I believe the novel is a moral form. We turn to novels in pursuit of virtue. Through the tales fashioned by thoughtful writers we discover or reaffirm what we believe to be right and good. Our eternal subject is the nature of the well-lived life. So here’s a theory of what has happened to the middle classes and the novel. A hundred years or so ago the language of idealism changed. As Christianity fractured, the imagination of those who wanted to make a better world was seized by a new idealism: socialism. In this new understanding of society the working class had virtue and was the future; the middle class had power and was the past. Bourgeois values came to be seen as vices. The middle-class consumers of art and literature gradually found themselves cast in negative terms, as exploitative, parasitic and reactionary.
By the last decades of the 20th century, as these perceptions became the orthodoxy of the educated elite, writers and artists found they faced a fork in the road. They could please their middle-class audience and be condemned as comforters of the oppressors, seeking sales and riches over truth; or they could challenge, shock, offend and bewilder their audience, and so retain their claim to righteousness.
Challenge is necessary, and shock is salutary. There’s a vital place for a literature that, like the sermons of old, preaches to us our weaknesses and shames us into leading better lives. But if all serious literature becomes punitive, the crucial next step in the process is lost. Yes, we’re guilty. Yes, we deserve to be mocked and pitied. But what are we to celebrate?