The argument Kathleen Fitzpatrick makes in The Anxiety of Obsolescence is one of the better responses I’ve encountered to the common cultural complaint about the death of the novel. Her argument is that this complaint is an attempt to “separate the book from that [television/Internet-addicted] public, to create in its supposed obsolescence a minority of devoted readers who are that much more devoted because they understand that they are a minority.” This comes from a belief that “[w]hat will save the novel is thus not a return to the cultural center but an entrenchment on the edges, in which the cachet of marginality serves to create a protected space within which the novel can continue as art by restricting itself to those few readers equipped to appreciate it” (5). Fitzpatrick’s argument is a really solid one, and certainly explains the attractiveness of that complaint, especially for the ‘marginalized’ writers like Franzen who have become the most visible mouthpieces for the complaint.
But I wonder if we might be more careful than Fitzpatrick about a certain part of this argument. Fitzpatrick opens the paragraph that immediately follows those sentences quoted above in this way: “This elitism, however, is usually confined to the subtext of such discussions of the novel’s obsolescence” (5). My question is about Fitzpatrick’s immediate accusation of ‘elitism.’ What is it about the move to ‘entrench’ the novel in the margins of society that is elitist? There certainly can be a valence of elitism in this argument—I wouldn’t deny that. But Fitzpatrick seems to assume very quickly that the desire to mark out and make visible a smaller public that is interested in ‘the novel’ is necessarily elitist simply because it embraces its marginality. But it’s not the marginality of it that makes it elitist, and that’s where I think we should be more careful. What’s elitist about the argument (and specifically, where there’s elitism very definitely in Franzen’s “Why Bother?”) is in the moment when this recognition of marginality is combined with a notion that this minority that is interested in ‘the novel’ (or ‘high art’) is better than the debased public who isn’t interested in such concerns—this becomes especially and more problematically elitist when the qualities that mark the minority are then solidified as qualities that pre-exist and define this minority, that separates this minority fundamentally from those who are not in it.
This recognition that those who are interested in ‘the novel’ represent a minority of the public, that the novel does not operate at the center of culture, does not have to entail this elitism, though, and rather than simply call it out as elitist in order to dismiss it, I think it might be more useful to draw out those aspects of the argument that are not elitist. Part of my desire for this is that I would more or less align myself with the type of person who believes there is something uniquely of value in what Franzen calls ‘the social novel,’ and I believe that part of understanding this value probably does involve recognizing a distinct cultural space in which such an art form operates—and purely as a practical matter, part of recognizing that space must include recognizing that people who are interested in such a thing do not represent the majority of people in our society.