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The Relevance of Fiction

ISSUE:  Summer 1970


All institutions, all procedures, all forms—including literary forms—are being challenged today to demonstrate their relevance. Relevance is a very tired word indeed; it is both over-used and under-examined, and although relevance is sometimes defined in terms of very parochial concerns, it is nonetheless a crucial issue which merits examination. What lies behind the current demand for recognizable relevance in all things may be clarified if we examine, as I propose to do here, the art of fiction and the way in which it is regarded by the current generation of college students.

Today’s students, it seems to me (and to others), accept ideas and issues more readily from non-fiction than from fiction. It seems to me also that they seek and find in the cinema what earlier generations sought and found in the novel. The cinema flourishes as never before and with that other visual medium—television—has been a powerful factor in shaping the imagination of the present generation. They have been exposed to an incredible profusion of pictures of “reality” as it happens in an age in which so much is grotesque to the point of being unbelievable. People, including the young, still read novels, to be sure, but a significant shift is taking place on the cultural scene; and when a critic can write that “Literature has lost its pre-eminence as the most profound way of disseminating ideas and creating values,” and he is echoed by others, this is a proposition worth examining.

Such a study, which I propose to sketch out briefly, requires us not only to consider the rôle played by literature and the novel in the present society, but also to touch on such fundamental matters as how the novel is dealt with in college courses, what the attitudes of younger readers are, and how their assumptions about life in general affect powerfully their sense of what fiction is relevant, in their terms, and what is not. My position is the difficult one of a mediator between generations, standing with some apprehension in that no-man’s land called the generation gap, trying to point out to the elders that more has changed than they think and at the same time to convince the young that relevance, even in their terms, may be found in novels they have not read or have read with an underdeveloped sensitivity. It is doubtful that either group is much inclined to listen to this sort of thing, but it does give me some kind of framework for dealing with the novel as a literary form and as a social force. 

The current reading of college students, as reported by college bookstores and from one’s own observation, is heavily weighted on the non-fictional side. The lists are dominated by works such as those of Marcuse and McLuhan, reports on civil disorders and the events of Chicago, James Watson’s “The Double Helix,” Erich Fromm’s “The Art of Loving,” sociological and psychological studies in profusion, and, of course, the autobiographies of Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver. The novels which do appear are those of Hesse and Tolkien and John Fowles’s “The  Magus,” which have a frankly romantic and utopian attraction, or those of authors like Ken Kesey or Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., who speak directly in a language that is specifically contemporary and who share the same assumptions about the world as their young readers: namely, that the contemporary world is grotesque beyond belief and to deal with it the novelist must plunge into fantasy—one form of which is science-fiction. “Portnoy’s Complaint,” which is a pretty conventional novel technically speaking, is read widely for a variety of reasons; one would hope that the literary skill and comic gifts of Philip Roth account for some of this novel’s appeal, but one suspects that a number of readers have been brought to the book simply by the place it gives to sexuality.

The emphasis is, however, on non-fiction and this trend is even more strongly seen in reports from the bookstores specializing in “black literature,” books for, by, and about black people. The black novelists are read, like James Baldwin and John A. Williams, but the top best-sellers are the autobiographical works (“Autobiography of Malcolm X,” “Manchild in the Promised Land” by Claude Brown, “Soul on Ice” by Eldridge Cleaver), and straight non-fiction (“The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual” by Harold Cruse and “Wretched of the Earth” by Frantz Fanon). Autobiography can attain the quality and complexity of the novel and no one can deny the novelistic impact of Malcolm X or Eldridge Cleaver. But a phrase from the “Autobiography of Malcolm X” makes clear the sense in which novels are not taken seriously: “Of course I read ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ ” he wrote. “In fact I believe that it is the only novel I have ever read since I started serious reading.” The blacks have special reason for seeking to get to the core of things directly and swiftly, and non-fiction sometimes fosters the illusion that it provides a recipe for action, but there are many novelists who have grappled with the complexities of being a black man in a white society in novels which will endure precisely because they take account of that complexity.

In describing the changing attitudes toward the novel generally, I am not relying on statistics of sales alone but even more on my experience as a teacher of literature in courses on the European novel over the last twenty years or more. Student attitudes have changed in many ways and at various times over that period and it would be fascinating to chart all of those changes. All we can do here is deal with the most recent phenomenon, the search for relevance, and the current view held by many of the young that novels, especially novels of the past, are not relevant to their needs—although there are some interesting exceptions.

I am also speaking out of a different kind of experience, a more recent one, that of being for the last four years a college administrator and thus seeing matters in a broader though not more tranquil perspective. Thus this essay on the relevance of fiction has in it elements of both literary criticism and some kind of sociology of literature. Trained as a philologist and as a literary historian, but rebelling against the narrow limits and restricting assumptions of those disciplines, and thinking of myself as a literary critic or, more exactly, as a teacher of literature, I have worried through my own identity crises, not the least of which is finding myself a dean at a moment when deans are in the thick of the fray and involved deeply in all our contemporary problems from the war in Vietnam to the urban crisis and racial relations, and including, of course, educational and curricular problems narrowly defined. In any case, I have a sense of being where the action is, and I shall try to speak out of my experience as a teacher of literature, chiefly concerned with the novel, and out of my more recent experience these last three years as academic dean at a small but much loved educational institution in New Jersey.

Surely a concern for the relevance of the novel in our contemporary society is a subject which has its own peculiar relevance today. I am concerned not only with particular authors and novels, but with the overriding question of how, in the contemporary world, novels are read—not only those of the past but those now being written. A study of novels of the past can give an insight into the present, especially for those of us who have been teaching the fiction of the past to successive generations of students. How they respond to Stendhal or Manzini or Dostoevsky or Anatole France—and the responses will vary widely for each author—has as much relevance for the present as the way they respond to Camus or Hesse or Salinger or Ken Kesey or Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

One of the heresies of our time and specifically a trait of those born after World War II is the belief that only what exists in the present is relevant, that in literature only contemporary writers can speak meaningfully to us. This is the form taken by provincialism in our country today—not geographic provincialism but temporal provincialism, the sense of being isolated in time and in history. To recognize relevance in fiction only if it is in “modern dress” is to encourage the prevailing isolation and the egocentric belief that nothing comparable to our present experience has ever occurred in the past. The current tendency to believe one’s self unique is reinforced. But Shakespeare does not have to be performed in modern dress; Melville is neither more nor less relevant because nineteenth-century hair styles and sideburns are back in fashion.

What I am seeking is a way to avoid polarization, to avoid the dangers of the two extreme positions which prevent a reasoned examination of current phenomena. One danger is to be so resistant to change that one refuses to see the irrelevance of much that we teach and write about novels—accepting as normal dreary classes and dreary books which illuminate neither novel nor reader and which only produce notes which enter remorselessly into student notebooks. This is a process which at its worst makes the reading of novels impossible. The other danger is the failure of the young to see relevance whenever it is disguised, whenever it requires some kind of transposition, however thin the disguise may be. We need to turn our attention therefore to the way the novel is taught by one generation as well as the way fiction is read—or not read—by another generation.


Some hard questions need to be asked. Have we made fiction seem irrelevant by the way we have dealt with it in our courses and in our writing about the novel? Have we in recent years stressed form over content, technique over purpose, artifice over art, shadow over substance in the name of criticism, especially following the after-blast of the invigorating debate around the New Criticism? More than a generation ago the old history of literature was declared irrelevant by a large number of teachers and students, not alone by the so-called “new critics”; there was an alliance of diverse spirits who wanted to get back to the text of the literary work itself and cut through the mass of irrelevant information surrounding it. This was clearly all to the good and brightened literary horizons for a considerable period. But this emphasis on the text brought eventually an overemphasis on technique, on the artifices of the author rather than on the responses of the reader, together with a scorn for ideas in literature as somehow being unworthy of one’s attention. There was much loving attention given to the vehicle and how it was put together and it was quite unfashionable, indeed heretical, to suggest that the vehicle might conceivably have not only a cargo but a destination. It was easier to stipulate that there was no cargo, or if there were, that it simply interfered with the functioning of the intricate vehicle. This attitude, in time, had some effect on the writing of novels—encouraging the tendency to write for other authors rather than for readers—as seen especially in the “nouveau roman” in France with its self-conscious concern with its own technique. The circle gets completed when the “new novel” helps to generate a still more technical kind of criticism—structuralism—which to some appears like a belated reinvention of the old “new criticism.”

In all of this the text itself as a whole as studied by literary scholars and critics, kept escaping attention. Parts of it were dealt with brilliantly in terms of structure, imagery, and devices, but the sense of the whole, the impact both on the sensibility and on the mind was lost. Not everywhere, certainly, but in the profusion of our literature courses many teachers found it easier to deal with images and symbols which could be pointed at, counted, and interpreted without any real constraint on one’s ingenuity, than to deal with the essence of that perilous confrontation between reader and novel in which words on a page create not only patterns but meanings, speak to the reader, or drift away. The complex way in which whatever is conveyed by a work of fiction reaches a reader is not dealt with adequately in many of our literature courses.

It should be said, parenthetically, that the emphasis on technique and on technical analysis in literary studies finds parallels in other areas: behaviorism in psychology, the emphasis on quantitative methods in sociology and on the quantification of data in the study of history, linguistic analysis in philosophy, and even in the humble area of foreign language learning there has been more concern with patterns of expression than with the communication of ideas. This was put rather forcefully not long ago by Robert Paul Wolff when he wrote that “…everywhere technique is raised from the status of means to the pedestal of end-in­itself. Whenever possible, the real world is ignored. Where it cannot entirely be suppressed, it is embalmed by the academic undertakers and laid out for observation, looking quite life-like but safely dead.”

At this point we need to be reminded that literary technique need not be narrowly defined. As Seán O’Faoláin observed, “…literary technique does not exist in a vacuum, it is a man’s device for projecting his own nature in his own time and place.” And he went on to note that “indeed, as Henry James shrewdly remarks, time and place affect even the technique of the reader as he reads, pointing out that not only does the impression of life that goes into a story vary according to the man and the place that produces it, but that impression of life that comes out of a story will often vary according to the place that takes it, the particular structure and mixture of the recipient.”


What then is the “particular structure and mixture” of the contemporary recipient? It is of the utmost importance to note that the current college generation of readers appears to be working from a set of assumptions that are significantly different from those of other generations. Their expectations and assumptions about life and society have a very precise effect on their attitude toward fiction—whether of the past or of the present. Such differences have always existed between generations and have usually been attributed to youthful “idealism” and it was assumed they would all get over it in time and the world would remain unchanged. One cannot treat the matter so lightly, because in our own day there is not only more of this kind of “idealism,” but also more intensity of feeling plus a greater uncertainty on the part of the elders, less blind self-assurance in the permanency of institutions or even of human life.

The real differences—the great generation gap—are revealed not by differing kinds or amounts of knowledge or experience, not in differing styles or modes, but in fundamentally different assumptions about society and about priorities, plus radically different expectations: a redefinition of what is possible.

The present college generation is not satisfied with an analysis of the ills of society, but insists that those ills be cured, and assumes that they can be cured. Their basic assumption in respect to society is not stability but change and a further assumption that it is possible to control the amount and direction of change.

A young man or a young woman, looking to the rôle he will play in society, has a whole set of difficult choices to make, and the most fundamental of these is whether he will elect to work from within or from without; on the one hand, to accept society as it is, thinking of reforming it perhaps, but accommodating one’s self to it and making one’s way within it; or, on the other hand, declaring war against established institutions, standing outside society and seeking to change it radically. The contrast is between the “hypocrisy” of Stendhal’s heroes, which is a way of beating society at its own game, and the revolutionary nihilism of Turgenev’s character in “Fathers and Sons,” Bazarov, although a good deal more needs to be said about each. The choice is a hard one, particularly for the young man who senses some kind of greatness or power within him, as Eric Erikson points out in “Young Man Luther,” when he describes the difficulties young people encounter in trying to discover or maintain their own identity when faced with the need to decide which of the compromises that a self-protective society thrusts upon them must be accepted or rejected.

The novel, from its very beginning, was concerned with the impact of the power of society on the individual sensibility. Society is the major force even in those novels most devoted to the isolated individual and his personal problems. In most novels the hero’s conflict is largely with society which restricts him, but while society is the pivot on which everything turns, the action of the novel is determined by the hero’s estimate of the force of society. Most fictional heroes, however subversive they may be, generally have little confidence that they can change the whole order of things. Werther makes a total indictment of eighteenth-century society, but it is a personal, powerless, rhetorical lament, a lyrical cry which is an abdication, and his suicide is hardly a political act. Turgenev’s Bazarov, a century later, condemns all of society and would sweep it all away; he acts the rôle of the complete nihilist, but it is pretty clear that he is indulging in rhetoric and has little sense of action, which is why he was such a disappointment to nineteenth-century liberals and is not highly regarded by present-day students, partly also because the book makes them a little uncomfortable for a variety of reasons.

The choice between subversive action and frontal assault, so fundamental to Stendhal’s fiction, is shown with more brutal clarity in a novel greatly admired by Stendhal, Choderlos de Laclos’ “Dangerous Acquaintances,” in which the principal characters accept society as it is but refuse to submit to its demands or let it have any hold on them; they operate from within, basing their activity on a systems analysis of the way the game is played. What is striking here is not only the cynical use of rational analysis but the fact that in a book written only a few years before the French Revolution there is not a single hint that a change in the form of society is even conceivable.

After the French Revolution there is, of course, far greater instability, less confidence in the permanence of institutions, and Balzac is the great historian of this uncertainty. In a vast series of novels he poses the question how, in a world in the process of transformation and filled with unknown hazards, one makes one’s way. All of this is not without echo in the present, but Balzac focuses most sharply on individual ambition and the survival or success of a particular person, and is less concerned with any transformation of society as a whole. He depicts the tremors and the fears of a whole period, but he takes change and uncertainty as constants, as he plots the complex personal equations of multitudes of individuals.

A novel which assumes a stable society and depicts a character at odds with it seems to some of our students to be irrelevant. They are impatient as well with the novel which, like Balzac’s, assumes the possibility of individual success in materialistic terms but seems to leave out altogether the idea of a fundamental reform of society; Balzac’s most speculative types, like Louis Lambert, are seeking some philosophical absolute that soars far beyond anything so mundane as social reform. Oddly enough, at least to my mind, many students today are not very happy with the Stendhalian novel which shows a wily hero coping with society on its own terms and beating society at its own game. There is an uneasiness about accepting the proposition that compromise––that is, apparent compromise, or what Stendhal calls hypocrisy––has got to be a way of life. They can feel sympathy for the situation of a Julien Sorel, who, after analyzing his strength compared to that of society and after reviewing the possibilities open to him, accepts the idea that he cannot change things radically. He therefore pretends to conform in order to keep his identity, to protect his own inner self, to guard his essential freedom. What critics as well as students have often failed to see is that Stendhal, far from advocating this particular mode of action, is making a far more sweeping condemnation of society by showing how society succeeds in corrupting even the inner self that one is so desperately trying to protect. The trouble with playing a rôle is that it eventually takes over some part of the self. Alone in his prison cell at the end of “The Red and The Black,” Julien recognizes that he is being hypocritical toward himself.

What I am suggesting is that some of the current youthful dissatisfaction with fiction comes from an inability to share the general assumption of most novels that society and people cannot really be changed. A generation which feels more and more that many things must be changed, which believes that some kind of revolution is possible, realizable, and desirable in one’s own lifetime, and where reform is insufficient, is irritated unconsciously by the unspoken assumptions of most writers of fiction of the past and of the present.

It is not unimportant for the critic or reader who wishes to engage himself fully in a novel to make an effort to see what are the assumptions on which it rests. These are rarely expressed directly by the author, who takes them for granted or is quite unconscious of them, so deeply do they lie. As readers we may be responding not to the art of the novelist but to his unspoken assumptions which we may share or not share. These are, in any case, matters worth examining. Certain questions, if we ask them seriously, can help us get to the heart of a novel. What is taken for granted by the author? What beliefs does he assume the reader shares? One needs to see what is not there as well as what is visible. What vision of the world and of man is implicit in a given novel? What questions does it raise? All of these need to be asked, as well as the interesting questions of what shape a novel takes or what its underlying structure is.

A glance at a great novel which set the tone and the pattern for the modern novel, Cervantes’ “Don Quixote,” may illuminate what I have been trying to say about assumptions and questions. The “Quixote” assumes a stable society in which violence has a permanent place, and in which the vision of an untroubled ideal existence is a recurring phenomenon. The book raises terrible questions about the nature of truth, about identity, about the nature of reality, and it finds for all these elements a complex form that rests on an involved series of contrasts. Society is present, of course, very strongly so, and it is stable, stratified, and apparently unchangeable; society is accepted as it is without any great need to describe it or define its function. It is just there, it is not questioned or discussed, it does not constitute a “problem” or a topic of discussion. It is the stable graph on which Don Quixote’s eccentricity can be plotted. The noble knight tries to live out an artificial convention in a real world and runs headlong into comic disasters. He gains the respect of a few, confuses some, and convinces others, but society as a whole does not feel threatened by his attack—which is why he is a comic figure: a comic character is simply a subversive who is not taken seriously.


One novelist of the past who still has an undeniable appeal for the present generation is, I believe, Dostoevsky. He achieves this position by sheer greatness, to be sure, but there is something of a paradox in this, for, while young readers sense his greatness, they are troubled by the fact that he does not, ultimately, satisfy their hunger for social solutions. Dostoevsky does not fail to show the social forces which press in upon his people, but above all he convinces us that the world he is describing is extraordinarily complex, that it is full of unknowns and packed with impenetrable mysteries. It is, paradoxically, this sense of the complexity of life which makes Dostoevsky so widely read today in and out of college courses, by a generation which longs for quick and fairly simple solutions to complex social problems. Poverty, crime, and war are matters which the great novelists have treated with due respect for their complexity, and their basic assumption is that these are problems which cannot be dealt with simply or quickly, although youthful readers like to believe that such matters can be solved by a relatively simple approach.

Dostoevsky treats people, places, and events as having unfathomable depths and he shows time and again that the reasons which appear to explain a character’s conduct do not in fact suffice and the character escapes any easy definition. This is apparent to any reader of Dostoevsky, who puts it quite explicitly, not in a novel, but in a poignant memoir of his life in the prison in Siberia, “The House of the Dead”:

I am trying at the moment to invent categories for our prison, but it is an impossible task. Reality is infinitely diverse; it escapes the ingenious deductions of abstract thought; it does not permit of any narrow and precise classification. Reality tends toward perpetual subdivision, toward infinite variety. Even among us, each of us kept his own distinct life, his private life alongside the official, rule­ridden life.

It is hardly original to say that the great novelists emphasize the complexity of human life and make it difficult to conceive of rapid solutions to age-old problems, but it may be important to note that this very complexity may put off a number of young people impatient for results. Non-fiction is in many ways more comforting; it assumes that things can be described, people categorized, problems analyzed. Novelists are seldom comforting, unless they escape with us to Utopia, and all have made clear the arduous, frustrating nature of their task. None has put this more eloquently and exactly than Flannery O’Connor, who said once to Robert Fitzgerald:

The serious fiction writer will think that any story that can be entirely explained by the adequate motivation of the characters or by a believable imitation of a way of life or by a proper theology will not be a large enough study for him to occupy himself with. This is not to say that he doesn’t have to be concerned with adequate motivation or accurate reference or a right theology; he does; but he has to be concerned with them only because the meaning of his story does not begin except at a depth where these things have been exhausted. The fiction writer presents mystery through manners, grace through nature, but when he finishes, there always has to be left over that sense of Mystery which cannot be accounted for by any human formula.

This is what Elizabeth Bowen had in mind, I think, when she spoke of the object of the novel as “the non-poetic statement of poetic truth.”

The precise point at which one understands what is meant by such remarks is when, in seeking insights into current problems, one reads essays and analyses which use “case histories” to lend conviction to the assertions made. There have been a number of recent books, for example, which attempt to give whites a sense of what it is like to be black and to give blacks historical and psychological justification for feeling the way they do. The analysis may be exact and the historical data pertinent, but the case histories provided slip all too easily into clichés, stereotypes, and facile explanations. These are barren accounts stripped of the detail that would suggest human life and serve only to make the author’s point. (I am thinking of “Black Rage” by William H. Grier and Price M. Cobbs.) The sense of what it is like to be a black is far more complexly and abundantly conveyed in novels such as James Baldwin’s “Another Country” or John A. Williams’ “The Man Who Cried I Am” and the very recent “Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light.” It is not just that these are longer, more detailed accounts, although that helps. It is the sense, given by the art of the novelist, that one is dealing with human complexity and not with a stereotype. This is a matter of some importance in the long run because little is to be gained if, in our efforts to understand one another, we substitute one stereotype for another. Categories may make discourse easier but they tend to lead us away from human truth. George Meredith has an elegant phrase on the subject of labels and categories which is worth quoting:

We are indebted almost for construction to those who will define us briefly: we are but scattered leaves to the general comprehension of us until such a work of binding and labelling is done. And should the definition be not correct as brevity pretends to make it at one stroke, we are at least rendered portable: thus we pass into the conceptions of our fellows, into the records, down to posterity.

Dostoevsky serves as a kind of reference point by which the novel as a genre can be measured on the scale of complexity and on the scale of relevance. Two passages from two recent novels may suggest not only Dostoevsky’s relationship to present-day readers but also some sense of how the young appear to be seeking for something beyond him. The first is in Aldous Huxley’s novel “The Genius and the Goddess,” published in 1955, and it is a fairly provocative set of assertions by one of the characters:

“The trouble with fiction,” said John Rivers, “is that it makes too much sense. Reality never makes sense.”

“Never?” I questioned.

“Maybe from God’s point of view,” he conceded. “Never from ours. Fiction has unity, fiction has style. Facts possess neither. In the raw, existence is always one damned thing after another, and each of the damned things is simultaneously Thurber and Michelangelo, simultaneously Mickey Spillane and Maxwell and Thomas à Kempis. The criterion of reality is its intrinsic irrelevance.” And when I asked, “To what?” he waved a square brown hand in the direction of the bookshelves. “To the Best that has been Thought and Said,” he declaimed with mock portentousness. And then, “Oddly enough, the closest to reality are always the fictions that are supposed to be the least true.” He leaned over and touched the back of a battered copy of The Brothers Karamazov. “It makes so little sense that it’s almost real. Which is more than can be said for any of the academic kinds of fiction. Physics and chemistry fiction. History fiction. Philosophy fiction….”

This is really a simple testimony to Dostoevsky’s view of human complexity and to the unfettered way in which he deals with it in his novels. For Huxley’s characters it is enough that that complexity be recognized, but there is no urgency to deal with it further or plunge into it all the way. A more recent novelist has his characters put the same question, but the feeling of satisfaction is absent. The following is from “Slaughterhouse Five or the Children’s Crusade” by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., published in 1969:

Rosewater said an interesting thing to Billy one time about a book that wasn’t science fiction. He said that everything there was to know about life was in The Brothers Karamazov by Feodor Dostoevsky. “But that isn’t enough anymore,” said Rosewater.

So we come full circle. Dostoevsky works from assumptions about a precarious society and unfathomable people, a sense of complexity for which we are grateful when faced with the over-simplification and stereotypes of some forms of contemporary discussion. But the dilemma is that the students who are attracted to Dostoevsky for the sense they have that he is helping to reveal the truth as it is, are also distressed by the obstacles his view of the world raises to the possibility of effective action. It isn’t enough, as Rosewater said, to recognize the complexity of human and social problems, one ardently desires to get to the bottom of them, to change the world, to turn the infinite unknown into finite knowledge on which positive action can be based. Read in this fashion, Dostoevsky fills the reader with despair.


As I noted earlier, among the novelists most widely read by today’s college students are those who create a romantic or utopian world as the setting for their novels, a world that has its own consistency and coherence, stripping off many of the asperities so visible in the world we know and allowing the reader to compose his own relevance out of the structures and details presented. The novels of Tolkien seem to have acquired this kind of romantic relevance that comes from the creation of an artificial world which is fundamentally simple enough to allow clear principles and solutions to emerge. Related to this, although of a different literary order, the novels of Kafka, read in all kinds of courses from literature to sociology to religion, have a relevance that derives from the freedom each reader has to apply the fictional metaphor to his own case. Kafka’s great art is that he invented a form which permits of multiple interpretations, indeed demands that there be many; the profusion of interpretations of Kafka by the critics is simply a useful index of his relevance to quite disparate situations.

The case of Hermann Hesse, widely read both in college courses and outside them, is worth examining because he suggests something a little different. Hesse sets his most popular novels like “Siddhartha” in an exotic location, but does not spend much time on the setting or atmosphere. It is not a complex, highly detailed world that he creates, but in brief fables he provides only the furniture absolutely needed as a background for his ideas. It may well be that a good deal of the popularity of Hesse’s fiction lies precisely in its non-fictional quality, in its abstract didacticism. “Siddhartha” is a fable, not a novel; it is brief, simple, direct, and it tends to simplify life and its choices rather than to emphasize, as a novel does, the complexities and the conflicting claims of life. “Siddhartha” is vague enough to apply to any reader, abstract enough to be relevant to any situation, and, for all its oriental trappings, requires no effort of transposition on the part of the reader.

Certainly another attraction of some of Hesse’s novels in our romantic, impatient period is their emphasis on the value of feeling over reason and their distinctly anti-intellectual thrust. Fables like “Siddhartha” downgrade the intellect, question the very possibility of teaching anyone anything. These principles are not so much derived from a novelistic context as they are flatly-stated maxims of uncontestable truth: “Wisdom is not communicable” and so on. These are novels of aspiration rather than of description. The aspiration is a noble one, it appeals with great force to the young idealists of our time, tells them what they want to hear, but gives little hint of how incredibly difficult it is to make real such aspirations. Let me illustrate with a passage from “Siddhartha”:

Love is the most important thing in the world. It may be important to great thinkers to examine the world, to explain and despise it. But I think it is only important to love the world, not to despise it, not for us to hate each other, but to be able to regard the world and ourselves and all beings with love, admiration, and respect.

The appeal to any romantic is clear, as well as to the hippy type and the drug community. But it is a cop-out, no matter how you look at it. Love is surely the most important thing in the world but the compulsion, indeed the obligation, to examine and understand the world we live in cannot be so lightly eliminated.


The relevance of fiction will always be a variable matter. It is clear that writers who spoke directly to one generation may have little relevance for a different generation. Anatole France affected the thinking and the values of an earlier generation but has little to say to most of us today. André Gide did not reach his own generation but was discovered by the young people who came to maturity after World War I. His works, for all their artistry, are declining in impact now. Albert Camus expressed much of what young men and women of the forties and fifties felt, and, although he is still widely read, his impact is less direct now, and he suffers, as do many others, from being compressed into the curricular rigidities of required reading: he has become a text-book, and like Salinger suffers from co-option by the establishment. “The Stranger” and “The Catcher in the Rye” are better discovered than assigned. One can also see the day coming when black students will stage their own revolt against the “required black readings” they are now being inundated with. We have in fact institutionalized modern literature and in so doing may have ultimately lessened its impact.


College students today can, nevertheless, find kindred spirits in the novels of the past and the present who can give them insight into themselves and their problems, who can show how similar matters can be dealt with. Novelistic “heroes” range from active and energetic seekers to hopelessly inert, inactive, profoundly despairing, superfluous men. Fictional characters are of many sorts but they can be distributed fairly usefully in terms of the amount and kind of energy they display, and they provide all possible models and examples from the most violent and anarchistic activist to the most lethargic drop-out. They are all men and women who find life in their society difficult or intolerable. Many can find no place in it for themselves. Dissatisfaction with society is not an invention of the 1960’s. The novels of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries provide an interesting array: some revolt openly, as outlaws, like Balzac’s Vautrin; some pretend conformity like Stendhal’s Julien Sorel; some lament lyrically like Werther, René, Adolphe, and Oberman; some act with energy but aimlessly like Lermontov’s Pechorin, Pushkin’s Onegin, and Turgenev’s Rudin; some have little energy and no aim like Flaubert’s Frédéric Moreau, and some sink into the protective torpor of Goncharov’s Oblomov. All of them provide a criticism of their society.

The Russian novelists of the nineteenth century were fascinated by what came to be called the “superfluous man,” the man whose response to society is to drop out, to retreat from it, and thereby make the most profound attack on it. This homeless fellow, this low-energy, discouraged representative of a generation which considered itself bankrupt, is in Lermontov’s ironic and prophetic title, the “Hero of our Time.” And it is he who makes the most violent and most profound attack not only on society but on the whole shaky foundation on which society rests. This is because by his very manner of existence he is condemning not merely specific abuses (the inflexibility of parents, the difficulty of making one’s way in the world, the oppressive force of social organization, the question of money, and so on) but rather he is condemning the entire foundation of life, the whole human enterprise, the very meaning of life. Living usually in a post-revolutionary period, or after a revolt that has failed but has shaken things to their foundations, the inert hero asks, by his inertia, if there can be any sense to life, any meaning. Slightly embarrassed by not being able to believe anything, without energy enough to know how to go about seeking a solution, he maintains a torpid attitude that lays bare the abyss. He does not attack the abuses of society or the failure of philosophy either directly by deed or even verbally: he simply exists, aware of the meaninglessness of an attack on a meaningless society. The bottom has dropped out of life and he finds no reason to do anything. This is the case, I think, of Oberman, of Frédéric Moreau, of Oblomov, of Rudin; it is the case too of later fictional figures as different as Camus’s “Stranger” and Robert Musil’s “Man without Qualities.” They are the earlier counterparts of our hippies and those who have dropped out of society by choice or by drugs.

All of this brings us back once again to Stendhal, who, you may have guessed, seems to me to be the most relevant of novelists—and the most contemporary. Stendhal won little success in his own time, but he knew that he was writing for the future and for “the happy few.” It seems to me that he speaks more directly to our present age than to his own and he addresses himself specifically to problems that we find most vexing. We are better able to hear him than his contemporaries were. He deals directly with the problems that face a young man as he enters into the world of affairs: the nature and limits of ambition; the joy and anguish of love—and the agony of not being loved; his attacks are frequently indirect: his young men generally conceal their true feelings and wear the mask of hypocrisy, but he is attacking not hypocrisy but rather the kind of society that makes hypocrisy necessary, that requires conformism. He helps us to analyze and differentiate in the troublesome area where politeness or good manners blend into conformism—and eventually hypocrisy. Where does one begin and the other end? Above all, Stendhal approaches everything with an irony that makes us reach for his meaning: he treats us as his intellectual equals.

Stendhal’s novels are profound social criticism but he does not underestimate the complexity of the world he lives in; they are profound political analyses but he by no means underestimates the ways in which the political structure can be affected. As a novelist he does not make a direct and laborious attack but sets forth a solid and complex background of politics without which the action is incomprehensible, and then sets his forces in motion. The movement is away from the world of action toward an ideal world of contemplation: leave the world in order to understand it better and to reject it completely. Prisons and towers and walls are not objects but rich symbols of separation––the tools for preserving one’s integrity and finding one’s identity. The world is our Waterloo: a hurly-burly of activity which may have some sense but whose meaning is hidden from us. The Charterhouse of Parma, so sketchily dealt with in the abbreviated ending of that novel, is the ultimate refuge. Fabrice participates fully in worldly activity, then renounces it all as of no value to him. He takes the whole world as it is represented by Parma and drops it in the ashcan.

This is a serious matter and it invites reflection. Stendhal is too cynical for some of our idealists: he does not deny the overwhelming pressures of society but his heroes play the game and try to quit when they are ahead. Life may be absurd but it can be fun. The sense of the absurd, of the absurdity of life, has of course been strong in the novels of the twentieth century. It haunted men like Malraux, Camus, Sartre, and Kafka, and struck a responsive chord in their readers. This is still a preoccupation of the present college generation but it is no longer put in the same terms. They do not stop at an awareness of the absurdity of life; while some drop out in one way or another, the more active seekers become indignant and demand––in fact they make non­negotiable demands––that life make sense or at least work better.


Novels are still relevant, but the relevance is not always appreciated. Impatient readers seek solutions rather than analysis, workable models rather than complex symbols, and they want, too often, the novel to rest on assumptions they find congenial. They are happier with anger than with irony and prefer to read novels which discharge anger in words and assume that society is a mess only because people will not take the trouble to change it, which is the base Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., habitually takes, throwing his hands in the air like a pair of exclamation points and wondering why the world isn’t made better at once when it is all so easy.

But life and society are not simple, and our problems—which are many—will not yield to exhortation. The novel takes its relevance from its respect for the complexity of life and it has adopted increasingly complex forms to come to grips with it. Essays and analyses properly seek out forces and issues and try to discover some order so that remedies can be proposed. That is the function of non-fiction. But the novel tangles with complexity, revels in all of the unclassifiable specifics of human life, and establishes modes of its own which provide analogues of the world. The moral of my tale, then, is simply this: that truth is stranger than non-fiction, or as Ken Kesey put it in the much-read “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”: “But it’s true, even if it didn’t happen.”


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