In a review of Nicole Kraus's The History of Love, Gail Caldwell comments that "the heart of the story has been sacrificed to its pyrotechnics. Novels within novels, almost by necessity, are in competition with each other, with the reader being forced to relinquish one set of feelings for another every time the narrative shifts."
Presumably Caldwell has in mind here not just "novels within novels," but multiple narratives of all kinds, from, say, the twinned narratives in most of Richard Powers's novels to something like the exfoliating narratives of a novel like One Hundred Years of Solitude, stories that require the reader to track their various "narrative shifts." Furthermore, given the language with which Caldwell describes Kraus's techniques in general--"pyrotechnics," "metafiction," "rarefied form," "artifice," "acrobatics"--one presumes that Caldwell is objecting to all fiction in which the "feelings" the reader ought to develop for the characters and their situation are being sacrificed to the intricacies of "rarefied form." (Later, Caldwell's summary judgment of The History of Love is that "What pays here is the emotional center of the novel, concealed and outshone by Krauss's shell game.")
Caldwell's complaints about Kraus's novel are probably the most common kind of complaint made against even very modestly experimental or formally adventurous fiction. Formal experiment disrupts the continuity of feeling a novel is supposed to provide, severs the emotional connection that, at least in part, works to make a particular work of fiction a "good read." Never mind that this is precisely what most experimental fiction is attempting to accomplish: to draw attention away from the immediate "content" a novel or story is expected to contain, like a vessel its liquid, and to focus some of the reader's attention on the vessel itself--better yet, to demonstrate that content only exists according to the shape of the container, the latter, after all, contributing the "art" to the art of fiction. More than anything else, experimental fiction works to remind the reader that fiction can be artful in this way, that it is more than a way to pass the time or give one's emotional receptors a little exercise.
I can't say whether Nicole Kraus in particular has succeeded in these goals or not, since I have not yet read The History of Love. (Although Caldwell's dismissive review has actually made it more likely that I will read it.) My interest here is not in Kraus's novel per se, but in the way in which Gail Caldwell's response to it exemplifies certain assumptions about what novels are supposed to do. Are they to be emotionally engaging and thus provide us with a reading experience in which "feelings" are paramount, or are they to be inventive works of art, encouraging a different kind of experience in which our ability to discern their aesthetic features plays at least as large a role as our willingness to expend emotion on what are finally made-up characters and events? Perhaps I am describing two different, and finally incompatible, sets of expectations about the nature of fiction. Perhaps those who prefer an emotional attachment to a novel's fictional world will seek out those books that enable such an attachment, while those more interested in the aesthetic possibilities of fiction will seek out those books that clearly set out to explore these possibilities. (Perhaps some novels have the dual capacity to satisfy both kinds of readers.) Still, even if this is the case, it would be nice if reviewers like Gail Caldwell, who apparently prefers the first sort of book, would refrain from passing judgment on the second kind using standards that are manifestly inappropriate to their creative ambitions.
(There's probably some overlap between this post and a recent post at Conversational Reading, in which Scott Esposito critiques Lee Siegel's claim that too many novels "substitute mere eccentricity for an imaginative surrender to another life." Scott defends postmodern/experimental fiction against the charge that "character" is underemphasized. I would myself accept that this charge is accurate enough vis-a-vis some kinds of experimental fiction, but would deny that "flat" characters are inherently a flaw. Is it not possible for fiction to appeal to us beyond its emotional qualities or its summoning of "rounded" characters?)