In December I read the WSJ’s many pages of somebodies telling what they had read in 2023. I recognized few names of these important persons or the books they read (scant fiction). Then I reached Jonathan Eig. I didn’t recognize his name, but his opening grabbed me.
“I read a bunch of big books and one especially small book this year. The big books included novels by Leo Tolstoy, George Eliot, and Willa Cather.” The small book, The Novel, Who Needs It by Joseph Epstein, helped me better understand the big books.”
As luck would have it, a generous friend who gives me her WSJ Review each week, had noticed Eig’s comment. What did this magnanimous friend give me for Christmas? Joseph Epstein’s latest book. The fact is I’ve long admired this writer and often used his essays in college composition classes. Jonathan Eig calls Epstein a maker of sentences so fine that “I stop all too often, googly-eyed, to admire their construction.” For anyone addicted to texting, this claim might seem preposterous. What? Care about sentences? Use semi-colons. Develop paragraphs?
What point does Joseph Epstein make, and why does his book matter? Eig summarizes Epstein’s larger point this way: Novels have the power to explore the mysteries of the human heart and can be considered the ultimate truth-tellers.
Or as Picasso said (if I recall the quote correctly), “Art is a lie by which the truth is told.” That’s perfect for the fictional world of the novel.
Yet please understand that Epstein is talking about “superior” novels, by authors of big books. Think of the three novelists that Eig read in 2023. We’re not talking size, necessarily. I note Cather’s Death Comes to the Archbishop is under 300 pages.
And Epstein in 126 pages has a lot to say. He believes superior novels give a complex view of life and its mystery. If we lose the novel, he argues, we subsist on current-day philosophy, social sciences, pop psychology, and high-flown journalism. All of which, I add, were named on page after page in the WSJ’s Review section, until I reached Jonathan Eig on novels. Epstein states the novel is a literary genre that seeks to discover the deeper truths of imagination, human-nature, and the heart.
The question in his book’s title is one to ponder. Epstein concludes his book by claiming that in our age of distraction, we need superior novels more than ever. He is not talking about darlings of the New York publishing world, novels promoting S & S (sop and sap) for ladies in social book clubs. The happy enders, Flannery O’Connor called them! Yes, I generalize unfairly! But as Walt Whitman wrote so long ago, “To have great poets, you must have great audiences.” Change poets to novelists and the message is the same.
Next week, a list of eight serious novels for the RCC-RILL book club’s second year.