Reputation and the Realistic Novel
I am inclined to think that that kind of novel depends on a certain kind of society, a society with elaborate explicit and implicit rules, and without the necessity of characters navigating those rules, just isn’t worth writing. In our society people can be whatever they want in relation to any other people and in relation to any branch of society, or that’s what we think anyway, and so there just aren’t enough structures of resistance to make the realistic social-familial novel work.
If you’ll indulge a Philosophy major in some ill-informed literary speculation, it seems more likely to me that Jacobs and Douthat’s idea is the reverse of the truth. We are not living an era distinguished from earlier eras by a lack of structures of resistance. As always, the force of social opprobrium is a central and frequently determining cause of our action or inaction. (In fact, I would venture that this is probably more true now than it has been at any point in human history.) But Douthat and Jacobs are right to note that we have no fiction like Middlemarch or Emma anymore, and the gestures in that direction, like Franzen’s Corrections (which I admit to finishing only two-thirds of), aren’t very convincing. I would suggest two reasons for the change. It is not because we lack powerful social conventions, but because we lack any real collective irony about our social conventions, and because our social conventions no longer trade as completely on reputation as they once did.
In the ironization of its own established social conventions, 18th- and 19th-century England was unique. It is worth noting that the conventions that establish the motivation of characters in Austen and Eliot’s novels were already crumbling, especially by Eliot’s time, and that her novels played a role in their destruction. Eliot herself probably consciously intended her novels to hasten their decline. But even Austen, who intended nothing of the sort, was capable of ironic distance from the folkways of her characters, and she could expect the same capability in her readership. I suspect this capability is a precondition for the realistic novel, whose golden age corresponds exactly with the period in Europe when the social conventions established in the mid and late 17th century were most under stress.
However, in the absence of conventions enforced specifically by reputation, it is the 20th century that is unique. After the invention of the railroads, humans in the West, at least, could move faster than information about their character, and so, like galaxies sliding off the edge of the visible universe as spacetime expands faster than the speed of light, it was easy for anyone to take the train to the nearest big city and invent himself anew. This ability made the 20th century unique, and it makes certain kinds of plots, where an unpleasant rumor can alter the character of someone’s whole life, impossible. (Though it makes possible certain other kinds of plots. Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt brilliantly captures how the ability to slip past one’s reputation is as menacing for some as it is liberating for others.)
Interestingly, in the 21st century the mobility of information has begun to catch up with the mobility of the individual, and for good or ill we are losing the ability to escape our reputations. The innumerable articles warning young people about mistakes immortalized as facebook pictures mark a return to the normal condition of humankind. The youthful errors of 21st-century kids, like their pre-20th-century ancestors’, will remain with them forever.