Social Formalism: The Novel in Theory from Henry James to the Present

Social Formalism: The Novel in Theory from Henry James to the Present

Social Formalism: The Novel in Theory from Henry James to the Present

Social Formalism: The Novel in Theory from Henry James to the Present


In recent decades, literary critics have praised novel theory for abandoning its formalist roots and defining the novel as a vehicle of social discourse. The old school of novel theory has long been associated with Henry James; the new school allies itself with the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin. In this book, the author argues that actually it was the compatibility of Bakhtin with James that prompted Anglo-American theorists to embrace Bakhtin with such enthusiasm. Far from rejecting James, in other words, recent novel theorists have only refined James's foundational recharacterization of the novel as the genre that does not simply represent identity through its content but actually instantiates it through its form.

Social Formalism demonstrates the persistence of James's theoretical assumptions from his writings and those of his disciple Percy Lubbock through the critique of Jamesian theory by Roland Barthes, Wayne Booth, and Gerard Genette to the current Anglo-American assimilation of Bakhtin. It also traces the expansion of James's influence, as mediated by Bakhtin, into cultural and literary theory. Jamesian social formalism is shown to help determine the widely influential theories of minority identity expounded by such important cultural critics as Barbara Johnson and Henry Louis Gates. Social Formalism thus explains why a tradition that began by defining novelistic value as the formal instantiation of identity ends by defining minority political empowerment as aestheticized self-representation.


The refinements of the art of fiction have been accepted without question, or at most have been classified roughly and summarily-- as is proved by the singular poverty of our critical vocabulary, as soon as we pass beyond the simplest and plainest effects. the expressions and the phrases at our disposal bear no defined, delimited meanings; they have not been rounded and hardened by passing constantly from one critic's hand to another's.

--Percy Lubbock, The Craft of Fiction (1921)

Anyone who has begun the study of fiction has encountered terms like point of view, flashback, omniscient narrator, third-person narrative. One can't describe the techniques of a novel without such terms, any more than one can describe the workings of a car without the appropriate technical vocabulary. But while someone who wanted to learn about cars would have no trouble finding a manual, there is no comparable work for the student of literature.

--Jonathan Culler, Foreword to Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse (1980)

These essays take the nineteenth-century novel seriously by not treating it as privileged--by directing attention, in other words, to the language and systems of representation that it shared with the wider culture, and to the more or less open ways in which it participated in that culture. If the authors are not as obviously engaged with the poetics of fiction as they might have been a decade ago, they are perhaps more alert to the fictiveness of discourse generally, and to the anxieties that any fiction may manipulate and conceal.

--Ruth Bernard Yeazell, Sex, Politics, and Science in the Nineteenth-Century Novel (1986)

Narratology is, after all, as I hope I have made clear, here and there, just another narrative, not only extradiegetic, metalinguistic, transtextual, paratextual, hypotextual, extratextual, intertextual, etc. but also, yes, textual, all at the same time. Nevertheless, the study of narratological phenomena became, as so often happens, an endless discussion about how to speak of them.

--Christine Brooke-Rose, Whatever Happened to Narratology? (1990) . . .

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