“The Decline of the Novel” by Joseph Bottum: A Review

NOTE: this review first appeared in the Spring 2021 Print Edition of Ad Fontes.

Joseph Bottum, The Decline of the Novel (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2019),
150 pages, $25.00 (Hardcover).

What was the last new novel you would be embarrassed not to have read if you turned up at a get-together of writers and intellectuals?

For Joseph Bottum, it was Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, written over a quarter of a century ago. Ronald Reagan was president. The Berlin Wall was standing. The World Wide Web did not exist.

In The Decline of the Novel, Bottum (a conservative Catholic critic and writer and former editor of First Things) calls this “the Cocktail Party Test” (42). It’s a worthwhile and amusing exercise—maybe one to try out at a cocktail party (though their prevalence, too, has declined since 1987). Now, the latest Netflix show probably occupies the cultural space once dominated by the novel.

How did we get here? That’s Bottum’s question. But it’s a bigger question than it first appears. And it has everything to do with the decline of Protestantism in the West.

“How-We-Got-Here” Narratives

There is no shortage of “how-we-got-here” narratives among conservative Christians—“here” being the loss of a shared moral or metaphysical universe in the West. Alasdair MacIntyre, Philip Rieff, Charles Taylor, Carl Trueman, and others have made the genre a commonplace.

The Decline of the Novel might be best understood as an applied stress-test of these narratives. And, if nothing else, it is a wildly informative and entertaining one. At just 152 pages, the book sits somewhere between scholarly and popular. Bottum’s novelistic expertise is encyclopedic. His lively prose has the Chestertonian twinkle of a writer who knows he is taking liberties, but the right ones (consider his sweeping aphorism early on: “The novel didn’t fail us. We failed the novel” is swiftly followed by “Except, of course, that we didn’t. Not exactly”) (10).

Protestantism and the Rise of the Novel

So what does Protesantism have to do with the novel? Bottum summarizes:

“So, here’s a proposition. The novel was an art form—the art form—of the modern Protestant West, and as the main strength of established Protestantism began to fail in Europe and the United States in recent decades, so did the cultural importance of the novel.” (14)

We should be clear what Bottum is not arguing.

He is not, as a Catholic, indicting Protestantism wholesale for modernity’s ills. In The Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America (2014), Bottum argued that the greatest (yet most unremarked) sociological change in America in the previous fifty years was the collapse of the Mainline Protestant churches. He basically views this as A Bad Thing. Bottum is also not, as a literary critic, offering an elitist lament on the state of literature. For example, he does not dispute that the world is still full of great writers, enthusing that we are in a golden age of genre fiction and children’s literature (126–149).

Neither polemic nor jeremiad, Bottum’s book considers rather why our great creatives no longer consider the novel to be the form by which to do great work.

To make sense of its decline, Bottum first charts the novel’s rise—yet this, he contends, already contained its fall. For Bottum, the novel is an inevitable product of Protestantism. The Reformation triggered a “turn to the interior” (1), illuminating our inner lives like never before, and the “loose, baggy monster” of the novel (a definition from Henry James, quoted more than once) was the only literary form capacious enough to contain our multitudes. Yet by reifying the interior self, Protestantism disenchanted the external world, “erasing the medieval sense of a world filled with living symbols. Together, they stripped the altars of reality.” Eventually, “all the weight of metaphysical significance in the world was transferred to the individual self” (47).

This post-Reformation self struggled to reconcile itself to a cosmos devoid of meaning, and so invented the novel: “book-length modern stories with a sense of spiritual development over the plot’s timeline, characters who have interior selves, a drive toward artistic unity, and an ambition for the book to be a revelatory commentary on the human condition” (18).

The novel then began a self-perpetuating cycle: birthed from Protestantism’s modern self, it became “one of the key ways in which people learned to have modern selves” in a disenchanted world (4; emphasis added). This was its fatal flaw, for “by exposing the problem so successfully, the novel exacerbated the problem’s effect. Readers learned to notice their troubled modern selves by reading novels aimed at solving the troubles” (44). Such troubled readers then wrote more novels to alleviate the problem, and so on.

This is not to say modernity produced hordes of distinctly Protestant novelists. Here, Bottum’s disenchantment narrative oddly echoes Peter Leithart’s half-serious remarks that Protestants can’t write and Zwingli is to blame.[1] Both note a dearth of truly “Protestant” writers. Yet Bottum argues that, even if Protestants can’t write, Protestantism can—it is “the genus of the novel itself, rather than something identifying a particular species of novels” (27). Bottum repeatedly calls this a “Protestantism of the Air” that affected the whole modern world, including Catholic and Orthodox countries (accounting for the great French and Russian literary traditions).

So, in summary: Protestantism created the problematic modern self, produced the novel as an attempted cure, but simply made the problem worse.

Bottum’s disenchantment narrative is the weakest element of the book, built on passing references to Protestant sacramentology (29), the stripping of the altars (47), and moralizing Protestant piety (48). For one thing, Bottum tars all Protestantism with the same brush, eliding both Protestant differences over sacramentalology and the magisterial Protestant view of creation as the “Book of Nature” that is rich with meaning. Bottum’s “Protestantism” comes off as either the most austere Presbyterianism or low-brow non-conformism. Yet England (where he places the novel’s origins) was dominated by neither of these in the novel’s heyday. Bottum credits the Glorious Revolution of 1688 as providing the secure Protestant context in which the novel could flourish, but he gives the impression that the Protestantism of William and Mary was the same as that of the Puritans.

Similarly, Bottum uses “Protestantism” and “modernity” interchangeably. No one denies the two are related. Yet they are not identical. He claims that, once Protestantism emptied the Medieval world of “saints and demons, angels and devils, ghosts, monsters, prophecies, and signs,” the modern Protestant self could not bear having “all supernatural reality other than God packed down into the individual soul” (48). Yet the Enlightenment parallels the golden age of the novel far more closely than does the Protestant era. Admittedly, we all get bored of seeing the Enlightenment used as a whipping boy in Christian intellectual histories, but it should at least be in the room whilst Protestantism is getting a good dressing down.

Also scandalously absent is Augustine, given the unprecedented interiority of his Confessions. Granted, Bottum’s narrative must start somewhere, but any account of the modern self which doesn’t at least acknowledge the impossibility of such a thing without Augustine’s influence is at best lopsided. Even if Bottum regards Protestantism as having taken Augustine’s development of the self to an extreme, it’s hard to justify omitting him entirely.

Underlying these historical omissions, however, we can sense a deeper problem: Bottum’s assessment fundamentally misunderstands Protestantism (“of the Air” or otherwise). There is a strong case to be made that it was in fact the late Medieval era which suffered from a damaging interior turn, and the Reformation was its corrective. Worship in the pre-Reformation era was intensely individualistic—intentionally darkened knaves obscured fellow worshipers from view; tailored penances encouraged fixation upon one’s personal merit and purgatorial fate; incomprehensible liturgy made worshipers not an active congregation but a collection of passive individual observers. Recently, writers such as Philip Cary have reminded us that Protestantism enacted a fundamental turn to the exterior, directing us to the “external word” of the Gospel in Word and Sacrament.[2] This then rightly orders our external relationship to neighbour (as one whom we serve)[3] and creation (as a theater of God’s glory).[4]

This disenchantment narrative is nothing new and is being increasingly refuted by retrieval-minded Protestants today. Yet even if the informed Protestant reader will attribute it to causes other than Protestantism per se, they will likely share Bottum’s assessment that the modern self is overburdened with a metaphysical weight it was not designed to bear.

The Decline of the Novel

So if this was the novel’s rise, what was its decline?

No-one feels bad any more for not reading novels,” Bottum quips. They are no longer works of great public, moral, or political significance. This side of Bottum’s argument is where the book really takes flight; he describes the novel’s decline as signalling “a kind of failure of nerve, an end of confidence about the past values and future goals of what conceived itself as Western culture” (8).

Within a Protestantism of the Air, the novel was the space in which great writers tried to reunite the modern interior self with some greater exterior, something of which it knew it fell short. In the novel, Western culture could criticize itself with sincere moral outrage, “because few readers doubted that Western culture was called to something higher” (9). Yet the collapse of this Protestantism of the Air into secularism has left us with no future and a checkered past. Western culture is now little more than the sum of its crimes, and novelists turn in on themselves to lick the wounds of the self and indict the past. These are the novels of a culture with “a lack of belief in itself” (10).

With this established, the rest of the book consists of case studies of great novelists attempting (with diminishing returns) to solve the crisis of the self. Here, Bottum excels.

Walter Scott (along with historical fiction in general) attempted to solve the crisis in Waverley (1814) by winding back the clock: Edward Waverley absconds with the enchanting pre-modern Highlanders supporting Bonnie Prince Charlie’s doomed attempt to restore Catholic rule to England. Defeated, Waverley hopes a romantic feeling of historical memory will preserve him in modernity—an unconvincing conclusion, to say the least.

Dickens attempted a metaphysical rescue through naming. His characters’ names accord (in one way or another) with some external truth about them, because “beneath the jokes and lies and abused language, there is for Dickens an order of reality that is finally moral and true” (90). Bottum’s chapter on Dickens is primarily a close reading of David Copperfield (1850), and he clearly regards Dickens as the most successful of his case studies.

Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus (1947) represented the High Modernist ambition to make the novel itself a solution to the crisis, as if the sheer event of writing and ruminating at length on the self would help. Yet this faith in form rather than content was fruitless, since Mann was “that weakest and most delicate of all things: the non-religious social conservative, digging in his heels at each new cultural decline…all the while trying to explain the last” (99). That line might be worth the price of the book.

Inevitably following is Tom Wolfe, who famously lamented a failure of nerve among novelists to hit the road and discover that “wild, bizarre, unpredictable hog-stomping Baroque country” called America.[5] Yet while Wolfe had the nerve, he lacked the metaphysics. Wolfe novels usually end horribly “because the resources necessary to conclude a story of justification and sanctification simply do not exist for him. He does not see them in the culture and he does not see them in himself” (117). With no Protestantism of the Air, Wolfe had nothing with which to bring his beloved America into accord.

The final chapter is given over to the aforementioned rise of children’s and genre fiction, almost as replacement for the novel. Whilst not disputing their quality or value, Bottum notes this change signals that unironic portrayals of good, evil, and virtue are outsourced here, no longer suiting the self-exploration of the novel (128). Such ideas simply cannot be taken seriously there.

How Should We Then Read?

In a brief conclusion, and in the true vein of any “how-we-got-here” narrative, Bottum offers up no solutions. He has made a coherent, well-evidenced case for the diminishing returns of the novel and its impotence against the problem of the modern self. Western Culture has lost confidence not only that the problem can be solved but that there is a problem at all. Stumped, Bottum concludes with an open question: “What ought we to do with ourselves?” (152)

It is a stark question, especially for those remaining faithful to Protestantism when a Protestantism of the Air has collapsed.

We should certainly be attuned to our culture’s newly preferred forms of storytelling. There may not be much we can do about a lack of great novels, but we can pay attention to what is being produced and why. And we should watch for any signs of the novel’s return. Its decline has been a canary in the coal mine; we should keep an eye out in case it springs back to life. That’s not to say this would signal a resurgence of Protestantism, but it may indicate a return to something like a Protestantism of the Air —an atmosphere in which it is no longer ridiculous to suggest that the inner self should bring itself into accord with some greater, self-evident external reality.

Bottum’s book should also serve as a spur to rediscover the riches of the age of the novel. Despite their declining cultural importance, great novels still loom over our cultural imagination, remnants of a forgotten civilization. As modernity continues to disintegrate, such reference points on the landscape might serve as apologetics of truth, beauty, and goodness which, as a first step, can reintroduce moderns to a Protestantism of the Air. From there, perhaps we can begin to lead them to the thicker, richer doctrines of Protestantism itself.

Rhys Laverty is Managing Editor of The Davenant Press and Ad Fontes, and Marketing Director at The Davenant Institute, as well as studying Davenant’s M.Litt degree. He has also written for the Theopolis Institute and Mere Orthodoxy. He podcasts about film on For Now We See, and lives in Chessington, UK with his wife and two children.

  1. Peter Leithart, “Why Protestants Can’t Write, I,” Patheos, January 28, 2016, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/leithart/2016/01/why-protestants-cant-write-i/?permalink=blogs&blog=leithart&year=2016&month=01&entry_permalink=why-protestants-cant-write-i.
  2. Philip Cary, “The Meaning of Protestant Theology,” August 12, 2019, https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2019/08/12/the-meaning-of-protestant-theology/. This post is a short summary of Cary’s book of the same name, which expounds this point at length.
  3. As articulated by Luther in The Freedom of a Christian: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject of all, subject to all.”
  4. John Calvin is credited with describing creation as a “theatre of God’s glory.” He never used that exact phrase, but used the image repeatedly (e.g. Institutes of the Christian Religion 1.5.8)
  5. Tom Wolfe, “Stalking the Billion Footed Beast,” Harper’s Magazine, November 1989, accessed February 3, 2020, https://harpers.org/archive/1989/11/stalking-the-billion-footed-beast/.


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