Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Fate of the Novel and the Lonely Crowd

Last fall I found myself groping around for some brief, accessible definitions of realism, naturalism, and the genteel tradition in the novel. I wanted to give them to my freshmen, who were reading examples of all three kinds of novel from the tradition of Chicago writing (Hamlin Garland, Upton Sinclair, and Henry Blake Fuller, respectively). One of the things I turned up was an old lecture Norman Mailer gave to the 1965 Modern Language Association conference, "Modes and Mutations: Quick Comments on the American Novel” (there’s a version in Commentary’s March 1965 issue, which you can get online if you’re interested). Here, Mailer spells out the usual business about the genteel tradition (Jamesian stuff, about manners and personalities, containing nothing you wouldn’t put in front of Aunt Edna), realism (the harsh world of people of all classes in their struggles against an uncaring world), and naturalism (the great deterministic novels, in which the big social, biological, and economic forces are first described, then put into action to grind our hapless protagonist into the dirt). He then takes a typically idiosyncratic turn and declares these forms to have failed. The novel is in decline, says Mailer. By the post-war period, the novel was fading into irrelevance, and “Literature … had failed. The work was done by the movies, by television. The consciousness of the masses and the culture of the land trudged through endless mud.” I’m not too keen on the kind of anti-pop-culture sentiment Mailer throws in there (in this I’m as typical of my generation as Mailer was of his), but the disdain for pop culture and the mass media is not the interesting bit. The interesting bit is that Mailer sees the decline of the kind of novel he admires as coincident with the rise of those things. As the big, serious novel fell in esteem, says Mailer, “the task of explaining America was taken over by Luce magazines.”

Mailer blames novelists for all this, seeing them as having given up on the creation of compelling characters:

Frank Cowperwood [the protagonist of Theodore Dreiser's The Financier] once amassed an empire. Herzog, his bastard great-nephew, diddled in the ruins of an intellectual warehouse. Where once the realistic novel cut a swath across the face of society, now its reality was concentrated into moral seriousness. Where the original heroes of naturalism had been active, bold, self-centered, close to tragic, and up to the nostrils in their exertions to advance their own life and force the webs of society, so the hero of moral earnestness, the hero Herzog and the hero Levin in Malamud's A New Life, are men who represent the contrary—passive, timid, other-directed…

That last term in Mailer’s catalog of the defects of characters in modern novels came to mind the other day, when the longsuffering Communications prof Dave Park popped into my office and was detained for interrogation about midcentury social theory. I wanted to ask Park about Vance Packard’s book The Status Seekers, which I’d seen was on the reading list for one of Al Filreis’ courses at Penn. “Packard’s okay,” Park mumbled between bites of his meatball sandwich (has anyone actually ever seen this guy without some kind of sandwich?), "but if you really want to know about that stuff, you want to read David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd." Riesman, I remembered, was the guy who gave us the terms “inner-directed” and “other-directed,” and I suspected immediately that Riesman would give us a better model for understanding the decline in the novel’s prestige than Mailer had given.

Despite the title, Riesman’s book is not about suburban angst and anomie, at least not primarily. It’s about the long evolution of our society, and the different types of subjectivities produced under different historical conditions. As Riesman puts it,

My concern in this book is with two revolutions and their relation to the ‘mode of conformity’ or ‘social characer’ of Western man since the Middle Ages. The first of these revolutions has in the last four hundred years cut us off pretty decisively from the family- and clan-oriented traditional ways of life in which mankind has existed throughout most of history; this revolution includes the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, the Industrial Revolution, and the political revolutions of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. This revolution is, of course, still in process, but in the most advanced countries of the world, and particularly in America, it is giving way to another sort of revolution — a whole range of social developments associated with a shift from an age of production to an age of consumption.

The three principal types of character or subjectivity, for Riesman, are the tradition-directed, the inner-directed, and the other-directed, corresponding to the dominant types in the Medieval period, the Renaissance-to-Industrial Revolution period, and the contemporary period, respectively (Riesman includes a lot of demographic information in accounting for why these types rise and fall).

For Riesman, the tradition-directed type follows the inherited norms of his community. He “hardly thinks of himself as an individual,” says Riesman, “still less does it occur to him that he might shape his own destiny.” Think of the protagonist of some Medieval piece of literature — Beowulf, say, and you’ll get the idea. Beowulf doesn’t question the values of his tribe: he embodies them. Nor does he root around to discover the genealogy of his tribe’s morals: he accepts them as given, and defends them against outsiders. He’s not out to individuate himself, making of his life an exquisite work of art in the mode of an Oscar Wilde. Rather, he’s out to make sure his people and their beliefs don’t get attacked by the monstrous other. In the world of the tradition-directed, it’s all gemeinschaft, all the time. It’s not that tradition-directed societies don’t have deviants or weirdos or nonconformists, says Riesman, but it doesn’t encourage them, and when they do come into being it has places to put them (the role of the Fool comes to mind) where they serve a social role, rather than directly challenging social norms.

Inner-direction comes into being with the Renaissance and Reformation and Enlightenment, and really takes off in the nineteenth century, with the large-scale transformation of society brought about by the Industrial Revolution. As Riesman says,

In Western history the society that emerged with the Renaissance and Reformation and that is only now vanishing serves to illustrate the type of society in which inner-direction is the principal mode of securing conformity. Such a society is characterized by increased personal mobility, by a rapid internalization of capital (teamed with devastating technological shifts), and by an almost constant expansion… the greater choices this society gives — and the greater initiatives it demands in order to cope with its novel problems — and handled by character types who can manage to live without strict and self-evident tradition-direction. These are the inner directed types

One could say this is the society unconsciously experimenting with new types of people, encouraging mutations of personality, one or more of which may prove better adapted to new conditions than the old tradition-directed type, though Riesman doesn’t use quite this kind of pseudo-Darwinian language. He does, however, speak of the predominance of the new inner-direction among the class rising to dominance in the nineteenth century: “inner-direction,” says Riesman, “is the typical character of the ‘old’ middle class — the banker, the tradesman, the small entrepreneur, the technically oriented engineer, etc.” Such people were new social types, making their way through uncharted social territory. They didn’t need inherited norms. They needed their own inner gyroscopes, their individualized norms for behavior.

Here, I think, is where the association of inner direction with the rise of the novel comes into play. The novel, of course, is the most significant new literary genre to develop in the period of inner-direction, and one of the things it does best is to model that kind of inner direction. The bildungsroman is subgenre where we can see this most readily. Think of Jane Eyre, for example (a personal favorite). The book begins with the child Jane in opposition to traditional, inherited values. When her cousin John Reed tries to assert his prerogatives as the man of the house, she rebels, listening to an inner voice crying “Unjust! Unjust!” As the novel develops, we see Jane constantly rejecting the values projected onto her by school, by employer, by church, by peers, and working to develop an inner equilibrium. She tries to balance out her inner passion (all that fire imagery) and her inner, rational reserve (all that ice and cold water). By the end of the novel she has evolved her own personal balance of values, which we see visualized when she carries a tray on which sit a glass of water and a burning candle. We get much the same thing in the American novel of the period. Consider The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which Huck, in choosing to help Jim despite society’s judgment that doing so will lead to his damnation, decides to follow his inner voice, saying “I’ll go to hell, then.” It’s all about inner-direction and the defiance of norms, and it’s sort of perfect as a model for the rising bourgeoisie — those guys needed to put themselves first, against society’s judgments, if they were to transform the world and advance their self interest. For a dark version of what this looked like, think of Daniel Day Lewis’ character in There Will Be Blood. It takes a busload of inner-direction to go ahead and drink someone else's milkshake.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the decline of the novel’s prestige Mailer laments occurs right around the period Riesman identifies as the beginning of the end for the inner-directed personality and the rise of the mass media.

The other-directed character type, which for Riesman comes into being slowly, but starts to triumph in post-war America, is a kind of self that doesn’t rely on an inner gyroscope for direction, but on the ever-shifting norms of a peer group. “What is common to all other-directed people,” he says,

is that their contemporaries are the source of direction for the individual — either those known to him or those with whom he is indirectly acquainted, through friends and through the mass media. This source is of course internalized in the sense that dependence on it for guidance in life is implanted early. The goals toward which the other-directed person strives shift with that guidance: it is only the process of striving itself and the process of paying close attention to the signals from others that remain unaltered through life.

I suppose my instinct, like that of many, is to recoil a bit at this kind of character. But looking at it with sympathy, one could say this new type is less likely to be a rigid, unchanging, self-serving pain in the ass than is the inner-directed type. Anyway, it’s not about what we like, it’s about what’s developing, and there is a kind of structural change at work. While early industrial civilization needed its inner-directed pioneers, more developed corporate culture needs something different. As Riesman puts it, if inner-direction is typical of the old middle class, “other-direction is becoming the typical character of the ‘new’ middle class — the bureaucrat, the salaried employee in business, etc.” These are people for whom single-minded conviction isn’t likely to be a virtue. These are people who need to get along with one another and to be able to switch gears when the orders come from on high.

I remember reading something in Matthew B. Crawford’s Shopcraft as Soulcraft, a book about his defection from the white collar world, in which he described the weirdly abstract language of management as a language designed to make no strong commitment, since the manager doesn’t want to alienate anyone in the administrative structure. After all, the direction the winds blow may change rapidly. Plan A gives way to Plan B, and the manager wants to be seen as playing along, not as having made a strong commitment to Plan A. This seems to me a particularly unpleasant version of other-direction, a kind of man without qualities. I imagine most of you have received memos written by this sort of administrator at one point or another. You may even have made a sport of sending them to your friends, asking for a list of specific affronts to human decency contained in the prose style. If so, you cling to inner-direction, and I salute you.

Anyway. This new type of subjectivity comes into prominence around the time Mailer sees the prestige of the novel falling away, and one could argue that the two are connected. The kind of novel Mailer likes — the novel that (perhaps paradoxically) teaches us how to be inner-directed — isn’t going to have a lot of resonance for other-directed people. While the novel can depict other-direction —Mailer sees this in Malamud — it isn’t a great medium for it. As Riesman points out, it is mass communications, or rather the constant presence of mass communications, that works best for other-direction, since other-direction is a matter of constantly shifting norms, fashions, and modes. The novel isn’t that fast or flexible. (Dave Park’s been thinking about other-direction in new media like Facebook, where one’s peers approval or disapproval modifies one’s behavior on small levels all the time. Ask him about it if you can).

Of course there probably are places where the novel of inner-direction can have a huge impact even now. Jiang Rong’s novel Wolf Totem has had a huge impact in China, and deals with an outsider loner type defying the traditional norms of society (Rong, according to his English-language translator, hopes “that the Chinese will succumb less to the constraints of traditional behaviour, seek greater freedoms, become... if you will, wolfish”). This emphasis on inner-direction in Wolf Totem may have something to do with the phase of industrial development in China being more or less in line with that of nineteenth century England and America. And of course the novel in our own time and place can do a great deal, even examining the decline of inner-direction with trepidation (Don Delillo’s chilling Mao II comes to mind). But I don’t think Mailer can pin the relative decline of the prestige of the novel on a simple failure of novelists to be compelling. Bigger forces are at play, and the kind of novel Mailer admired isn’t going to have the prominent place he wanted it to have. Which is neither here nor there, unless, of course, you're like Mailer was, and have some deep need for others to confirm that you are important — which isn't other-direction, exactly, but something worse.