The Great [National] Novel

When Capital was published in Great Britain earlier this year, it was immediately heralded as the first important novel about the recent financial crisis. And this made sense since its author, John ...

When Capital was published in Great Britain earlier this year, it was immediately heralded as the first important novel about the recent financial crisis. And this made sense since its author, John Lanchester, had already published, in addition to three other novels, an unusually cogent account of that crisis, I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay (2010). But Capital was also heralded as something else, as the “Great English Novel of the Millennium.”1 Great novels abound, particularly among the English, who are famously possessed of what F. R. Leavis called a great tradition. But the term “Great English Novel” is less a nod toward Leavis and judgments about artistic greatness than a borrowing from US critics, whose hopes and fears about national greatness have long been articulated through discussions of the Great American Novel. Understanding the term’s origins in the United States is crucial, then, to understanding what it means for critics to speak of the Great English Novel today. And this, in turn, will help us understand why Capital has been so warmly received.

In 1868, John W. De Forest published an essay calling for a “national benefactor” to perform the “national service” of writing the “Great American Novel,” the first time the term was used.2 The first half of De Forest’s essay is devoted to describing what the Great American Novel should be, mostly by way of negative example. Irving was too much of a romancer, he said, Cooper too much of a regionalist, Hawthorne too much of both, and so on. As De Forest dismissed one novelist after another, it became clear that he was calling for a novel that is both realist and comprehensive—something like the novel he himself had just published a few months before, the improbably titled Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty (1867).

The Great American Novel was first imagined, then, as a response to what we now call postcoloniality.

Miss Ravenel was never explicitly mentioned in the essay, but its careful surveying of the nation’s regions and classes in the course of telling the story of the Civil War illustrated De Forest’s commitment to comprehensive realism. The novels that De Forest did mention as models nearly all came from Britain and mostly belonged to the subgenre the British called the “state-of-the-nation” or “condition-of-England” novel. Like the Great American Novel, the state-of-the-nation novel offers a comprehensive account of contemporary society, but it does so in the service of quite different ends. State-of-the-nation novelists depict the nation in order to reform it (Dickens) or at least satirize it (Trollope), while the Great American Novelist, as imagined by De Forest, would depict the nation so that its people might recognize themselves for the first time—and, in doing so, free them from the “bonds” that keep them “spiritually colonists and provincials.” The Great American Novel was first imagined, then, as a response to what we now call postcoloniality.

The second half of De Forest’s essay was devoted to explaining why it might not yet be possible to write such a novel. First of all, he pointed to the market forces that kept American novels from being great. US authors knew that they would sell few books, because British books were more popular and more highly esteemed, and they knew that they would make little money on the books that they did sell, because the lack of international copyright law had driven down the price of books in the United States. As a result, he observed, many US authors had given up writing as a bad business, while the remaining ones saw no reason to perfect their craft. Secondly, De Forest feared that there might not be a coherent entity called “America” to write about. He had good reason to fear this, as someone who had recently fought in the Civil War and was then serving in the Freedmen’s Bureau. He more than most could see that the United States might yet be too sectionally and racially divided for a national novel to be written.

In the decades that followed, Miss Ravenel was forgotten and De Forest was too, but the term “Great American Novel” lived on. Throughout the postbellum period and into the twentieth century, serious critics called for the Great American Novel and serious novelists tried to write one. This changed only in the 1930s, when the triumph of modernism and the emergence of the New Criticism made comprehensive realism seem outmoded, and when the new centrality of the United States put the old postcolonial anxieties to rest. But even then, the term didn’t die. Abandoned by serious critics, it has persisted in the publishing industry, a cliché of promotional materials and blurbs.3 Novel more generally. See Buell’s “The Rise and ‘Fall’ of the Great American Novel,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 104 (1995), and “The Unkillable Dream of the Great American Novel: Moby-Dick as Test Case,” American Literary History 20, nos. 1–2 (Spring–Summer 2008). ] Among authors, it became a frequent subject of mockery, most obviously when William Carlos Williams and Philip Roth each published books entitled The Great American Novel. And the term has also been taken up by the culture at large, where it now functions as an ironic way of discussing artistic ambition. The Great American Novel is what overeager young men dream of writing one day and ad execs admit they once intended to; it’s what Snoopy begins again and again every time he climbs to the top of his doghouse and types, “It was a dark and stormy night.”

The term has spread, as well, around the Anglophone world. In Ireland and Scotland, in India and Australia, publicists are eager to proclaim new works Great [National] Novels, while ordinary people joke about writing one some day, and some novelists actually do, if only in jest—see Shashi Thoroor’s The Great Indian Novel (1989) for a recent example. But in these nations, the term also names, as it once did in the United States, a serious ambition. The Great [National] Novel is imagined as marking the end of postcolonial dependence, as demonstrating the nation’s full political and cultural maturity—a fantasy learned from the United States, the former colony that now dominates the Anglophone literary world as thoroughly as Britain before it.

More recently, and more surprisingly, the term migrated to Britain. It was first used by the critic James Wood, who observed in 1992 that “in the last few years English writers have been trying to write the great English novel.”4 A year later, another critic announced that the race was on “in the face of increasingly ferocious competition from the former colonies, to write the Great British Novel.”5 (Given the tense state of regional relations in Britain, we might expect to find significant differences between the Great English and the Great British Novel, but in fact critics use the terms interchangeably.) A decade later, the desire for a Great English Novel was turning to impatience that one hadn’t yet been written. One critic noted, in the course of reviewing a novel found wanting in this regard, that “those champing at the bit for the Great British Novel might just have to wait a bit longer.”6 And another warned against elevating undeserving works in order to satisfy it. “Nothing else can explain the lambs and incense offered up to Monica Ali,” he claims, than the fact that “British critics are sighing for ‘the Great British Novel’ quite as much as their American counterparts.”7

The idea of the Great [National] Novel has become as influential in Britain as it once was in the United States—and for much the same reasons. For the past twenty or thirty years, British critics and novelists have increasingly described themselves as writing in the shadow of their former colony. Their descriptions of their situation at the turn of the twenty-first century bear a striking resemblance to De Forest’s account of the plight of the US novelist from a century and a half before.

De Forest had invented the idea of the Great [National] Novel in order to imagine future greatness, but British novelists and critics have borrowed and adapted that idea in order to measure their fall from the greatness of the past.

As De Forest had once done, British novelists and critics now often argue that there are structural impediments to their nation’s literary greatness. They point out, for instance, that British novelists aren’t supported by large advances and university sinecures, as novelists in the US are, and so must churn out a novel a year along with occasional journalism in order to support themselves. As a result, “there’s no such thing as The Great English Novel,” the critic James Atlas explains. “The English have their blockbuster novelists—Martin Amis and Ian McEwan come to mind—but most of them approach the task with a studied insouciance.”8

And just as De Forest once argued for an international copyright law to protect the development of US literature, so British novelists and critics now insist that the Man Booker Prize not be opened to US competition. De Forest had also feared the United States might still be too divided to give rise to the Great American Novel—British novelists and critics now wonder whether Britain is worth writing about at all. It’s not just that Britain is no longer at the center of the world, but also that the interesting entities are either smaller or larger than the nation. One critic suggests that Scots novelists, Northern Irish and Welsh novelists, even London novelists under a newly empowered mayor, might find new subjects to write about. Or perhaps, he goes on, the future of the novel lies not with Britain but with the European Union.9

There is, however, one crucial difference between the Great American and the Great English Novel. De Forest had invented the idea of the Great [National] Novel in order to imagine future greatness, but British novelists and critics have borrowed and adapted that idea in order to measure their fall from the greatness of the past. As one critic put it, in his final column before retiring: “It is impossible for anyone alive today in this country to announce as a project ‘the great British novel.’ It has already been written. The same with the great British painting. Or invention. Or discovery. Or anything very much. Greatness lies firmly behind us.”10

Greatness lies firmly behind them: or so it seemed until the recent financial boom, which made London, for better or for worse, matter again. At the height of this boom, a handful of novels appeared whose comprehensive realism might have classified them as state-of-the-nation novels in an earlier era,11 but which were now identified as Great English Novels instead—thus was a longstanding subgenre put to new use. The most interesting of these novels was Philip Hensher’s The Northern Clemency (2008), which surveyed life in England during the 1980s coal miners’ strike. That novel satisfied the requirements of the Great [National] Novel while giving the genre a distinctively British twist, presenting a moment that Hensher clearly views as marking a crucial decline. But now the financial boom has given way to the financial crisis, and a new novel, Capital, gives us a chance to ask what national greatness means for the British in the wake of those events.

Lanchester mocks the aesthetic he calls “Hotel-Room Neutral,” but there is more than a little of the neutral hotel room about his own writing: his novel provides all the customary amenities competently, but with no imagination. 

Capital begins with a very old woman, Petunia Howe, who embodies what Britain used to be: she loves her garden, and she recalls the Blitz. But Britain is now changing, and Petunia has trouble making sense of what it has become. She doesn’t understand the real estate boom that has made her street newly fashionable—and transformed the house she inherited from her father into an asset worth more than a million pounds. And she doesn’t understand the immigration that has brought people from around the world to London, leaving her marveling at the names of the other patients summoned from her doctor’s waiting room: “Miss Linda Wong, Mr Denton Matarato, Miss Shoonua Barkshire, Mr T. Khan, and Master Cosmo Dent.” The novel attempts to capture this new Britain that eludes Petunia, focusing on a score of characters and following a number of plots, but it fails to give us anything but the most comfortable clichés. Early in the novel, Lanchester mocks the aesthetic he calls “Hotel-Room Neutral,” the non-style to which the real estate boom has given rise, but there is more than a little of the neutral hotel room about his own writing: Capital
provides all the customary amenities competently, but with no imagination.

The real estate boom, and the financial boom that drove it, are represented chiefly by an investment banker, Roger Yount. Lanchester might have used such a character to explain the financial dealings that led to the crash, but he didn’t want to write the kind of novel in which characters debate the wisdom of investing in subprime mortgages or helpfully remind one another of what a credit default swap entails—that, he’s explained in interviews, is what I.O.U. was for.12 The only thing we learn about finance from this novel is that hardly anyone understands it anymore. Certainly not Roger, who is impatient when his subordinates try to explain the algorithms that govern their trades and who doesn’t become curious about what is going on even after it all starts to fall apart. Informed that the firm has lost two hundred million Euros because of subprimes, the first harbinger of the troubles to come, Roger is concerned about nothing but the effect this will have on his bonus. “He was getting it in the arse,” he thought, and he “didn’t need to know the details.”

Rather than explaining the financial boom and financial crisis, Lanchester wants to depict the world that it has made. He does so through satire that is remarkably crude. Roger is spectacularly undeserving of his good fortune, whiling away his time at the office speculating about his bonus and plotting to seduce his children’s nanny, and his wife is even more loathsome. Dividing her days among spa visits, shopping trips, and private Pilates classes, resentful of the time she must spend with her children when neither the weekday nor the weekend nanny is there, tired of the country house she and her husband own and resentful that he hasn’t yet bought her a villa on the Mediterranean, she spends much of the novel plotting ways to punish her husband or escape from her children.

The Younts are not alone in this money-mad world. Lanchester depicts other denizens, from a solicitor who works as the factotum for a football club to a conceptual artist who has gotten rich off evanescent pranks, and with these characters the satire is a bit more subtle—if no more original. The problem with this new Britain, the novel makes clear, is that money has become the only value. Everything can be converted into cash. Even art: when Roger looks at the Damien Hirst that hangs on his wall, he regards it “from aesthetic, art-historical, interior-design, and psychological points of view” and comes to the judgment that “it had cost forty-seven thousand pounds, plus VAT”; the novel’s avant-garde artist, by contrast, is so popular precisely because his performances pieces cannot be sold, which only drives up the price of their documentation. Even people: whenever the solicitor sees a beautiful woman, he wonders why she doesn’t just sell herself, since prostitution would surely be easier than work; the football club views a promising young player as an “asset to be exploited and milked and cashed in on to the maximum possible extent.”

And then there are the immigrants, who are largely unaffected by boom or bust. Looking around her doctor’s office, Petunia had wondered whether it still made sense to say that everyone in Britain was “in it together,” as they had been during the war. And indeed, the novel’s immigrant characters have come to Britain with no intention of becoming British—or even staying long. The Hungarian nanny and the Polish builder have come in order to make the money that will enable them to settle more comfortably back home, while three Pakistani brothers have come to staff the corner store that their mother still runs, via Skype, from Lahore. And a Zimbabwean woman has come in search of refuge until the end of Mugabe’s regime.

Unlike the money-mad English, these characters are all admirable or at least likable. While the investment bankers fritter away their days, these characters work hard at the store, on the building site, on the football pitch; even the law-abiding refugee violates the terms of her asylum and takes an under-the-table job because she can’t bear not working at all. And while the bankers’ wives avoid their children, the Hungarian nanny becomes besotted with her charges. Lanchester’s sentimentalizing of these immigrants is no more interesting than his satire of the rich: taken together, they simply remind us that there are things, like hard work and family and love, that matter more than money.

What does it mean, then, to call Capital a Great English Novel? It’s certainly not great, nor even very good, but even if it’s not really a contender for Great English Novel status, it nonetheless responds to the same cultural anxieties. On the surface, Capital is quite critical of Britain, not only satirizing the financial and real estate bubbles, but also following the plight of those left stateless by the British asylum process or caught up in the war on terror. Despite this surface criticism, however, Capital describes a Britain restored to its old centrality. In the novel’s depiction of the financial boom, it mentions a US firm only once; in its depiction of the war on terror, it mentions a US security agency not at all. And this new Britain, whatever its failings, is a place that immigrants can learn to call home. When the Polish builder and the Hungarian nanny fall in love, they realize that they will make a life together in England; when the Pakistani shopkeeper who had flirted with radical Islam returns from a visit to Lahore, he realizes that “your roots were not necessarily the same thing as your home.” This is the other amenity that the novel competently, but unimaginatively, provides: it shows us that the very rich are, indeed, very awful, and that England means something again. icon

  1. John Boland, “Challenger for Title of Great English Novel,” Irish Independent, February 4, 2012.
  2. John W. De Forest, “The Great American Novel,” Nation, January 9, 1868. All further are references to this edition.
  3. For this and many other reasons, the phenomenon of the Great American Novel has been almost entirely ignored by scholars. The one exception is Lawrence Buell, whose findings I draw on very heavily in my discussion of the Great American Novel and whose example inspired me to write about the Great [National
  4. James Wood, “English Primer All Blotted and Blurred,” Guardian, May 21, 1992.
  5. Gilbert Adair, “Imitations of Immortality,” Sunday Times (London), May 16, 1993.
  6. Matt Dathan, “Why Corporate Types Like to Try Their Hands at Fiction Even Though the Numbers Don’t Add Up,” The Times (London), May 26, 2003.
  7. Murrough O’Brien, “Top Paperbacks,” Independent on Sunday (Dublin), May 23, 2004.
  8. James Atlas, “The Busy, Busy Wasp,” New York Times, October 18, 1992.
  9. Melvyn Bragg, “And Some Thrust Greatness Away From Them,” The Times (London), July 13, 1998.
  10. Melvyn Bragg, Independent (London), July 13, 1998.
  11. For example, Blake Morrison’s South of the River (2007) and Richard T. Kelly’s Crusaders (2008).
  12. See, for example, “This Week in Fiction: John Lanchester,” interview by Cressida Leyshon, Page-Turner (blog), New Yorker, January 3, 2012.