Saturday, August 7, 2010

The English Novel by Ford Madox Ford

I am not sure what the point of Ford Madox Ford's The English Novel is, because I am not quite sure that he himself knew what the point of it was. To some extent, it is a history of the English novel from its earliest stages to Ford's day, but as a historical text it makes no claims to exhaustiveness or objectivity. It is not "a technical work," but it does contain some of Ford's most significant ideas concerning what works in a novel and what doesn't. You'd be better off reading How Fiction Works, though, because I think that Wood covers all of the best ones.

What it is really is a vanity project, honestly, the spectacle of a senior man of letters writing a book because no one would refuse to publish it, no matter how solipsistic. In that way it is much like How to Read and Why; both have no other guiding principle than their author's predilections, but you'll read it anyway because they are, after all, experts. This is a begrudging criticism; I suppose they've both earned it.

Ford spends a lot of time in this book criticizing what he calls the nuvvle, a humorous word he invented to describe the kind of commercially popular book of the 19th and 20th centuries. Brent, you will be displeased to know that he included The Woman in White among these. Also, he really hated Vanity Fair.

But I thought his most interesting idea was buried all the way at the end of the book:

That this is not the final stage of the Novel is obvious; there will be developments that we cannot foresee, strain our visions, how we may. There are probably--humanity being stable, change the world how it may--there are probably eternal principles for all the arts, but the applications of those principles are eternally changing, or eternally revolving. It is, for instance, an obvious and unchanging fact that if an author intrudes his comments into the middle of his story he will endanger the illusion conveyed by that story--but a generation of readers may come along who would prefer witnessing the capers of the author to being carried away by stories and that generation of readers may coincide with a generation of writers tired of self-obliteration. So you might have a world of Oscar Wildes or of Lylys. Or you might, again, have a world tired of the really well constructed novel every word of which carries its story forward: then you will have a movement towards diffuseness, backboneless sentences, digressions, and inchoateness.

This made me laugh, because it sounds a lot like postmodernism, which Ford didn't really live to see. The bit about "the capers of the author" (this is his problem with Vanity Fair) sounds a lot like the sort of self-conscious egoism that comes with being Martin Amis, or Gary Shteyngart, or Jonathan Safran Foer. What do you think? Are we living in Ford's age of "digressions, and inchoateness"?


Brent Waggoner said...

Good review. Apparently, FMF didn't care taut thrillers.

Age of Incohation is my favorite band.

Christopher said...

Handsome dude, ain't he?