The biggest problem with Julian Evans's "The Return of Story" in the December Prospect is that its central contention, on which the burden of his anti-aesthetic argument is placed, is simply wrong. "In the cinema" Evans writes, "a core of narrative innocence survives across a spectrum of values represented by Spielberg at one end and Abbas Kiarostami at the other. In the novel, however, story has gone down in a blaze of modernist attitudes. . ." Clearly Evans doesn't really read very many of the scores of novels published every year in both Great Britain and the United State. If he did, he would certainly discover that almost all of them--perhaps not exactly 100% of them, but pretty close to that--do indeed tell stories, and almost as many (90%? 95?) tell very traditional stories of a sort Evans's most conventional "storyteller" from the past would immediately recognize and heartily endorse.
(Evans is notably reluctant to name names in his indictment against contemporary novelists for abandoning narrative, but he does cite Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie. Come again? Amis doesn't tell stories? How did I miss that? And Rushdie? Midnight's Children? Perhaps one could call this novel "magical realism," but since when has magical realism done anything but tell stories? One Hundred Years of Solitude? If Evans has indeed read these books but still would claim they don't tell stories, he's a pathetically poor reader.)
But Evans gives the game away when he praises Fitzgerald's "The Rich Boy" because it "consists of a linear narrative managed by a modern consciousness." It's not that modern/postmodern novels jettison narrative altogether, it's that they don't stick to linear narrative. One might have thought that the history of fiction in the 20th century had at least demonstrated that stories don't need to be "linear" to be stories or to engage a reader's attention, but apparently not. Apparently most of this fiction is to be dismissed as so many "literary bleeps and squeaks," although Evans is assuredly mistaken if he really thinks fiction will be returning to the practices of the past in some ingenuously earnest kind of way ("down with self-consciousness!") or that the fiction characterized by "modernist attitudes" will just disappear. It prompts one to ask: If Evans really dislikes what fiction has become, why does he bother with it all, even to deplore it? He's stuck with it, so perhaps he should just console himself with the "narrative innocence" of movies. (Except that we all know that "the cinema" at its best lost its narrative innocence a long time ago as well.)
(The bit about "modern consciousness" takes us into James Wood territory, and I have made a resolution to not go back there again, at least for a while.)
What Evans really dislikes is art itself, at least as far as it has dared to sully the innocence of fiction: "The histories of the novel and of storytelling ran together until the early 20th century; since the 1920s, that history has been one of formal drift, away from the novel as a social form that described how characters live in relation to others. . ." It's telling that, for Evans, any deviation at all from the tradition of "storytelling" must be "drift," almost literally, given the language here, some kind of ethical betrayal. To be a muddle-headed aesthete, even to be interested in the aesthetic qualities of literature at all, has long been anathema to a certain kind of critic, grounds for accusing writers of being morally deficient, but why, for example, would it probably not occur to these critics to declare, say, composers too interested in art, too attentive to the needs of form over those of morality? Even the most conventionally tonal music is by its very nature about form, about the relationships between sounds and the interaction of purely musical qualities. Is fiction not allowed to explore the possibilities of the linguistic medium in something like the way music explores the possibilities of the aural medium? Why when a fiction writer does this is he/she more likely to be considered some kind of malefactor?
Furthermore, Evans is again simply wrong in his assertion that "The histories of the novel and of stroytelling ran together until the early 20th century." This is a common, but mistaken, belief about the development of fiction even in the 19th century. Evans cites Henry James as one of his storytelling heroes, but who would say that James's real preoccupation was telling stories? That he wasn't more interested in the "how" of storytelling--point of view, style"--than in the "what"--events, narrative progression, the details of "what happens"? For some reason it is assumed that the great figures of literary realism were also tale-spinners, but who can read Chekhov and say this? His stories are about character, situation, revelatory moments. As far as narrative is concerned, in most of them almost nothing happens. The fact is, the more fiction "drifted" toward realism, the less it focused on story at all--"story" was an artificial construction that was not faithful to the way real people actually experienced their lives.
But for Evans, fiction is not about individuals at all, which is presumably also an ethical breach: "Novelists may want to write narrowly or widely; but the novel remains a social form, and our fiction should communicate that whatever identity we may have is composed not merely of ourselves but of others. The novel, in its fully realised state, exists to reflect on those links between us - on their making and breaking. How can it do that other than through stories?" Evan's assumption couldn't be clearer: novels are not about art, they're sociology. Moreover, they're a particularly smarmy form of sociology, in which we are lectured to about our duties to others. They're a handy form of indoctrination and propaganda. Stories just keep it simple. And Evans's superior insights are apparently not restricted to moral issues: He also knows what novels are really for, has somehow acquired a knowledge of what they would appropriately be like in their "fully realized state." It's always nice when a critic is able to share his god-like wisdom and set poor novelists straight about what they ought to do.
According to Evans, one of the judges of the most recent Man Booker prize has finally learned her lesson. "Reading 132 books in 147 days," she is quoted as saying, "you learn a great deal about why so many novels - even well-written, carefully crafted novels, as so many of those submitted were - are ultimately pointless." And thus we arrive at what always turns out to be the crux of the matter for people with the attitude toward fiction exemplified by someone like Julian Evans: novels must have "a point," they can just be "well-written" and "carefully crafted." For Evans, the point must be "social," but for others it need not be socially redeeming per se. It just needs to be something more than "mere" art--indeed, more than "merely literary." This attitude, while ostensibly looking out for the welfare of literature, actually couldn't be more dismissive. Who needs literature, anyway, when you can just go around making points?
Myself, I love pointless novels. They can even tell stories, but when they start to "communicate" to me about our shared identities, I stop turning the pages.