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The Novel

The Novel

A Biography

Michael Schmidt

ISBN 9780674724730

Publication date: 05/12/2014

The 700-year history of the novel in English defies straightforward telling. Geographically and culturally boundless, with contributions from Great Britain, Ireland, America, Canada, Australia, India, the Caribbean, and Southern Africa; influenced by great novelists working in other languages; and encompassing a range of genres, the story of the novel in English unfolds like a richly varied landscape that invites exploration rather than a linear journey. In The Novel: A Biography, Michael Schmidt does full justice to its complexity.

Like his hero Ford Madox Ford in The March of Literature, Schmidt chooses as his traveling companions not critics or theorists but “artist practitioners,” men and women who feel “hot love” for the books they admire, and fulminate against those they dislike. It is their insights Schmidt cares about. Quoting from the letters, diaries, reviews, and essays of novelists and drawing on their biographies, Schmidt invites us into the creative dialogues between authors and between books, and suggests how these dialogues have shaped the development of the novel in English.

Schmidt believes there is something fundamentally subversive about art: he portrays the novel as a liberalizing force and a revolutionary stimulus. But whatever purpose the novel serves in a given era, a work endures not because of its subject, themes, political stance, or social aims but because of its language, its sheer invention, and its resistance to cliché—some irreducible quality that keeps readers coming back to its pages.

Praise

  • Given the fluidity with which [Schmidt] ranges across the canon (as well as quite a bit beyond it), one is tempted to say that he carries English literature inside his head as if it were a single poem, except that there are sections in The Novel on the major Continental influences, too—the French, the Russians, Cervantes, Kafka—so it isn’t only English. If anyone’s up for the job, it would seem to be him… Take a breath, clear the week, turn off the WiFi, and throw yourself in… The book, at its heart, is a long conversation about craft. The terms of discourse aren’t the classroom shibboleths of plot, character, and theme, but language, form, and address. Here is where we feel the force of Schmidt’s experience as an editor and a publisher as well as a novelist… Like no other art, not poetry or music on the one hand, not photography or movies on the other, [a novel] joins the self to the world, puts the self in the world, does the deep dive of interiority and surveils the social scope… [Novels] are also exceptionally good at representing subjectivity, at making us feel what it’s like to inhabit a character’s mind. Film and television, for all their glories as narrative and visual media, have still not gotten very far in that respect, nor is it easy to see how they might… Schmidt reminds us what’s at stake, for novels and their intercourse with selves. The Novel isn’t just a marvelous account of what the form can do; it is also a record, in the figure who appears in its pages, of what it can do to us. The book is a biography in that sense, too. Its protagonist is Schmidt himself, a single reader singularly reading.

    —William Deresiewicz, The Atlantic

Author

  • Michael Schmidt is Professor of Poetry at the University of Glasgow and a writer in residence at St John’s College, Cambridge. He is founder and editorial and managing director of Carcanet Press.

Book Details

  • 1200 pages
  • 6-3/8 x 10 inches
  • Belknap Press

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