You Mean It’s Not Dead?

NovelsThe New York Times has introduced me to the newest book by Michael Schmidt, The Novel. John Sutherland does the review titled, You Mean It’s Not Dead? This is just a portion of the review and I recommend that you read the full review. On the other hand, do we need another compilation which makes it easier to say one has read the novel when the comments in Schmidt’s book may fool almost everyone at the Craft Beer and Exotic Nachos party on Saturday night?

Do we put this tome alongside 1001 Books You Must Read Before Dying and who will publish this list on the internet so I don’t have to type it in myself?

Michael Schmidt’s 1,172 pages encompass similarly big numbers. Seven hundred years of fiction are chronicled, hundreds of novelists looked at, and even more novels summarized. The biggest number of all, which can only be guessed at, wincingly, is how many hours of reading this intrepid book distills between its straining covers. Schmidt reveres Cervantes as one of the fathers of modern fiction, and there is something quixotic about Schmidt’s own enterprise. As the French general Bosquet said, watching the charge of the Light Brigade into the valley of death, “C’est magnifique.” But, to paraphrase the second half of his tribute, “Ce n’est pas la critique littéraire.” It is not literary criticism — at least not the currently approved kind that gets you a Ph.D., tenure and an endowed chair.

Although he has attachments to various universities, Schmidt is a citizen of the “real” literary world. He is a poet, an occasional novelist, an indefatigable publisher and editor. The Carcanet Press and PN Review, both of which he helped found and still edits, have propagated, in a contrarian spirit, the kind of literature he particularly relishes. This new volume can be seen as the partnering bookend to his similarly polemical and expansive 1998 offering, “Lives of the Poets.” …

Schmidt’s survey starts obliquely with proto-fiction like Mandeville’s “Travels” and John Foxe’s “Book of Martyrs.” He gets into his stride with John Bunyan and Daniel Defoe. Thereafter the pattern is set: some prefatory musing, followed by crisp biographical summary, interspersed with capsule summaries of the significant novels. Groups of authors are corralled, by chapter, into loosely labeled herds. “Enchantment and Disenchantment,” for example, has Vladimir Nabokov, Ayn Rand, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Muriel Spark, Jonathan Franzen and almost a dozen others rubbing flanks.

Doubtless Schmidt, like many authors, had difficulties with his title. “Usual Subjects” probably didn’t cross his mind, but it may well cross the reader’s. There are no great surprises here. For those who make it in, Schmidt seldom hazards any outright value judgment.

I realize that Schmidt is not interested in the opinions of Harold Bloom (see why) but at least Bloom regularly passes value judgments … his own personal opinions, but then, he is The Venerable Bloom.

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