Why 'novels of belief' are the exception, not the rule

Karen Swallow Prior

January 10, 2013

"the larger culture too, ..., like it or not, has been shaped by the tenets of a faith it has now largely rejected." Ain't that the truth. There's so much that has shaped our society that people (including me, I'm positive) have no clue about, Karen.

I also liked this insight: "To tell a story is to search for meaning in defiance of the current odds." Even those stories with which we are intimately familiar - our own - become clearer in meaning through the telling.


Karen Swallow Prior
January 10, 2013

Yes indeed, Tim! The stories we tell about ourselves, even when only to ourselves, shape us more than just about anything, I think. Which is why it is so important that we understand, collectively and individually, the power of story telling and the faith inherent in the act. Thanks for chiming in.

Tim Hendrickson
January 10, 2013

I would add only a comment or two.

Professor Prior notes that the novel is an outgrowth of an age in which belief was giving way to unbelief. This is certainly true, but I think more needs to be said in this regard about the influence of the 19th century in Britain--indeed, the 19th century sees the rise of the novel to the position it still holds, that of being the dominant literary form. The Victorians were far more doubting than their literary predecessors, as new developments in the fields of science, anthropology, geology, agricultural technology, politics, and religion led to what critics like Christopher Ricks call "Victorian Gloom." That is, many Victorians (perhaps most famously Matthew Arnold, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy) felt keenly that those customs with which they grew up were no longer a viable way of looking at the world. I think we tend to view the skepticism of faith as a distinctly contemporary development, but the movement is far older.

Secondly, I would be remiss in not pointing out that many literary critics would object to Professor Prior's assertion that the novel, as a form, pursues universals. In fact, many English departments still view "universal" as a dirty word. I raise this point only to suggest that one of the reasons why the novel of belief is so rare is the the literary establishment would either ignore such a work or read its belief as less than genuine.

Karen Swallow Prior
January 11, 2013

Great additions to the discussion, Tim. Thank you.

And your point about universals is well taken. If I were to flesh out my short post more on this, I would certainly agree with you. The pursuit of universals is not necessarily conscious or intentional, but00as someone who believes it's the universals that hold the world together--I believe such a pursuit is inherent in the form.

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