Piketty Isn’t Literary Criticism

Stephen Marche’s LARB essay on the state of the contemporary novel reads as extremely half-baked to me.

To start, it’s full of all sorts of off-base observations, such as:

The narrative forms that thrived in the mid-nineties — minimalism, with its descriptions of poor and rural men; magical realism which incorporated non-Western elements into the traditional English novel; the exotic lyricism of John Berger or Michael Ondaatje — have been pushed to the side

That’s a remarkably strange way to describe magical realism—as an offshoot of the “English novel” instead of a genre of its own that developed on a whole other continent from the Anglos. And the dates Marche invokes are just plain bizarre . . . minimalism and magical realism developments of the mid-90s? Ondaatje and Berger as writers who did their groundbreaking work in that decade?

My bigger beef with this essay is that its big claim turns out to be a tautology:

These structural forms of inequality fit Piketty’s vision of a return to patrimonial society perfectly. The jeopardy driving the plots in contemporary social realism is identical to the jeopardy faced by Austen’s or Balzac’s characters. Only the ground has changed, not the fury of the dancing. How is the hero going to survive? How is she going to avoid disaster to become or to stay rich? The threat of the shrinking middle class, while it may sometimes provoke unsettling debates about the possibilities of societal reform, more often creates a ferocious private determination not to go down with the others. It’s a hell of a good place to begin a story.

So in other words, the plot interest in contemporary novels is about the hero surviving in society, which is the same as it was in Balzac and Austen, just with all the details changed. How is this saying anything?

OK, to be fair, Marche’s claim is a little more specific than that. He says that now we’re seeing something called the “patrimonial novel,” which has taken over contemporary mainstream literature. His definition of this novel grows out of a misreading of Piketty, and, insofar as I can tell, means “a novel concerned with how young people make their way in society with the help of their wealthy elders.” But (some) novels have always been about this.

To be sure, Piketty does invoke Balzac and Austen, as Marche says, but not nearly enough to warrant the claim that “Capital in the Twenty-First Century is perhaps the only major work of economics that could reasonably be mistaken for a work of literary criticism.” If only. Piketty mainly invokes Austen to help support his observations that monetary inflation didn’t exist in the 19th century. Balzac gets a little more play, as Piketty uses him to demonstrate both his inflation claim, and another claim: that the aristocrats of Balzac’s day were so far ahead of the rest of society in the 19th century that there was really no point in ever trying to catch them by hard work—it would be much better to marry into wealth and live off of that money (as many of Balzac’s characters attempt to do). That’s it. As far as they go, Balzac and Austen are fine ways of making Piketty’s points more concrete for a mass audience, but Piketty makes no attempt to demonstrate the existence of something called the patrimonial novel. (And nor should he; he’s writing a work of economics, not literary criticism.)

And then there’s this:

The restraint of this form of social realism is also an evasion; one thing that is rarely, if ever, discussed is money itself. “It is surely no accident that money — at least in the form of specific amounts — virtually disappeared from literature after the shocks of 1914-1915,” Piketty writes. “Specific references to wealth and income were omnipresent in the literature of all countries before 1914; these references gradually dropped out of sight between 1914 and 1945 and never truly reemerged. This is true not only of European and American novels but also of the literature of other continents.” The explanation, according to Piketty, is simple: inflation. Inflation “rendered the meaning of money ambiguous.” And so, in contemporary novels, readers almost never learn the key facts about the characters — the amounts in their bank accounts and in their parents’ bank accounts. The absence is a failure, aesthetically as much as politically. Money is the greatest metaphor of them all.

Piketty is saying almost the exact opposite of what Marche thinks he’s saying. Piketty’s point is absolutely not that discussions of wealth disappeared from fiction after 1914. He’s simply saying that in the 20th century wealth as a numerical figure became useless to novelists as a signifier, because in 10 years the numbers would all be skewed by inflation, anyway. So the key facts about these characters wouldn’t be “the amounts in their bank accounts,” as Marche insists, because it would be pointless today to know how much money Nick Carraway had. Instead, Fitzgerald tells us about the things he owned, the parties he threw, the kinds of people he consorted with—all obvious signifiers of wealth and social class, and things that still obviously mean a great deal to us 100 years later.

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Marche is writing about the American novel almost exclusively, so his remark about “magical realism” refers to its importation into Western Lit, in the 1990s, not some kind of offshoot from it. This isn’t too off-base, but it’s an odd way to account for the post-Pynchon crowd who were the biggest counterweight to Minimalism that I remember from that time.

I agree that the level of generality is doing a lot of work here, but the grouping/ identification of a trend (beyond the trendy insertion of Piketty) was provocative … wish he’d teased out more about the predilection for “magical elders.” That seems worth an article in itself — feels like transference from the institutional/academic petri dishes authors grow out of these days.

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