Contemporary writers are reimagining how we think about family lifeby Jane Shilling / July 16, 2015 / Leave a comment
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Sad people who do not know what they want in life, Leo Tolstoy remarked on reading Ivan Turgenev’s novel On the Eve, should not write novels. But without melancholy and confusion, where would fiction be? No literary genre is more haunted by self-doubt than the novel—but only the novel affronts the minutiae of existence with such subversive particularity. If the heroic and sublime are the stuff of drama and poetry, fiction seeks transcendence in the quotidian.
Yet this project—at once modest and disturbing—has always attracted hostility, both from critics, who have accused the novel of everything from immorality to insignificance and, perversely, from novelists themselves. From Tolstoy’s gibe at Turgenev to Will Self’s lofty characterisation of Joanna Trollope as “a lower middlebrow novelist who has just enough sophistication to convince her readership they are getting an upper-middlebrow product,” the intellectually superior love to anathematise domestic fiction as the opium of the reading classes.
In her 1920s essay on modern fiction, Virginia Woolf compared the development of the novel with that of technology—the one a steady, coherent advance; the other a looping, digressive journey, as wayward as the trajectory of Corporal Trim’s stick in Tristram Shandy. “It is doubtful,” Woolf wrote, “whether in the course of the centuries, though we have learnt much about making machines, we have learnt anything about making literature. We do not come to write better; all that we can be said to do is to keep moving, now a little in this direction, now in that, but with a circular tendency should the whole course of the track be viewed from a sufficiently lofty pinnacle.”
No fictional genre more eloquently exemplifies this circular tendency than the domestic novel. Marginalised, neglected and patronised, the fiction of small incidents and family life is regularly rediscovered—often with exclamations of astonishment at its quiet excellence from the same people who were once disposed to ignore or dismiss it. The exhilaration of rediscovery is invariably accompanied by a tendency to regard the new-found oeuvre as though it were a species of literary unicorn: unique and without precedent rather than a creative reinvention of a genre whose subversions are no less devastating for…