notion of a universal human condition altogether. Indeed, the trend across society today seems to be to reject the humanistic idea that the most fundamentally truthful of experiences — those borne of loss, regret, hope, love — act as an emotional Rosetta stone: a way for people of all backgrounds, despite their differences, to understand each other. 

The reason for this ultimately has very little to do with the internet, video games, television, film, or indeed any other technological scapegoat supposedly responsible for the death of the novel — it goes right back, instead, to the notion, ascendant in our society for over a century now, that everything useful about the human self can be explained from without, and that our internal, subjective experiences, therefore, do not matter.

Think about how the “big three” intellects of the last couple of hundred years explained away the self. Darwin saw it as the biological by-product of evolutionarily advantageous mistakes. Marx dismissed it as false consciousness, preventing the march of history. And Freud revealed it to be, or so he thought, a series of subconscious desires and biases, best understood by a trained therapist. In each case, what life actually feels like to the individual is, at best, irrelevant, and at worst, dangerous.

Our society could become, simply as an average of the changing habits of millions of people, less emotionally imaginative

We have largely internalised this materialistic view of humanity today. But at the same time, and somewhat paradoxically, our collective faith in objectivity — and, by extension, our belief in the possibility of a commonly accepted moral framework — has collapsed. 

It’s hard to know what the novel does under such conditions. What function can it have when both the thing it came into the world to represent, the self, and the humanistic principle it depends upon — that there are such things as universally shared experiences — are dismissed as mere illusions? 

It may well be, in the end, that the novel could only have arisen in very peculiar circumstances — a brief moment just after the rise of Protestantism, widespread literacy, capitalism and the rule of law, and just before the contradictory triumph of scientism and relativism. And, now that those peculiar circumstances are retreating into the distance, the novel is compelled to tag along with them into the sunset.

But perhaps — just perhaps — there are signs of hope. There is, I believe, a growing realisation that the “stay-in- your-lane” identitarians have everything back to front: that there is, in the end, actually more uniting us than dividing us, and that individual stories manage to capture something more fundamentally truthful about all of us than categories ever will. And perhaps soon, dissatisfied with shallow sob stories on the one hand, and cold, scientistic denials of the self on the other, we will remember that there is a middle, imaginative, empathetic way — one that ultimately gets to a deeper truth about humanity, and one best explored, and discovered, in fiction.

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