Superior to Saint, Scientist, Philosopher, and Poet?

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3 books that damaged the prestige of Communism

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The novel provides “truths of an important kind unavailable elsewhere.”

Joseph Epstein

Who is superior to the saint, the scientist, the philosopher, and the poet?

The novelist writes D.H. Lawrence, because the others are “masters of different bits of man alive, but never get the whole hog.”*

Reading important novels enriches life through the exploration of fate and revelation, moral conflict, and ultimate truths. Such an experience is unique to fiction, more specifically, to great fiction.

The decline of the novel--the serious book worthy of re-reading–Joseph Epstein argues, is a result of a digital age punctuated with endless distraction, political correctness, creative writing programs, the current publishing industry, the graphic novel, and worst of all, what he calls the new therapeutic culture. This trend, or triumph as Philip Rieff writes in his 1966 book, is nothing new.

…we are no longer living in a culture where honor and dignity, courage and kindness, are primary, but instead in one in which self-esteem and self-gratification are the chief goals.

The Novel, Who Needs It? p. 97. Epstein on Reiff’s book, The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1966)

God help us. I have sadly found this common in contemporary writing, especially in works festooned with glowing reviews and awards. The story goes along, we meet the characters, then a jab, another jab, eventually an over-the-head whack with the psychobabble-du-jour and the author’s message.

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So, what then makes a novel great?

Definitions abound on this with the final measure of taste going to the reader. Critics have pontificated. One suggests simply: a good book must be interesting, memorable, and re-readable. Works for me, as “interesting” means that I learn about the world, compelling characters, and a good story. Such a novel lets me see characters change AND, as a result, how I change by the time I’m finished the book.

I have “grown” into nonfiction in recent years. Why? because I believe truth is stranger than fiction.** And I like reading about factual stories, real events, and learning what the author believes and how she has lived. I have begun to second-guess this belief and broaden my thinking, or my attitude, at the very least. I credit or blame–depending on how you view it–this to the pivotal essay and book Epstein wrote, The Novel, Who Needs It?

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Epstein argues that the novel is superior to all other forms of writing. Only the fiction writer, the novelist can get inside the head of every character, have ominiscient narration. Readers can know characters better than anyone, better than they know their family or friends. You may learn new information and gain knowledge from nonfiction. And, yet….

To learn the highest truths, to learn about humanity, what it is that makes us feeble, strong, angry, remorseful, to experience the intimacy of human connection, and relationships to place and culture and time, the interweaving of our lives to each other and the role of destiny . . . that can only come from the novel.

That said, the novel means nothing if the story is not tied to moral conflict. Here’s where Epstein and literature programs face the P.C.–politcally correct–firing squad. Who then makes the list of serious novelists, great books, or works worthy of re-reading?

Who is the arbiter of such a canon, you ask, and how do I get on with enriching my life and taking to task with immediacy my personal education and growth?

Well, look no further for the best judge of all: Time. Consider the original book. Epstein writes:

Apart from those who insist on a literal reading of it, the Bible itself may be viewed as a great novel, perhaps the greatest ever written, with its first part, The Old Testament, a grand family-chronicle novel, the second part, The New Testament, a picareseque, or work dominated by the adventures of a single hero.

(Epstein, p. 5)

The novel is a story of love and fate, whose author must produce a successful illusion of reality. And, it must be more than simple escape or pleasure.

… the best novels elude all isms [naturalism, realism, symbolism] and are centered on moral conflict. Sometimes this conflict is between the public and private lives of its characters, sometimes between desire and righteousness, sometimes between duty and freedom. The possibilities and permutations are endless, which has given the novel its incontestable richness.

Epstein (quoting from Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel), p. 54

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OK, you concede. Where to start?

Epstein discusses why this author and not that one, suggesting that the best American novelist is Willa Cather. His canon includes the great Russians and Jane Austen, Proust and Edith Wharton. He lists numerous lesser-knowns, but scant few contemporary writers. Years ago Epstein reviewed books and most of the notables have not lasted–that is, continued to be read–in the 35 intervening years.

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Epstein shares his own canon of the novelists that would be included

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What makes Epstein compelling is his humility and generosity of spirit, his sense of humor, his breadth of experience. Though I may or may not agree with him on some points, the ideas resonate on a deep level.

Read the best novels you can find to learn, to empathize and to grow. In the process, acquire a more complex understanding of humanity, of life’s mysteries, its meaning, and its point. And reading these authors is to plum the truths of the imagination and of the heart. (Epstein, p. 126)

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Is the novelist superior?

Is the novelist superior to those most vaulted of personages: saint and scientist, philosopher and poet? Whether or not you believe this, there is good reason to agree that the novel is one of humanity’s highest achievements.

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Reading superior novels–novels by Cervantes, Jane Austen, Balzac, Tolstoy, Dickens, Dostoevsky, George Eliot, Stendhal, Proust, Robert Musil, Willa Cather, and others–arouse the mind in a way that nothing else quite does.

Epstein, p. 5.

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One final point illustrates the superior nature of the novel. The serious novel investigates ideas and often “finds them wanting, sometimes helping to kill them.” Consider these: Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

These three novels did more damage to the prestige of Communism than any straightforward polemic or personal account of the hell of living under that cruel system of govenment.

Epstein, p.124

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FOOTNOTES

*Joseph Epstein. The Novel, Who Needs It? (Encounter Books, 2023). A huge shout-out to Nancy who got me on to this gem and may even have stirred up interest in my reading group. How to pick serious and good books is its mission after all, if not friendship. The modern equivalent of Bible Study, such fellowship and enrichment over reading broaden our lot in life and the sobering realities of the day-to-day. Oh to read of another’s day-to-day and her triumphs, failures, frustrations, friendships. Thank you Mr. Epstein.

*The full quote from D.H. Lawrence is the second of two epigraphs which open Epstein’s essay / book. The first is a quote by Thomas Jefferson which argues that novels or a passion for them is a significant obstacle to a good eduction; that said, he finishes with a distinction made for some few narratives. These are, no doubt, the very type of novel Epstein discusses. Here is the opening quote of this letter in full.

I am man alive, and as long as I can, I intend to go on being man alive …. For this reason I am a novelist. And being a novelist, I consider myself superior to the saint, the scientist, the philospher, and the poet, who are all great masters of different bits of man alive, but never get the whole hog.

“Why the Novel Matters” (1936) by D.H. Lawrence

**At mid-life I have begun to read more nonfiction, especially creative or literary nonfiction. Epstein’s classic approach to this book opens with his thesis that novels as a genre are superior, which as a CNF (creative nonfiction) writer I found off-putting. On the defensive, I noted in the margins points of difference and weakness in his argument. He begins the essay with a mockery of novels by those who have a strong preference for truth. Hallo Hallo, tis me he wants to convince! Yet, he believes that fiction is ‘truer’ than nonfiction and litle by little, I came around to respect his thesis. I could push back on him as it relates to great humans and their memoirs. Getting inside the minds of such people is on equal footing with the best novels, this reader believes. Think of St. Augustine’s Confessions, Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, Grant’s Memoirs, etc. . .

**Solzhenitsyn and the Gulag – A Russian Novel About Your Life – I wrote this TreeHousLetter when I read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denosivich four years ago. Follow the link to read why this short work is a classic. Here is how my letter ends:

IN CLOSING, what makes a novel a classic is its ability to connect people across cultures and time. Solzhenitsyn’s military service, his struggle and ultimate survival in the labor camps, his exile, and his simple writing style, give his work its authenticity. In the book’s forward, the poet and editor Alexander Tvardovsky writes that the peasant’s voice, the everyday ordinariness and the fidelity to the great truths of life, these “awaken corresponding virtues in the author’s writing. . . it [the book] is least of all concerned with itself and is therefore full of an inner dignity and force.”

Feb 13, 2024

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About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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