There are many ways of talking about the theory of the novel, and mine will consist in posing three questions: Why are novels in prose; Why are they so often stories of adventures; and, Why was there a European, but not a Chinese rise of the novel in the course of the eighteenth century. Disparate as they may sound, the questions have a common source in the guiding idea of the collection The Novel: ‘to make the literary field longer, larger, and deeper’: historically longer, geographically larger, and morphologically deeper than those few classics of nineteenth-century Western European ‘realism’ that have dominated the recent theory of the novel (and my own work).footnote1 What the questions have in common, then, is that they all point to processes that loom large in the history of the novel, but not in its theory. Here, I will reflect on this discrepancy, and suggest a few possible alternatives.

Prose. Nowadays, so ubiquitous in novels that we tend to forget that it wasn’t inevitable: ancient novels were certainly in prose, but the Satyricon for instance has many long passages in verse; the Tale of Genji has even more (and crucially so, as hundreds of tanka poems stylize sadness and longing throughout the story); French medieval romances had a prodigious early peak in verse with Chrétien de Troyes; half of the old Arcadia is eclogues; Chinese classic novels use poetry in a variety of ways . . . Why did prose eventually prevail so thoroughly, then, and what did this mean for the form of the novel?

Let me begin from the opposite side, of verse. Verse, versus: there is a pattern that turns around and comes back: there is a symmetry, and symmetry always suggests permanence, that’s why monuments are symmetrical. But prose is not symmetrical, and this immediately creates a sense of im-permanence and irreversibility: prose, pro-vorsa: forward-looking (or front-facing, as in the Roman Dea Provorsa, goddess of easy childbirth): the text has an orientation, it leans forwards, its meaning ‘depends on what lies ahead (the end of a sentence; the next event in the plot)’, as Michal Ginsburg and Lorri Nandrea have put it.footnote2 ‘The knight was defending himself so bravely that his assailers could not prevail’; ‘Let’s withdraw a little, so that they will not recognize me’; ‘I don’t know that knight, but he is so brave that I would gladly give him my love’. I found these passages in a half page of the prose Lancelot, easily, because consecutive and final constructions—where meaning depends so much on what lies ahead that a sentence literally falls into the following one—these forward-looking arrangements are everywhere in prose, and allow it its typical acceleration of narrative rhythm. And it’s not that verse ignores the consecutive nexus while prose is nothing but that, of course; these are just their ‘lines of least resistance’, to use Jakobson’s metaphor; it is not a matter of essence, but of relative frequency—but style is always a matter of relative frequency, and consecutiveness is a good starting point for a stylistics of prose.

But there is a second possible starting point, which leads, not towards narrativity, but towards complexity. It’s a point often made by studies of dérimage, the thirteenth-century prosification of courtly romances which was one of the great moments of decision, so to speak, between verse and prose, and where one thing that kept happening, in the transfer from one into the other, was that the number of subordinate clauses—increased.footnote3 Which makes sense, a line of verse can to a certain extent stand alone, and so it encourages independent clauses; prose is continuous, it’s more of a construction, I don’t think it’s an accident that the myth of ‘inspiration’ is so seldom evoked for prose: inspiration is too instantaneous to make sense there, too much like a gift; and prose is not a gift; it’s work: ‘productivity of the spirit’, Lukács called it in the Theory of the Novel, and it’s the right expression: hypotaxis is not only laborious—it requires foresight, memory, adequation of means to ends—but truly productive: the outcome is more than the sum of its parts, because subordination establishes a hierarchy among clauses, meaning becomes articulated, aspects emerge that didn’t exist before . . . That’s how complexity comes into being.

The acceleration of narrativity; the construction of complexity. Both real: and totally at odds with each other. What did prose mean for the novel . . . it allowed it to play on two completely different tables—popular and cultivated—making it a uniquely adaptable and successful form. But, also, an extremely polarized form. The theory of the novel should have greater morphological depth, I said earlier, but depth is an understatement: what we have here are stylistic extremes that in the course of two thousand years not only drift further and further away from each other, but turn against each other: the style of complexity, with its hypothetical, concessive, and conditional clauses, making forward-looking narrative seem hopelessly simple-minded and plebeian; and popular forms, for their part, mutilating complexity wherever they find it—word, sentence, paragraph, dialogue, everywhere.

A form divided between narrativity and complexity: with narrativity dominating its history, and complexity its theory. And, yes, I understand why someone would rather study sentence structure in The Ambassadors than in its contemporary Dashing Diamond Dick. The problem is not the value judgment, it’s that when a value judgment becomes the basis for concepts, then it doesn’t just determine what is valued or not, but what is thinkable or not, and in this case, what becomes unthinkable is, first, the vast majority of the novelistic field, and, second, its very shape: because polarization disappears if you only look at one of the extremes, whereas it shouldn’t, because it’s the sign of how the novel participates in social inequality, and duplicates it into cultural inequality. A theory of the novel should account for this. But to do so, we need a new starting point. ‘Veblen explains culture in terms of kitsch, not vice-versa’, writes Adorno in Prisms, disapprovingly:footnote4 but it’s such a tempting idea. Taking the style of dime novels as the basic object of study, and explaining James’s as an unlikely by-product: that’s how a theory of prose should proceed—because that’s how history has proceeded. Not the other way around.

Looking at prose style from below . . . With digital databases, this is now easy to imagine: a few years, and we’ll be able to search just about all novels that have ever been published, and look for patterns among billions of sentences. Personally, I am fascinated by this encounter of the formal and the quantitative. Let me give you an example: all literary scholars analyse stylistic structures—free indirect style, the stream of consciousness, melodramatic excess, whatever. But it’s striking how little we actually know about the genesis of these forms. Once they’re there, we know what to do; but how did they get there in the first place? How does the ‘confused thought’ (Michel Vovelle) of mentalité, which is the substratum for almost all that happens in a culture—how does messiness crystallize into the elegance of free indirect style? Concretely: what are the steps? No one really knows. By sifting through thousands of variations and permutations and approximations, a quantitative stylistics of the digital archive may find some answers. It will be difficult, no doubt, because one cannot study a large archive in the same way one studies a text: texts are designed to ‘speak’ to us, and so, provided we know how to listen, they always end up telling us something; but archives are not messages that were meant to address us, and so they say absolutely nothing until one asks the right question. And the trouble is, we literary scholars are not good at that: we are trained to listen, not to ask questions, and asking questions is the opposite of listening: it turns criticism on its head, and transforms it into an experiment of sorts: ‘questions put to nature’ is how experiments are often described, and what I’m imagining here are questions—put to culture. Difficult; but too interesting not to give it a try.