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For three centuries, the novel was the literary genre that expressed and shaped the modern condition more than any other literary form. A long prose narrative that focused on the ordinary life of an ordinary person, the early novel was the perfect form to express the newly emerging autonomous, ambitious individual. Of course, since the novel’s beginnings in the early eighteenth century, many subgenres of the form have developed, as the novel proved to be one of the most flexible forms in literary history. Yet perhaps this ever-expanding quality of the form has helped to extinguish, not the novel itself, but its fixed place in our cultural discourse and identity.

In The Decline of the Novel (St. Augustine Press, 2019), Joseph Bottum considers the ways in which the once-powerful role novels that have played in our culture has declined. It’s not the writing, publishing, and reading of novels has declined. To the contrary. Novels—countless, endless novels—abound today. Rather it is that—for a variety of reasons—novels aren’t a unifying experience in our world anymore.

Here’s an excerpt of a recent review I wrote of Bottum’s book:

Channeling a long tradition of literary history and criticism of the novel, Bottum shows that this shift in the conception of the self is rooted in the theology of the Reformation, particularly in Protestantism’s emphasis on “the salvation and sanctification of the individual soul.” Understanding this connection between Protestantism and the novel form is helpful for Christians, not only in and of itself but also as a telling example of the way that one significant cultural artifact reflects the inseparability of the church and its surrounding culture.

The novel’s role was so central to the making of the modern age that its decline indicates, Bottum argues, “a genuine cultural crisis.” The form developed in an age characterized by shared belief in “progress”—the progress of the individual pilgrim on a spiritual journey, as well as the progress of a society made possible through such shared belief. For three centuries, novels were developed, written, and read by people who believed their culture was, as Bottum puts it, “called to something higher.” Thus novels were developed, written, and read by people who fought revolutions, regulated child labor, abolished the slave trade, expanded education for women and the poor, and expanded the right to vote beyond landowners. These events—and the novel itself—arose within a culture of generally agreed-upon norms. Indeed, the novel’s decline parallels the dissolution of such a unified set of values.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that novels aren’t being written or read. But today, the novel holds a less significant place in our shared culture: “You can read them if you want, but you don’t have to read them to participate in the serious discourse of America,” Bottum points out. (Indeed, do you have to read anything beyond Twitter to participate in the serious discourse of America today?)

You can read the rest of the review here.

Of course, in academia, we are accustomed to disciplines and fields of inquiry that are (or seem) disconnected from the culture at large. Our task is always, at least in part, to make real life connection to the lofty ideas to which we have devoted our lives.

For the Christian professor, this task is double. Not only do we strive to answer the question of “so what?” concerning our subject matter for life outside the academy, but even more importantly, we need to answer “so what?” for the things of the soul and kingdom. We need to help students see how our culture and therefore they themselves have been formed by cultural artifacts we may not even notice in ways they don’t readily see.

And, of course, the same is true for us, too. Such a recognition helps us understand the way the classroom is not only a formative, but also a unifying, experience within a culture ever-less unified.

Karen Swallow Prior

Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Karen Swallow Prior is Research Professor of English and Christianity and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. She is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me (T. S. Poetry Press, 2012), Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist (Thomas Nelson, 2014), and On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books (Brazos, 2018). Her writing has appeared at Christianity Today, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, First Things, Vox, Relevant, Think Christian, The Gospel Coalition, Books and Culture and other places.