In his book The Novel Art , Mark McGurl analyzes
the medium of the novel to distinguish two rival genres within the medium:
the artistic novel and the mass-marketed pop novel. McGurl focuses on the
modernist period at the turn of the 20 th century when a protective intelligentsia
struggled to reclaim the novel from a growing mass market. I selected this
book in an effort to analyze exactly how mediums are fractured into separate
genres, by whom and for what purpose. In this book, McGurl is concerned
with the two genres of high verses low literature and pinpoints the split
to the modernist period when the very popularity of the novel threatened
its identity. Determined to rescue the novel from a growing mass market,
erudite modernist writers sought to break the medium into a new genre by
emphasizing distinguishing features of the art novel.
In the first section of chapter one, McGurl details
not only what the new art novel is, but also what it is not, in order to
provide readers with a firm definition of the art novel. Throughout the
section, McGurl analyzes forms of distinction in the fiction of Henry James
and applies them to the larger art novel as a whole. McGurl's argument
relies heavily on Jamesian philosophy and can be conjectured from the very
title of the chapter - The Mind's Eye and Mental Labor. McGurl believes
the art novel's main point of distinction is its intellectual aesthetics.
The art novel requires mental labor and therefore appeals to an intellectual
audience. This is McGurl's central argument throughout the chapter.
McGurl begins his argument with a complex literary example
from Henry James's novel The Golden Bowl . He draws an analogy
between the golden bowl within the novel and the actual object of the novel.
Within the novel, the golden bowl is an aesthetic symbol of fine art. McGurl
parallels this to the art novel as being a distinguished object of fine
art. The golden bowl functions not only as an image that readers create
in their consciousness from the text, but also as an object within the
text that characters can touch. This also parallels the medium of the novel
which operates both as a physical object and as an image-text that readers
assemble in their consciousness. McGurl further deconstructs the novel
by using other probative examples including Hawthorne's The Marble
Faun and Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone.
After deconstructing the object of the novel, McGurl
begins to re-build the genre of the art novel. He discusses not only distinguishing
features of an art novel, but also what the art novel is not .
For McGurl, and James, the art novel rejects the identity of the
conduct novel which used didactic messages for moral instruction. Modernist
writers also had a difficult time defining the new art novel because of
lack of vocabulary. By relying on outdated terms like “romance” and “realism”,
modernist novelists limited the visions of their new genre. Eventually
McGurl makes emphasis that the new genre is not distinguished
by issues of class. Instead, the genre relies on issues of intelligence,
of a scholarly reader willing to do mental labor and use their “mind's
eye” to assemble meaning. McGurl says, “The reader of James – the Jamesian – was
not an aristocrat, exactly, but something else, a certain kind of aesthete-intellectual
able to share the Master's endless enthusiasm for the mental labor of making
distinctions” (p. 41, McGurl).