Jeffrey Kessler: The Novel vs. the Many: Rethinking Form in V21

“The question of criticism’s own form might thus become part of the story.”

—Angela Leighton, On Form

New Formalism, Strategic Formalism, and Strategic Presentism constellate some of the ways we have reconsidered form in the twenty-first century, but these new conversations require us to reconsider the particular forms we appeal to, both in literature and in criticism. Moreover, what forms do we privilege or take as our models? If we aspire towards a more strategic formalism, then we must think more about why we employ certain forms as criticism and take up other forms for analysis.

Revisiting the papers from the conference published in boundary2 online, I was struck by this thought: our interrogation of the field tends to concretize some of our deepest assumptions about it. What could signal a more traditional commitment to the field of Victorian studies than an entire panel on Charles Dickens’s Bleak House? (Maybe a week-long conference on it in Santa Cruz? I would not object)  We take for granted the importance of a novel like Bleak House—and even the novel form itself—without often reflecting why.

None of the papers seems to acknowledge the novel’s representational status in Victorian studies, and this should not be overlooked, especially during the reflective moment V21 has occasioned. Bleak House, or the ways we discuss Bleak House, might best represent the state of Victorian studies both for what the novel affords critics, but also for what it overshadows. Bleak House sits at the center of the Victorian novel tradition as a key representative of the realist novel. On the other hand, Bleak House possesses, in the words of Alex Woloch, a “remarkable singularity” in its two-narrator and two-tense structure. We study Bleak House because it is both typical and exceptional. In this way, studying Bleak House may represent the “traditional” approach that Jesse Rosenthal proposes:

I think the advantage that literary criticism has in this regard—and perhaps particularly Victorian studies, the field that studies the conditions that allowed modern literary criticism to exist—is that it isn’t ontology; it’s an institutional practice that puts us in a prized place to understand the possibilities and limitations of tradition.

Rosenthal acknowledges here that he is talking about the novel tradition, but the novel stands in synecdochal relation to literary studies. To use another literary conceit, the novel may be the protagonist of Victorian studies, but what about the minor characters of this tradition? Too often, we discuss the role of literature in Victorian studies (and literary studies, more generally) in terms of the novel at the expense of the essay, short story, sermon, and countless other forms. Recent debates about the ways we read now (surface reading, depth reading, distant reading, etc.) discuss literary studies almost exclusively from the perspective of novelistic discourse. How does a strategic formalism accommodate other forms of literature that, albeit sometimes minor, are manifold?

Maybe I am getting ahead of myself. What about poetry? It is far from being considered a minor form, but it was one that seemed mostly absent in the boundary2 online volume. Few participants in the V21 symposium discussed poetry—only Nathan K. Hensley and Sebastian Lecourt, by my count, and these two essays were part of a larger panel on empire. Our understanding of form changes when we have to account for differences between poetry and prose, fiction and non-fiction, the literary and the critical.

I want to amplify and extend some of Hensley’s discussion of form not just because he discusses poetry rather than the novel, but because he advocates a more capacious sense of form. Hensley discusses one of Swinburne’s notebooks when the poet was an undergraduate at Oxford. By nature of its particularity, this one specific notebook contrasts the way we might understand form in a novel like Bleak House. Hensley claims that the notebook is not so much a coherent book, but “a book in the process of becoming: call it an essay, as in a trial or experiment.” In one light, it could be anti-formal, as it is a historical document and accrual of Swinburne’s “thought in motion, a testament…to writing as a process not a thing.” Hensley understands form as pliant and supple, close to Angela Leighton’s understanding in On Form (2007). For Leighton, form has an erratic history:

It does not lend itself to chronological plotting, and its more technical meanings come and go on the tides of fashion…At the same time, this is a word which, at certain points in history, becomes charged with an extra load of philosophical or critical meaning. (3-4)

In our own moment, strategic formalism asks us to reexamine form and what charge form elicits for us. When reading Hensley’s account of Swinburne’s notebook and its particularities, Walter Pater’s Conclusion to The Renaissance comes to mind: “Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us, — for that moment only” (119).

In a longer version, I would offer an extended reading of “The Conclusion” to The Renaissance as a potential model for the way we can understand form’s pliancy both historically for the nineteenth century and for our own moment in the twenty-first. For now, I will conclude with a few thoughts about the quote above. A Paterian model of form is momentary. It requires the critic to be attentive to the conditions surrounding him or her, and those conditions are not bound by any preconceived notions. Rather, the critic must be aware that the moment dictates its own formal perfection, whether it’s the hills, seas, some mood, passion, insight, intellectual excitement, Bleak House’s narrative structure, or the slashes in Swinburne’s Oxford Notebooks.

The novel may dominate our discussion of form, but discussions of form and formalism in Victorian studies, and literary studies more broadly, will benefit by interrogating the assumptions we make about the forms we take up for discussion. Perhaps I am suggesting a more modest expansion of strategic formalism here—a reflexive one, a more capacious understanding of form that begins with the singular act of perception, that acknowledges its unique momentary response, and recognizes the extension of form as part of the shape of criticism itself.

Indiana University

Works Cited

Hensley, Nathan K. “Swinburne’s Oxford Notebook: Violence in/as Form.” boundary2 online. Volume 1, Issue 2 (October, 2016), V21 Special Issue. Accessed 1 Jan 2016.

Leighton, Angela. On Form: Poetry, Aestheticism, and the Legacy of a Word. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.

Pater, Walter. Studies in the History of the Renaissance. New York: Oxford World Classics, 2010.

Rosenthal, Jesse. “Maintenance Work: On Tradition and Development.” boundary2 online. Volume 1, Issue 2 (October, 2016), V21 Special Issue. Accessed 1 Jan 2016.

Woloch, Alex. “Bleak House 19, 20, 21.” boundary2 online. Volume 1, Issue 2 (October, 2016), V21 Special Issue. Accessed 1 Jan 2016.



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