In last week’s LRB, Terry Eagleton wrote a mostly favorable review of two new works about Mikhail Bakhtin, by Graham Pechey and (less recently) Ken Hirschkop. It all seemed very . . . familiar, especially when I came upon this section:
Bakhtin’s cultural interests are accordingly in those forms – carnival, Menippean satire, the novel and so on – which represent a mighty ‘polyphonic’ contest of discourses, with one form of signification relativising and decentring another, one kind of idiom invading, subverting, citing, framing and dismantling those around it. The chief literary name for this is the novel, that mongrelised genre which – unlike epic, pastoral or tragedy – is entirely without rules, and which in Bakhtin’s eyes is less a definable form than a deconstructive force. The novel lives purely in its dialogic relation to other literary modes, cannibalising and parodying them. It is a maverick anti-genre, deviant and non-canonical, a secular scripture which shows up all discourse as partial and provisional. In Bakhtin’s view, it is no accident that this great collision of verbal forms arose in both the Hellenistic era and the Renaissance from the ruins of some more authoritative ideological system.
This kind of account of the novel’s role as a ‘maverick anti-genre’ goes down smoothly enough if we omit the particulars.
Those of us who grew up with Watt and McKeon can still recite such readings of the novel chapter and verse, but Susan Staves and many other feminist critics have really made such readings a lot more difficult to sustain. Can we really say, for example, that the 18c novel ‘has no rules,’ especially if we think about sub-genres like the courtship novel etc. etc.? As Staves noted, women’s diaries and memoirs can seem far less stylized and unconventional than the novels being written at the same time, whether by male or female writers.
As far as I can tell, the crux resides in the fact that Bakhtin’s image of the ‘maverick’ genre of the novel lies in its rather subtle violations of literary convention, propriety or decorum, such as we might find in Fielding or Sterne. What he doesn’t register is the vexed relation of (post-Richardson) female novelists like Lennox or Burney to such codes of decorum.
Having said that, I know from the TLS review of Staves that she considers the Female Quixote the most important novel of the 18c, because it explicitly dramatizes the competition of various styles of discourse and narration in the mid-century’s fiction. Perhaps this represents a new twist on Bakhtin’s ‘polyphonic contest of discourses.’