A Novel Medium

4 Jul

The late capitalist novel or the latte novel

Post-nineties, a new novel has come into vogue, as is evident from the homage it regularly receives from reviewers at NY Times and other prominent publications, a novel full of superfluous pseudo-intelligent text. It is the novel by the smart aleck. A novel that is full of ‘accomplished’ froth which bubbles over the latte lifestyles and spills over in shape of words on Apple Macintosh screens in urban cafés. It is a novel that achieves nothing except provide passing entertainment to readers who are sure to chuckle at each of its clichéd witticisms and identify with each of its ‘cultural’ references.

It is a novel created by a novelist gamboling in the lush verdant fields of ‘self-absorption’ (Chaste’s partner) while pecking on the honeyed pleasures of his own intelligence, sophisticated ‘unconscious’ salesmanship, and the ‘insights’ that come from two-penny thinking. This novel, my dear sirs, and madams is an ode to you – you as in those who choose to read it. The novel will coddle you with its accessible pseudo-intelligent dialog, bring a smile via its accessible witticisms, allow you to share a wink through bankrupts ‘cultural’ references, and it will leave you flush with giddy thoughts. Isn’t pseudo-sophisticated witticism the epitome of culture? And aren’t you one of the chosen cultural savants, having been nursed at the breast of it.

Novel and the novelist

Every medium imposes its own limitations, strengths, and temptations, on those who choose to use it. The novel, due to its endless mutability, its loosely defined borders, its complete dependency on the novelist, provides enormous temptations to the novelists to indulge in self-absorption, unbridled subjectivism, and poorly thought out analysis. A novel is an intimate medium, and a fair number of authors use it to exorcise their own psychological traumas by imbuing one or more characters with their own psychological scars and exacting vengeance on their perceived perpetrators. A novel then becomes an exercise in validating oneself, reveling in the position of the ‘wronged’ character, and showing the depravity of the straw man ‘other’. Sometimes assigning blame for psychological trauma turns into a faux-sociological study leading to even more indefensible perversions. Chaste provides a wonderful example of the same in Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham- Philip Carey’s character is largely autobiographical with his club foot a substitute for Maugham’s stutter and closet homosexual status. Then there is Mildred, a common shop girl, who declines in status every time we meet her anew – from a struggling shop girl to a prostitute with syphilis. Chaste argues that Maugham uses Mildred’s debasement as a way to come to terms with the trauma that he had to suffer from at the hands of his peers. He transfers all of that angst onto a working-class girl than the middle-class women, at whose hands he most probably suffered. Hence while a novel is a mistake in the hands of a buffoon, it is more so in the hands of an unscrupulous but skilled novelist.

To produce a good novel, a writer not only needs to forgo the temptations, he needs to dig deeper into self with unblinking honesty and careful introspection. It demands a deeper understanding of self and the society to deliver that understanding through a novel. A good novelist is at once a good psychologist, sociologist, and anthropologist or at least one of them. The strength of the novel is in its ability to deliver a version of reality that simultaneously increases our understanding of the world around us, and makes us empathetic to the numerous psychological pitfalls that hem the human condition.


People often write because they can and not because they have something valuable to say. The increased ease of getting published, the fascination with seeing one’s name in print, all goad mediocre writers to publish and inflict their mediocrity on us. Of course, mediocrity, if it has certain attributes, is infinitely marketable to the undiscerning hordes. More disconcertingly however and as I mention above even the elite crack brigade of novels, as ordained by the reigning cognoscenti, is increasingly a thinly varnished version of the piddling.

Perhaps more than the end of the novel, the sensibility and the ethic which defined a great novel is coming to an end. And that is indeed sad.