Most novelists work in a formal tradition so conservative as to feel like second nature, and fiction as practiced as an art form over the almost two centuries since Austen and Stendhal has altered strikingly little in comparison with painting and sculpture, popular as well as classical music, poetry and even the theater, not to mention the young arts of photography and film. Considered as a form, the novel is not very accommodating to the new, and probably the most recent book to change the practice of novelists in general was Madame Bovary; it begins with Flaubert that today most writers suppress direct authorial commentary and avail themselves on occasion of free indirect discourse.
We can recognize something we might call the perennial novel. Mixing description of the world, ostensibly realistic dialogue, and psychological insight in proportions that now seem classical, and written in an often elevated but always familiar version of the language of the day, the perennial novel situates plausible human characters in a relatively narrow segment of a known society (our own or a historical one) and chronicles its protagonist’s defeat by or emergence from a crisis. There is little or no essayistic component to the prose. The author may allow for a touch of allegory, but that aspect can never dominate as it does in Bunyan’s or Sidney’s prose romances or some of Conrad’s shorter novels or all of Saramago’s full-length ones. Symbols may be present, but can never loom in concentrated form above the narrative (as with Kafka’s castle) or flourish in baroque profusion (as with the ecclesiastical imagery in Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree). Likewise, the perennial novel would turn into something else if its descriptions ever attained the promiscuous exactitude of Claude Simon or Robbe-Grillet, if it were ever overrun by naturalistic speech as in Henry Green or William Gaddis, or if it ventured such speculative and exhaustive forays into psychology as Proust’s or Musil’s. Its signature, again, is a classical-seeming disposition of these elements, even as their proportions shift over time.
The perennial novel does not yet openly sabotage its verisimilitude in the way of much postmodernism; it seems unlikely it ever will. But its fidelity is to realism rather than reality. Describe the sensuously available world with too much accuracy, listen to speech with too keen an ear, or track the progress of a thought or an emotion too minutely and you will have immediately violated the canons of realism, as you will also have done if you leave your plot hanging too completely open at the end. And morally, too, the perennial novel tends toward a sort of stealth stylization; its apportionment of good and evil traits among its characters adheres, even now, much more to narrative tradition than to the actual distribution of virtue in the world. This is especially true of so-called genre fiction, but true enough of the perennial novel as a whole. Even the avowedly realist novel derives its realism from conventions at least as much as its conventions from reality. Its natural mode is thus to be an unconscious pastiche of itself.
Of course bad and mediocre novels belong overwhelmingly to the slow-cooking culture of the perennial novel; but who besides an ideologue feels that the mode debars greatness? There is the perennial novel and then there is another kind of novel (on which more in a moment), but these categories don’t exactly correspond to high and low. Amid abundant perennial mediocrity, many impressive but formally unadventurous novels still get written, distinguished by the acuteness of perception and insight that somehow manages to elude the snares of realist convention. Very often the novelist’s acuteness seems involved with the introduction of literally novel subject matter; an uncontroversial example might be the Indian diaspora of V. S. Naipaul’s Trinidad, rarely if ever treated in fiction before The Mystic Masseur. Even John Updike’s suburban rounds of adultery, material that today seems hardly to permit anything but a hackneyed treatment, was fresh and new (Updike might say “nubile”) in the first decades after Levittown and the Kinsey Report. And in both A House for Mr. Biswas and Rabbit, Run, to use these examples only for their convenience, we can note the coincidence—which probably isn’t one—of an acute visual sense with a notable refusal of sentimentality; we feel that the writer is being, in both senses of the term, clear-eyed.