One of the few things about which almost everyone professionally concerned with literature will agree is that the years since the end of the Second World War, and particularly the last ten to fifteen years, have seen a marked decline in the general quality of popular fiction.  That the novel is in a period of decadence is fairly obvious to anyone who goes into a book store or looks into, say, the New York Times Book Review and compares the Best Seller List with the reviews.  What sells and what is considered of sufficient merit to warrant serious comment are, for the most part, very different things, leading to the inescapable conclusion that the publishing industry is producing—and, certainly more distressing—the American public is reading a great deal of garbage.

And the problem is not that no one is providing any alternatives.  What most people would describe as “serious” books are still being written and published in this country, but never in the history of this most pervasive of literary forms have they met with so emphatic and sustained a rejection by the middle class readers who are, after all, what keeps the whole enterprise of the novel afloat.  Most people simply are not interested, under any circumstances whatever, in reading the kinds of fiction that find favor with university professors and such of the book reviewers as lay claim to any pretensions to taste.  There are, of course, obvious exceptions—lightning strikes and a novel like The Name of the Rose will hit Number 1, even outside the Island of Manhattan, even if there is a lot of grumbling among the paperback publishers that more people are carrying the thing around to show off the title, rather like the monogram on a pair of designer jeans, than are actually reading it—but the disparity between a novel’s popular success and its claims to be taken serious as a work of art has become such a cliche that a writer like John Irving actually finds it necessary to apologize for the success of a book like The World According to Garp.  In the book world these days, you can have money or you can have your artistic conscience, but the popular wisdom is that you can’t have both.

It is not my object to assail the public taste—that strikes me as far too easy an answer.  I simply wonder if these two phenomena, the more‑or‑less simultaneous decline of “popular” and “serious” fiction, the one in terms of quality, the other in terms of sales, are not somehow related.

Perhaps a good way to begin is by dismissing the idea that this state of affairs is nothing new, that people have always had an unquenchable appetite for drivel and that good writers have always been neglected in their own lifetimes, to be recognized only after death.  True as this might be with other art forms—I don’t pretend to be a sociologist of art, so I won’t hazard an opinion—it is most emphatically not the case with the novel.  Most of the men and women who produced the novels which are today taught in college literature courses did very well out of them, and several actually became quite rich.  Until recent times, the novel was always been—pardon me—a middle class art form.  Novelists understood their audience, knew what they wanted, and gave it to them without so much as a qualm.  Mozart might have been buried in a pauper’s grave, but Dickens sure as hell wasn’t.  Until at least the time of Henry James, the distinction between “popular” and “serious” fiction simply didn’t exist.

Okay—we all learned as undergraduates that sooner or later it becomes necessary to Define One’s Terms.  What, currently, is the distinction between “popular” and “serious” fiction—or, more accurately, what is it perceived to be?  How did we ever get into this mess?

We don’t have to go very far for an answer.  Serious students of fiction have had access to a working definition of each since  E.M. Forster published Aspects of the Novel in 1927.  His distinction between the Novel of Plot and the Novel of Character has provided a kind of litmus test, since it has been assumed throughout our century that “serious” fiction is concerned with the delineation of character while “popular” fiction doesn’t presume to go beyond its basic task of just telling stories.  Forster took as a given, moreover, that these two novelistic missions are to some degree mutually exclusive, that an intricate plot tends to overpower anything except “flat” characters—another of Forster’s coinages—and that, conversely, the full development of character is inconsistent with any very significant amount of action.

It’s a useful distinction and doubtless, in extreme cases, plot and character do tend to cancel each other out.  Look at an Agatha Christie novel, for instance.  How much human authenticity do any of her characters have, but then how much can they afford to have given the amount of running around they’re put to by the demands of the story?  It is in fact the case that most of the novels which we would describe as rich in fully nuanced characters—but not all; consider the case of any of John Le Carre’s recent books—are distinguished by the simplicity of their story lines.

It is, however, between the extremes that Forster’s polarity begins to break down, because what we meant when we talk about “character” in literature is not so very different from what we mean when we used that word with reference to real life.  What we are doing when we say of a real person that he has or doesn’t have “character” is indicating our estimation of their essential nature, usually as it is revealed in their behavior under some sort of pressure.  We are making what amounts to a moral judgment, based on the evidence of conduct.  In fiction something similar takes place—a character reveals himself to a considerable degree through plot.  By the end of A Tale of Two Cities, after we have had a chance to wipe our eyes, we know that Sydney Carton is possessed of a noble nature.  After all, what other sort of man would take another’s place at the guillotine for disinterested love of that man’s wife?  And it is not necessary, in search of examples, to confine oneself to melodrama—let us lay that argument to rest.  In Persuasion, Mr. Eliot marks himself out as a questionable type by his willingness to travel on Sunday, and that long before his flight with Mrs. Clay or our discovery of his role in ruining the Smiths.  There is no reason to go on multiplying examples of this kind, since anyone who stops to think for half a minute could come up with dozens—or, more probably, hundreds—suffice it to say that the recognition of plot and character’s relationship of mutual dependence—and of plot’s logical priority—have been recognized since Aristotle, to be questioned only in the modern period.

Is not, however, thought itself a form of action, and hence a revealer of character?  It could be argued with perfect accuracy that precisely the difference between our experience of fiction and our experience of the world is that in fiction we are privy to what takes place in other minds while in the world we are not.  But if we admit thought as action we not only violate customary usage but we wreck the distinction between plot and character that Mr. Forster wishes to draw by making all plot endlessly complicated.  The “plot,” then, of a novel by Virginia Woolf becomes absolutely labyrinthine, even when the external action is rather meager.  Aristotle defines “plot” as “the arrangement of the incidents,” and I think we would be wise to limit ourselves to that, regarding only external events as incidents, just as we do in daily life, or we will simply end up forfeiting “plot” and “character” as usable critical terms.

Further, literature has always gotten a great deal of mileage out of the disparity between thought and action, between the internal and external behavior of characters.  Very few of us have the courage to be frank in our villainy, even to ourselves, and if all we had to judge by were transcripts of people’s states of mind, entirely divorced from their contexts in reality, it seems likely that everyone would appear to be entirely virtuous.  The fact is, behavior, and not thought or intention—except as these are translated into behavior—is the basis for moral judgment, certainly in the real world, where, for all practical purposes, we have nothing else, and, I would argue, in fiction as well.

Of course, as you were no doubt about to object, that argument assumes two things not in evidence:  1) that in fiction, as if life, our judgment of character is moral, and  2) that that “essential nature” which we have identified with character does, in fact, exist.  The defender of modern literature would not, I suspect, allow either of these assumptions go unchallenged.

That literature has a dual function, that it is supposed to be at once aesthetically pleasing and of some practical or ethical benefit—dulcet et docet, as Horace expressed it—is another of those critical platitudes that have only recently come to be challenged, and that challenge was pretty clearly itself a reaction to the Victorian overstatement of the idea, i.e. that it is the function of literature to be morally uplifting, which is something altogether different.  The French jurists who hauled Flaubert into court because the protagonist of Madame Bovary is an adulteress couldn’t really have imagined that there were no unfaithful wives in France.  What they objected to was the representation of one in a work of fiction.  The novel, in their view, was not fulfilling its agreed upon function, which was the inculcation of virtue by good example—they didn’t want their wives reading it for fear it might give them ideas.  Of course the whole thrust of the work is entirely in the other direction—has anyone ever made infidelity less attractive than Flaubert?  But those solemn worthies were in their own naive way at least paying the master the compliment of taking the product of his five years’ labor seriously.  Again, it is one thing to insist that fiction has no obligation to paint a picture of reality which its readers will find comfortable, that its only obligation is to the truth of experience as its author perceives it, and quite another to deny that a writer has no business with the moral sensibilities of his audience.

Consider for a moment the consequences of such a denial—not the practical but the artistic consequences.  Because the fact is that the reader does, simply as a matter of habit, make moral judgments about the characters and situations he encounters in fiction.  One of the inherent qualities of the literary convention called “formal realism,” the fiction that presents itself as fact, is that it asks—indeed, demands—that the reader react to it the same way he reacts to the world.  The illusion of reality is precisely the point.  I can’t imagine anyone, except perhaps that most perverse of creatures the professor of literature, reading a novel like Jane Eyre or Buddenbrooks or The Portrait of a Lady or even Portnoy’s Complaint as a strict rhetorical performance on the order of, say, Rasselas or Sidney’s Arcadia.  Certainly if they did the authors of those works would be less than pleased, since it is their business, to greater or lesser degrees, to hold up for us mirrors of reality.  Thus the reader, quite rightly, is constantly engaged in making judgments about the moral content of the events in fiction—in fact, he is probably more prone to do so in fiction because the issues, if not clearer, are at least more clearly drawn, with fewer of the distractions and blind areas that make us reluctant in real life to praise and blame—and a writer would have to be out of his mind to suppose that this process will not be applied to his own work.  It is not the business of the author to ask the reader to limit his responses to the boundaries prescribed by some theory of fiction.  It is his business to manipulate those responses—and the tools for doing so are right at hand—so that by the last page the reader’s perception of reality corresponds to the author’s intention.  To deny that this is what takes place in “literary” fiction—as, indeed, sometimes it does not—is to claim not that that fiction represents a further refinement of the form but that it is altogether an abandonment of the form, that what we have witnessed in our own time is the extinction of the genre as a vehicle of serious art.

The second of my two assumptions, that the concept of character, in art and in life, assumes the existence of an “essential nature,” is also highly suspect among Modernists, who would argue that the notions of both “human nature,” as a set of characteristics that will hold true for all men in all times, and of individual “character,” the conception of ourselves as possessing discrete, one might almost say “monolithic,” personalities, is something that we are forced to abandon under the pressure of discoveries in philosophy, psychology, and even anthropology.  We are not knowable, either or ourselves or to others, in the sense we have always assumed—nine tenths of our psychic existence is unconscious and unavailable to us, and the rest is fragmented and unstable.  In effect, we are little more than the succession of ideas that flow through our minds.  The “I” and the “other” that we assume in our daily commerce are as much fictions as the novels we read, and those novels are quite right to mirror reality by abandoning what is, after all, merely a convention of thought.

As a philosophical premise, such a view may be entirely justified—the epistemology of the self is a little outside the scope of this essay—but as a working proposition in either life or art it leaves a great deal to be desired, and I would offer the same objection to it that Hume did to his own conclusion that the “I” behind phrases like “my body,” “my mind,” and “my soul” did not exist because he could not verify its existence through the senses:  namely that that is all well and good so long as we confine ourselves to thinking philosophically, but that the moment we step out into the world we find we cannot get along without assuming the existence of that “I”, that we are constantly making reference to ourselves and to others as if “we” and “they” were more than just adhesions of physical attributes, sensations, and ideas.  I would argue that the notion of “essential nature” is rather like the notions of extension, or cause and effect, or limitation—we can’t know whether these are properties of the world apart from our experience of it or things we bring to experience, but we simply cannot conceive of the world without them.  These things may be fictions, but they are necessary fictions because they constitute the latticework through which we view and understand the external world, and the notion of discrete personality, or “essential nature,” occupies a corresponding position in our moral and social universe, which is, after all, the subject matter of those less necessary fictions with which we are presently concerned.

So what do we have when we confine “character” to the play of ideas across the mind, which is what happens in that most distinguishing technique of the modern novel, Stream of Consciousness?  I would answer that what we have when the technique is used exclusively, as it is in, for instance, To the Lighthouse, is not character but mood.  We are given an extensive view of the internal life of Mrs. Ramsey, her husband, her sons, and her house guests, but I, at least, cannot claim that I “know” or “understand” any of them—I don’t know how they would react in circumstances different from those operating in the novel; I have no predictive power concerning them.  I don’t “know” them the way I would claim to “know” my wife or a cousin or the couple who live across the street or a casual acquaintance from work, because the more-or-less random thoughts of a man rereading Sir Walter Scott or a boy contemplating a boat ride with his father gives me no sense that I could forecast their behavior if the man were to discover that he had lost his professorship or that his wife was unfaithful or if the boat were suddenly to sink.  Again, character is revealed by plot, not by the unhindered passage of ideas and feelings.  It is essentially, for good or ill, a moral quality.  And the novel which abandons plot for “character” of the type exhibited in Mrs. Woolf’s more celebrated works, has in effect abandoned both and is embarking on a different literary enterprise altogether.

As you have probably gathered by now, I regard the distinction between “literary” and “popular” fiction as unreal.  But this leaves us with a problem—how are we to tell good fiction from bad?  Or doesn’t it make a difference?

Of course it makes a difference.  Life is too short to be spent reading boring, hideous junk.  So how do we decide?

It seems to me that that at least part of the answer lies in freeing ourselves from the critical theories of the Modernist movement, at least insofar as they represent value judgments.  The distinctions which E.M. Forster draws are useful, but they shouldn’t be considered normative.

So what is normative?  Given the wide variety of responses people have to fiction, is it even possible to establish any standard for evaluating it?  Probably not.

Let me offer an example of the vagaries of taste.  For a period of about fifty years starting in the last decade of the 18th Century, Ann Radcliffe was the most popular novelist in English.  Jane Austen, who was no featherhead, loved her work, enough to be a subscriber to one of her novels.  Today she is little read except by academic specialists.  In graduate school I read The Mysteries of Udolpho, the novel that Jane Austen enjoyed enough to parody in Northanger Abbey, and it was excruciating.  I had to force my way through forty pages a day, and I was never so glad to finish a book in my life.

The inevitable conclusion is that critical judgments are to some degree rooted in time and place.  The early 19th Century was a very different world from our own, and out of the hundreds of novels that world produced only a handful can still be read with pleasure.

And pleasure is the key.  We don’t read novels and textbooks on economics for the same reasons.  A novel is a little vacation from everyday life and, as with any art form, a skillful performance is more entertaining than a bad one.

I would suggest that we return to the traditional practice of basing our judgments on how well we think the author has done his or her job, how much we enjoyed reading his or her work, and the sort of effect that work has on us.

But any standard, even if it is entirely personal, has to be derived from the reason we read fiction in the first place.  What are you looking for?  What does a novel give you?  What are the qualities of the novels we remember all our lives and take down from the shelf every three or four years to reread?

My own three favorite novels are Pride and Prejudice, Lord Jim and Madame BovaryPride and Prejudice is probably my absolute favorite, and I can’t reread it without being surprised all over again by the intricacy of this seemingly simple tale.  Up to the point where Lydia runs away with Wickham, we seem to be witnessing the calm stream of ordinary life, an effect heightened by the comic distance which is a key element of Jane Austen’s style.  And yet, in the end, we find both the characters and ourselves caught in a labyrinth constructed from human weakness and desire.  Darcy, Elizabeth and Mr. Bennett have taken up such comfortable residence in my imagination that I think of them precisely as if they were real people I actually know.  At least while one is reading Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen has managed to blur the line between fantasy and reality so much that it virtually disappears.  And yet, it all seems so effortless.

And the pleasure of reading fiction should also be effortless.  It is one of life’s little unearned rewards.  It is far better we go back to simply enjoying novels rather than pretending we are all connoisseurs.