The Novel: A Biography

The Novel: A Biography

by Michael Schmidt

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The 700-year history of the novel in English defies straightforward telling. Geographically and culturally boundless, with contributions from Great Britain, Ireland, America, Canada, Australia, India, the Caribbean, and Southern Africa; influenced by great novelists working in other languages; and encompassing a range of genres, the story of the novel in English


The 700-year history of the novel in English defies straightforward telling. Geographically and culturally boundless, with contributions from Great Britain, Ireland, America, Canada, Australia, India, the Caribbean, and Southern Africa; influenced by great novelists working in other languages; and encompassing a range of genres, the story of the novel in English unfolds like a richly varied landscape that invites exploration rather than a linear journey. In The Novel: A Biography, Michael Schmidt does full justice to its complexity.

Like his hero Ford Madox Ford in The March of Literature, Schmidt chooses as his traveling companions not critics or theorists but "artist practitioners," men and women who feel "hot love" for the books they admire, and fulminate against those they dislike. It is their insights Schmidt cares about. Quoting from the letters, diaries, reviews, and essays of novelists and drawing on their biographies, Schmidt invites us into the creative dialogues between authors and between books, and suggests how these dialogues have shaped the development of the novel in English.

Schmidt believes there is something fundamentally subversive about art: he portrays the novel as a liberalizing force and a revolutionary stimulus. But whatever purpose the novel serves in a given era, a work endures not because of its subject, themes, political stance, or social aims but because of its language, its sheer invention, and its resistance to cliché--some irreducible quality that keeps readers coming back to its pages.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - John Sutherland
…a herculean literary labor, carried off with swashbuckling style and critical aggression.
The Tablet - Alexander Lucie-Smith
I was left breathless at Michael Schmidt’s erudition and voracious appetite for reading.
Los Angeles Review of Books - Drew Calvert
In recent years, while the bookish among us were bracing ourselves for the bookless future, stowing our chapbooks and dog-eared novellas in secret underground bunkers, the poet and scholar Michael Schmidt was writing a profile of the novel. The feat itself is uplifting. Bulky without being dense or opaque, The Novel: A Biography belongs on the shelf near Ian Watt’s lucid The Rise of the Novel and Jane Smiley’s livelier user manual, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. Taking as his guide The March of Literature, Ford Madox Ford’s classic tour through the pleasures of serious reading, Schmidt steers clear of the canon wars and their farcical reenactments. He doesn’t settle the question of whether Middlemarch makes us better people. He isn’t worried about “trigger warnings.” And he doesn’t care that a Stanford professor is actively not reading books. Instead, with humor and keen insight, he gives us the story of the novel as told by practitioners of the form. The book is meant for ordinary readers, whose interest is not the death of theory or the rise of program fiction, but what Schmidt calls, in a memorable line, ‘our hunger for experience transformed.'
Times Literary Supplement - Lindsay Duguid
The title and the length of Michael Schmidt’s book promise something more than an annotated chronology. This is not a rise of, nor an aspects of, nor even a theory of, the novel, but a nuanced account of the development of an innovative form…Schmidt’s preferences are strong and warm. He admires a range of authors from Thomas Love Peacock and Walter Scott to Anthony Burgess and Peter Carey…The Novel: A Biography incidentally provides the material for one to make a personal re-reading list.
Times Higher Education - Robert Eaglestone
[Schmidt] has written what claims to be a ‘biography’ of the novel. It isn’t. It’s something much more peculiar and interesting…Illuminating and fascinating. And because the book makes no pretense to objectivity, the prose is engaging and witty…[A] marvelous book…If there is a future for encyclopedic books ‘after’ the internet, this is a model of how it should be done.
New York Times Book Review - John Sutherland
[Schmidt] reads so intelligently and writes so pungently…Schmidt’s achievement: a herculean literary labor, carried off with swashbuckling style and critical aggression.
The Millions - Jonathan Russell Clark
The Novel is one of the most important works of both literary history and criticism to be published in the last decade…The reason Schmidt’s book is so effective and important has to do with its approach, its scope, and its artistry, which all come together to produce a book of such varied usefulness, such compact wisdom, that it’ll take a lot more than a few reviews to fully understand its brilliant contribution to literary study…Here, collected in one place, we have the largest repository of the greatest novelists’ opinions and views on other novelists. It would take the rest of us going through countless letters and essays and interviews with all these writers to achieve such a feat. Schmidt has done us all a great, great favor…Maybe the most complete history of the novel in English ever produced…[A] multitudinous achievement…Schmidt [is] an uncannily astute critic…Schmidt’s masterpiece…Schmidt’s writing is a triumph of critical acumen and aesthetic elegance…[The Novel] is a monumental achievement, in its historical importance and its stylistic beauty…It is, itself, a work of art, just as vital and remarkable as the many works it chronicles.
New Statesman - Rowan Williams
A wonderful, opinionated and encyclopedic book that threatens to drive you to a lifetime of rereading books you thought you knew and discovering books you know you don’t.
Wall Street Journal - Brenda Wineapple
If you want your books a bit quieter and more extensive chronologically, then do try poet Michael Schmidt’s 700-year history of the novel, The Novel: A Biography, which covers the rise and relevance of the novel and its community of booklovers in a delightful tale, not at all twice-told, that reminds us of exactly why we read.
Open Letters Monthly - Stephen Akewy
Show[s] how much is to be gained by the application of unfettered intelligence to the study of literature…Schmidt seems to have read every novel ever published in English…This is as sensitive an appreciation of Fielding’s style (all those essayistic addresses to the reader that introduce each of the eighteen books of Tom Jones) as any I’ve ever read. And what Schmidt does for Fielding he does equally well for Ford Madox Ford, Mary Shelley, and (by my count) about 347 others…[Schmidt’s] sensibilities are wholly to be trusted.
Daily Beast - Nick Romeo
[Schmidt] is a wonderful and penetrating critic, lucid and insightful about a dizzying range of novelists.
Literary Review - Frederic Raphael
The Novel: A Biography is a marvel of sustained attention, responsiveness, tolerance and intelligence…It is Schmidt’s triumph that one reads on and on without being bored or annoyed by his keen generosity. Any young person hot for literature would be wise to take this fat, though never obese, volume as an all-in-one course in how and what to read. Then, rather than spend three years picking up the opinions of current academics, the apprentice novelist can learn a foreign language or two, listen, look and then go on his or her travels, wheeling this book as vade mecum.
Stanley Moss
I toast a certainty—the long and fruitful life of poet, critic, and scholar Michael Schmidt’s book, The Novel: A Biography. Readers for generations will listen through Schmidt’s ear to thrilling conversations, novelist to novelist, and walk guided by Schmidt through these 1200 pages of his joyful and wise understanding.
Marina Warner
Michael Schmidt is one of literature’s most ambitious champions, riding out against the naysayers, the indifferent, and the purse holders, determined to enlarge readers’ vision and rouse us all to pay attention. Were it not for his rich and adventurous catalogue of publications at Carcanet Press, and the efforts of a few other brave spirits at other small presses (such as Bloodaxe Books) the landscape of poetry in the U.K. would be depopulated, if not desolate. He has now turned his prodigious energies to telling the story of the novel’s transformation through time: a Bildungsroman of the genre from a persevering and unappeasable lover.
The Atlantic - William Deresiewicz
Given the fluidity with which [Schmidt] ranges across the canon (as well as quite a bit beyond it), one is tempted to say that he carries English literature inside his head as if it were a single poem, except that there are sections in The Novel on the major Continental influences, too—the French, the Russians, Cervantes, Kafka—so it isn’t only English. If anyone’s up for the job, it would seem to be him… Take a breath, clear the week, turn off the WiFi, and throw yourself in… The book, at its heart, is a long conversation about craft. The terms of discourse aren’t the classroom shibboleths of plot, character, and theme, but language, form, and address. Here is where we feel the force of Schmidt’s experience as an editor and a publisher as well as a novelist… Like no other art, not poetry or music on the one hand, not photography or movies on the other, [a novel] joins the self to the world, puts the self in the world, does the deep dive of interiority and surveils the social scope… [Novels] are also exceptionally good at representing subjectivity, at making us feel what it’s like to inhabit a character’s mind. Film and television, for all their glories as narrative and visual media, have still not gotten very far in that respect, nor is it easy to see how they might… Schmidt reminds us what’s at stake, for novels and their intercourse with selves. The Novel isn’t just a marvelous account of what the form can do; it is also a record, in the figure who appears in its pages, of what it can do to us. The book is a biography in that sense, too. Its protagonist is Schmidt himself, a single reader singularly reading.
Books & Culture - Karen Swallow Prior
Rare in contemporary literary criticism is the scholar who betrays a love for literature… How refreshing, then, to encounter in Michael Schmidt’s The Novel: A Biography not a theory of the novel, but a life. And what a life it is…Schmidt arranges his examination both chronologically and thematically, taking into account the influences and developments that have shaped the novel for hundreds of years. The Novel is at once encyclopedia, history, and ‘biography.’…[Schmidt’s] lyrical prose weaves together literary analysis, biography, and cultural criticism…Another delightful aspect of The Novel consists of the surprising and insightful connections Schmidt finds among writers…The Novel is more revelatory (and interesting) than a merely chronological account would be.
Library Journal
Schmidt (poetry, Univ. of Glasgow; writer in residence, St. John's Coll., Cambridge; Lives of the Poets) presents what he terms a "brief" life of the novel in English, from its origins in the 14th century through 2000. Included are writers from virtually all English-speaking countries and chapters on French and Russian novelists whose works have influenced those in English. The editions Schmidt examines "ask to be reread and become living parts of memory that affect how we hear, speak, see, feel, and act"; he also discusses books that provide sources and contexts for them or that imitate them. The content consists largely of quotations from later authors commenting on earlier ones to whom they feel a connection e.g., Muriel Spark on Mary Shelley and D.H. Lawrence on Herman Melville. Biographical details are included to the extent that they are germane to the writer's work. The volume also includes a detailed time line of major authors and their works from the 13th through 20th centuries. VERDICT The breadth and length of this book limit its interest to serious students of literature. However, the lack of citations for works quoted and of a bibliography are drawbacks for those wishing to do further research.—Denise J. Stankovics, formerly with Rockville P.L., CT
Kirkus Reviews
Writers, reading, invigorate the novel. That is both the theme and plot of Schmidt's (Poetry/Glasgow Univ.; The Stories of My Life, 2013, etc.) encyclopedic compendium tracing the novel over 700 years. The author sees the genre as alive and evolving, capacious enough to include such writers as Mulk Raj Anand, an Indian émigré to England, whose work Schmidt does not much admire; the prolific Irish writer Ethel Mannin; and Guyanese writer Wilson Harris, read by Derek Walcott and Anthony Burgess but not many others. Schmidt considers his subjects more or less chronologically for half the book, gathering contemporaries who read one another: Hawthorne, Melville and Stowe, for example; and Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, Charles Brockden Brown and other practitioners of what Schmidt calls "The Eerie," as distinct from, in another chapter, the Brontë sisters and their Gothic romances. The second half of the book is impressionistic, as Schmidt creates "a dialogue" among writers and their works. A chapter on "Portraits and Caricatures of the Artist" includes Joyce, Beckett, Burgess and Barthelme; "Tone and Register" ranges from Virginia Woolf to Jeanette Winterson. Along the way, readers will learn that Woolf was dismissive of Maria Edgeworth, whom she considered too demure; that Gertrude Stein could not abide James Joyce; and that pretty much everyone was in thrall to Henry James—Truman Capote praised him as "the maestro of the semicolon." As commodious as this book is, at more than 1,100 pages, the selections and groupings seem arbitrary, as does Schmidt's selection of writers' comments. Writers are famously voracious readers, and some were frequent reviewers; often, they mention novels in their letters, memoirs and diaries. Schmidt, apparently, has read them all. "I set out to write this book without an overarching theory of the novel," Schmidt admits. "I had no point to prove." He does, however, prove his wide-ranging reading tastes, his ability to weave a colorful literary tapestry and his conviction that the novel is irrepressible.

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Meet the Author

Michael Schmidt is Professor of Poetry at the University of Glasgow and a writer in residence at St John’s College, Cambridge. He is founder and editorial and managing director of Carcanet Press.

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