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But such “realistic social-familial novels” labor under precisely the difficulty that Jacobs describes — the absence of the kind of social limitations on private conduct that generate most of the dramatic tension in “Middlemarch,” or “Jude the Obscure,” or “Madame Bovary,” or basically every single book that Henry James ever wrote. You can write an interesting contemporary novel based on the “Anna Karenina” template in which the heroine gets a divorce, marries her modern-day Vronsky, and they both discover that they’re unhappy with the choices they’ve made — but the last act just isn’t going to be quite as gripping as Tolstoy’s original. You can turn the Jane Austen template to entertaining modern purposes, as Hollywood did in “Clueless” and “Bridget Jones’ Diary,” but the social and economic stakes are never going to be as high for a modern-day Elizabeth Bennet as they were for the Regency-era version.It’s not surprising, then, that the place where the family novel still flourishes is in the literature of Asian and African diasporas, where characters always have at least one foot in a social world that’s more restrictive, and thus more likely to generate the kind of personal dilemmas that dominated Victorian fiction. And it’s not at all surprising that contemporary novelists would turn to what’s often dismissed as “genre” fiction — not only historical novels but fantasy and sci-fi, and hybrids thereof like “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” — in order to find stakes high enough to approximate the kind of suspense that a Tolstoy or a Thomas Hardy could generate, almost effortlessly, by simply thrusting a character into an unhappy marriage.
I am not a reader of fiction, so take what follows with a very large grain of salt. Ross’s remarks, though, brought to mind the perennial question of why Southerners make such good fiction writers. I don’t know that that generalization is still true, but to the extent that it was, it’s probably got a lot to do with what Ross is talking about here. Life in the South, at least until relatively recently, was much more socially restrictive and traditional, in both good and bad ways, than it was in the North. When you have individuals, in all their complexity and contradictions, running smack into restrictions, you have tension … and you have plot. Plots. Thousands of ’em.The South isn’t “the South” anymore, of course, so perhaps the question isn’t relevant anymore. Still, Ross’s blog made me wonder how you get good fiction when there’s nothing much for people to rebel against. If God doesn’t exist, except as the Divine Squish of the Moralistic Therapeutic Deists, and you can live more or less how you like, and most of the country is middle class … then what do you write about? How do you get compelling literature out of the conditions of secular, liberal/libertarian bourgeois democracy? Take it away, Harry Lime: