The Nouveau Roman does not mean much to American readers now. But in the 1960s and 1970s, it signified and indeed epitomized French cultural sophistication. The symbolic capital fetched by French cultural imports what Pascale Casanova calls "literary capital," in particular had never been so high.1 For those who sought to solve the problem of "the death of the novel" with a newer, better novel, the Nouveau Roman along with Barthes's Nouvelle Critique and Lévi-Strauss's Structuralism, its affiliated movements in criticism and anthropology was a glowing opportunity. In fact, "the death of the novel" became, from the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies, the defining discursive paradigm of the American literary field, with two interlocutors staking its argumentative poles: Susan Sontag and Gore Vidal. Both believed that "serious" literature was in decline, and each had his or her own solution: Sontag, playing the utopian, believed that an attitudinal shift was needed, a breath of fresh inspiration from elsewhere (Europe) to reinvigorate the American novel; Vidal, the materialist, believed the novel was doomed to obsolesce and lose out to other forms of media, notably cinema, television, and New Journalism.2 I will argue here that the American literary field received the Nouveau Roman openly in some corners, grudgingly in others amid this discursive climate largely thanks to the efforts of Sontag, who played a pivotal role in producing what we can call a "structural misunderstanding." And if Sontag was the movement's public spokesperson, the American university was its metabolizing organ, as would remain the case for all the various iterations of "French Theory" that the university served to produce and propagate.

As François Cusset has argued, what became known as "French Theory" was largely a creation of American literature and philosophy departments in response and as a remedy to a profound "axiological crisis in the humanities," brought on by the declining importance of New Criticism.3 In contrast to Existentialism, whose importation into America was, per Cusset, done "as is" in order to preserve the "strangeness of [its] exotic provenance," French Theory was much more actively shaped and coddled to suit the requirements of the American literary field.4 In other words, it went through a much more profound process of "structural misunderstanding," which, according to Cusset, is the reason for its lasting influence in American higher education.5

I borrow the term structural misunderstanding from Cusset, who, developing the idea from Pierre Bourdieu, requires a model for the "highly productive transfer of words and concepts from one specific market of symbolic goods to another."6 The idea is that, for a concept developed in the hyper-peculiar context of one literary field to take root in a foreign literary field, it must be made to conform to the structures already present in the foreign field. As a result, its valences of meaning necessarily change. As Bourdieu puts it:

The fact that texts circulate without their context, that to use my terms they don't bring with them the field of production of which they are a product, and the fact that the recipients, who are themselves in a different field of production, reinterpret the texts in accordance with the structure of the field of reception, are facts that generate some formidable misunderstandings and that can have good or bad consequences.7

These misunderstandings, then, are neither willful nor malicious they are a structural requirement, and one takes note of them descriptively, rather than normatively. As Bourdieu goes on to explain, the relative mobility of a foreign concept in a new field (i.e., the lack of a specific, identifiable context with which the concept would otherwise be associated), indeed the fact that it must move, or be made to conform to a new structure, predisposes that concept to instrumentalization. "The process of transfer [of a concept] from a domestic field to a foreign one is made up of a series of social operations," Bourdieu argues.8 Among these operations is the specific set of position-takings which the imported idea will be made to effectuate in the field of reception. As a result, "often with foreign authors it is not what they say that matters so much as what they can be made to say."9

The concept of French Theory covers many lines of philosophical thought and clusters of ideas, all of which Cusset spends the length of his book elaborating. Most importantly, it is a sort of shorthand for poststructuralism, deconstruction, and the work of Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, late-Barthes, and others. Thus, for Cusset, the American field's obsession with finding a set of foreign ideas that could be molded and "made to say" something about indeed to solve an existing "crisis" within American culture began, more or less, in October 1966 at the "Language of Criticism and the Sciences of Man" conference, held at Johns Hopkins University, when post-structuralism is said to have first been articulated. But it really began six or seven years prior, and probably earlier than that, as Existentialism grew less enticing and a taste for something new began to develop.

For some reason, Cusset insists that structuralism was "met with the most complete indifference" in the United States, despite the fact that as soon as English translations of Lévi-Strauss's work became available, they began to be discussed in almost every important literary and culture magazine in the country.10 Even if American academics never took to structuralism as "theory" in the same way they took to poststructuralism, they were certainly already teaching it in the form of the Nouveau Roman and of Barthes's early work. This is an important correction because it helps us to see that the ground for the reception and development of French Theory and postmodernism (as vexed a term as this is) was already being laid before Derrida dropped a few jaws at Johns Hopkins. It was being laid, in fact, by the nouveaux romanciers, and importantly by Sontag, who was actively searching for a way to revive the novel in America.11 The outlook she proposed that Americans should adopt was one she took from the Nouveau Roman and from Barthes, and it was one that would be essential to the formation of what would come to be called the "new fiction" in America.

One could write an entire book on the so-called "new fiction." For now, suffice it to point out that the cultural situation in America, insofar as it borrowed from French ideas, was already changing by 1960. If we want a zero hour, we might look toward a 1959 trip to America undertaken by Claude Ollier and Robert Pinget, two nouveaux romanciers central to the group, socially speaking.12 The pair formed a delegation under the Young Artist's Project, an initiative spearheaded by the Ford Foundation to better acquaint Americans with young European authors.13 Their candidacy to the program was supported by Nathalie Sarraute and Alain Robbe-Grillet, and they followed on the heels of Günther Grass's tour with the same program. Ollier and Pinget wrote frequently to Robbe-Grillet and Sarraute during their visit, often apprising them of the status of the English translations of the group's novels. This final point is not to be missed: by 1960, several novels by Robbe-Grillet, Sarraute, Michel Butor, Claude Simon, and others had been or were being published in English by a number of newly illustrious independent presses including Grove Press and George Braziller as well as by the larger Simon & Schuster, whose editors took an interest in Butor. Collectively, these presses, many of which wielded considerable cultural capital within the American field, comprised the third and possibly most powerful prong (alongside Sontag's evangelism and the curricula of American colleges) in the tripartite effort to import the Nouveau Roman into America.

Crucially, Ollier notes that the Nouveau Roman and its growing reputation preceded them in the United States particularly among faculty and students at the prestigious American universities. "Your name is everywhere," Ollier wrote to Robbe-Grillet from Boston, after having visited New York (where he met Grove Press publisher Barney Rosset), Princeton, Harvard, and Boston University. "Many are those who have read one or two of your books in French."14

The interest the American academy evinced for the Nouveau Roman was felt perhaps most keenly by Michel Butor. During the 1959-60 academic year, Butor traveled with his wife and daughter to Philadelphia, where he served as a visiting professor at Bryn Mawr. He was so impressed by his reception there, and so pleased by the atmosphere of the American university, that the adventure "pushed him often to renew the experience at different universities in the United States and elsewhere in the world."15 (Butor went mainstream in the US in a way the others did not; Ollier, in a letter to Robbe-Grillet, expresses some related jealousy on the latter's behalf "I was very amicably received by [Maurice-Edgar] Coindreau . . . He seems, unfortunately, to be more interested in Butor than in you.")16

There was a pronounced reception of the Nouveau Roman in the United States outside the academy, too. The problem was that it was often negative. On December 17, 1959, Ollier wrote to Sarraute to tell her about a negative review of her novel, Martereau, published in Time Magazine three days earlier.17 He found the review symptomatic of a certain provincialism that kept its hold on the world of American arts and letters, which, to his mind, lagged sorely beyond the innovations being wrought in France. "Once again," he writes to Sarraute, "the last sentence resorts to this sick need for suspense and the resolution of suspense that floats in the literary, theatrical and cinematographic atmosphere here, like an indestructible miasma."18 The unsigned book review (all Time Books articles were unsigned until the 1980s), "Surface without Depth," is indeed a takedown not only of Sarraute's novel, but also of Robbe-Grillet's just-released Jealousy and Duras's The Square, all of which are perfunctorily criticized for the crime mentioned in the article's title: depthlessness. (If the critic in question had read Robbe-Grillet's essays on the novel, he or she'd have known that "depth" was precisely the concept being critiqued: "Not only do we no longer consider the world as our own, our private property, designed according to our needs and readily domesticated, but we no longer even believe in its 'depth.'")19 Time had begun reviewing the works of the Nouveau Roman a year earlier, with a similarly snarky appraisal of Sarraute's A Man Unknown, in which the reviewer claims that Sarraute "writes like a woman who has lost her novelist's wits."20

In general, one could summarize Time's appraisal of the Nouveau Roman throughout the 1960s and 70s as bad-getting-worse. The reviews become less witty and more sardonic over time, to the point where the Nouveau Roman is discussed like a cult, with Robbe-Grillet cutting the figure of the Christ-pretending leader. The movement is feared, almost, as a sort of foreign scourge poisoning the American field. Robbe-Grillet is in fact mentioned in over 40 Time book and film reviews between the 1960s and late-70s, occasionally with reference to his own work, but most often as an invocation of the hold he is said to exert over some other writer frequently another member of the Nouveau Roman cult or someone thought to be associated with it, like J. M. G. Le Clézio whose book is under review. For example, a negative review of Butor's Mobile, titled "Watered Whine," derides the author as Robbe-Grillet's "disciple."21 The term "Nouveau Roman" appears in more than 70 Time review articles over the same period. Again, almost all of these are negative or at least doubtful in tone.22

Time, of course, was not the only publication reviewing works by the nouveaux romanciers. But it is significant as an organ of reception for the broad middle of American literary tastes in the period I am talking about. As Mark Greif has put it, Time was "the highbrow masquerading as middlebrow the staff were sophisticated intellectuals who nevertheless insisted publicly on the view of American commonsense."23 A review of Time's reviews on any body of literature therefore helps us take the pulse of mainstream American tastes and reception.

That said, the Nouveau Roman was received in most of the other major venues as well. The New York Times, for instance, took a less acerbic though often lukewarm stance with respect to many of Robbe-Grillet's works, finding moments of deep appreciation only in the hands of French-born critics (like Henri Peyre) or in a couple of broad, synoptic essays on the state of contemporary European literature writ large.24 More nuanced appraisals could be found in the pages of The New Yorker and especially the New York Review of Books, as will be explored shortly. But in speaking of those latter publications we are already speaking of the highbrow masquerading as itself, to wit, a stable of writers often with one foot inside the academy, like Sontag and Hannah Arendt. Toward the top of the pyramid, where the audiences were smaller, the Nouveau Roman had its due; but in the wider public it was more often than not the object of ridicule. As far as Ollier, Pinget, and Butor were concerned, when it came to their reception in America, they were as-yet appreciated only in certain, high-minded circles closely associated with the universities or with the rich-in-cultural-capital publishers, editors, and translators who sought to import them.25

That well of highbrow appreciation, in turn, was internally differentiated. The reality Ollier experienced on his tour of the American Northeast a finding that Robbe-Grillet would later say made the utmost sense to him was that, even where the works of the Nouveau Roman were appreciated, taught, and celebrated by faculty and students alike, there was a fundamental difference in the quality of that appreciation. The students, in his view, understood their work better. "The perspective of the students who spoke with me seems more sensible and more correct than that of the professors."26 The takeaway to Ollier and Robbe-Grillet was clear: if the youth were the future, then the future was bright.

If only they had known Susan Sontag, they'd have seen that their smartest and most vocal proponent in America was closer in age (if only slightly) and demeanor to the professors than to the students. Sontag was the public-sphere counterpart to Bruce Morrissette, who used his newfound position in the Romance Languages & Literature department of the University of Chicago to make the Nouveau Roman mainstream, academically speaking.27 Indeed, by contrast with their reception in Time, as mentioned above, the nouveaux romanciers found a warm welcome initially, at least in the pages of the New York Review of Books, thanks to Sontag and like-minded souls like Arendt and Robert Silvers. For Sontag's early critical work, the Nouveau Roman and its affiliated28 interlocutors (Barthes and Lévi-Strauss) were about to take on supreme importance.29 Sontag's sojourn in Paris at the end of the 1950s began her intellectual obsession with European art, literature, and cinema. Barthes, in particular, made an outsized impression on her. One can't help but think that she hoped to do with Against Interpretation what Barthes had done in Writing Degree Zero  that is, to name and promote a new artistic sensibility, to be the champion of the coming aesthetic dawn. It is significant that, in her obituary for Barthes, Sontag doesn't neglect the opportunity to prove that, even in his opinion, the two were kindred spirits: "'Ah, Susan. Toujours fidèle,' were the words with which he greeted me, affectionately, when we last saw each other. I was, I am."30

In the face of the death of the novel, Sontag was preparing to make the lessons of the European cultural tradition which she saw not only as superior but also very much alive teachable to American audiences, especially the generation of young Americans then blooming under the sign of Marshall McLuhan's "global village." Between 1962, two years after Ollier and Pinget's visit to the US, and 1965, Sontag wrote all of the essays collected in Against Interpretation. Of those in the collection, six of them "Against Interpretation," "On Style," "The Anthropologist as Hero," "The Novels of Nathalie Sarraute," "Resnais's Muriel," and "One Culture and the New Sensibility" deal directly with concepts and aesthetic propositions endemic to the Nouveau Roman and the intellectual currents in which it swam. "Against Interpretation" (1964) and "On Style" (1965), in particular, put forward arguments that Sontag appears to have gotten directly from Robbe-Grillet's Pour un nouveau roman, which she would have had the opportunity to read after its publication in 1963.

As ever when discussing "movements" or collectivities of writers who are, almost without exception, more heterogeneous in their tastes and output than is outwardly granted or understood, we have to be careful. The internal heterogeneity of any creative coterie implies a normal distribution in the size of the theory-practice gap among the members. The head theorists' work will likely fit the profile better than that of the more peripheral members. And even then the discrepancies are notable. Another salient problem is the movement's contemporary reception: notwithstanding what they might have claimed for themselves, their work may well have been seen and categorized differently by others. What was said? and what was done? is a dizzying matter of contradictory appearances.

In the case of the Nouveau Roman, the relative uniformity of the theory is met with a corresponding diversity of the practice. The group itself was popularized in 1957 by Maurice Nadeau,31 who incidentally also wrote the first definitive history of Surrealism, a fact which underscores the role that critics can play in both identifying and consolidating emergent dispositions in the field.32 As we shall see, this kind of external recognition was useful in turn for the auto-theorization taken up by some of the group's members. The Nouveau Roman's head theorists of the 1950s and 60s Robbe-Grillet, Sarraute, and Butor more or less agreed about the major problems of the novel form, the main traditions to eschew, and the most promising objectives for novelistic research.33 But the writings of the nouveaux romanciers, however unified in certain respects, differed widely in others. It was thanks to critics like Nadeau and, especially, Barthes, that they were able to clearly draw and thus declare the Nouveau Roman's lines of distinction, its circle of influences, its enemies, and its possible future trajectories.34

The theory, even toward the beginning, was already an evolving means of applying intentionality and coherence ex post facto to a collection of writers and works, with the idea that propounding the cohesiveness of what was done would consolidate the consensus about what is to be done. This sense of cohesiveness in turn strengthened the resolve of Jérôme Lindon at Les Éditions de Minuit, the small publishing house responsible for publishing the nouveaux romanciers; indeed, as Anne Simonin has scrupulously shown, Minuit would in short order come to define itself almost entirely by its role in the creation of the Nouveau Roman, disavowing its roots in "committed" literature.35 The harder Minuit leaned into the unified theory of the Nouveau Roman, the more it predisposed the latter to being inherited, in the 1970s, by a "second generation" of theorists most notably, Jean Ricardou who could riff on the wealth of core ideas, refine and redefine the group's aims and principles in response to developments in the field.36

Field theory enables us to bracket the problems of internal heterogeneity by centering the social meaning of the Nouveau Roman. The contradiction of appearances is resolved from this perspective: what was said becomes what was done, for every assertion made on behalf of the Nouveau Roman was itself an act of position-taking and consolidation within the field, and every work produced and claimed by the group served as a representation of that position, whose characteristics will be discussed below. Similarly, every external attempt to define the Nouveau Roman can be read as the position of the movement as seen and as claimed by those who occupied other, sometimes opposed positions within the field. This position itself and not the internal heterogeneity it might be said to poorly represent is the salient object of consideration for critics like Sontag.

Viewed in this light, the Nouveau Roman emerges as a movement of writers concerned with occupying the position of apolitical art within the French literary field.37 As each position within the sub-field of small-scale production must, in Bourdieu's conception, be defined in opposition to other positions within that sub-field, the Nouveau Roman was specifically concerned with distinguishing itself from two dominant strongholds of political art, which were themselves opposed to one another: the socialist realists on the one hand, and the Sartrean engagés on the other. Concretely, this act of distinction was effectuated by association with the broad aesthetic principle that, in the previous century, might have been taken as l'art pour l'art  art for art's sake or else l'art pur. That is to say that, in terms of distinction if not in fact, the point was to produce a literature that could not be evaluated or understood in terms of its utility, its reference to things or ideas out there, political or otherwise. "The world is neither significant nor absurd. It is, quite simply" this is the voice of the new novel, ventriloquized by Robbe-Grillet.38 This positioning, in turn, required the nouveaux romanciers to privilege certain aesthetic dispositions over others: form over content, autonomy over heteronomy, description over reference. The result was a movement which, in its most widely circulated theories and its texts, staked out three, interrelated definitions of the novel, all of which would become important to the American literary field via the process of structural misunderstanding: the novel as presence, the novel as structure, the novel as laboratory.

I'll now discuss how the terms of engagement that govern Sontag's metabolization of the Nouveau Roman for American readers are precisely those features that define and distinguish the Nouveau Roman as a movement: the novel as presence, as structure, and as laboratory. It is by running these aesthetic features through the necessary prism of structural misunderstanding that Sontag makes them legible to the field in which she stakes a position as high-modernist critic and aesthete. By the same token, these features also serve as the terms by which the virulent critique of the Nouveau Roman (and, along with it, Barthes, Structuralism, and a "new sensibility") is waged. As I'll show, Gore Vidal and others seized on the very ideas that Sontag thought worth championing and turned them into objects of scorn and ridicule. The outcome of this dialectic was a fierce debate on the nature and function of art, which, paradoxically, had the effect of reviving a literary field that had all but convinced itself of its own fatal diagnosis. To put it another way, the Nouveau Roman was the centerpiece of a new artistic discourse that would come to govern the evolution of the American literary field in the postwar period.

See More, Hear More, Feel More

"Against Interpretation" (1964) was the essay that shot Sontag's star into the firmament. It was at once a radical critical statement and a document that resonated deeply with the new sensibility, broadly construed, then gripping the younger generation. Sontag's argument, in its broadest strokes, is summarized by its famous, closing tagline: "In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art."39 Down with saying what works of art are about. Up with feeling them as they are feeling them there.

The essay's enemies are not only the critics who make all art a matter of interpretation, who make sure every work is "about something", but also the "overcooperative" artists who write precisely in order to be interpreted that is, those who "install, within the work itself . . . the clear and explicit interpretation" of the work.40 In the idiom of "content" and "form," about which Sontag will have much to say in "On Style," this critique is aimed at writers and readers who overwork their art by failing and refusing to acknowledge the true primacy of form. As Sontag puts it: "By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable."41

This is a telling comment. What we should want, the essay tells us, is an untamed work of art, an encounter with it that mirrors stepping out into the wild. The line is appealing, but its logic is actually quite foreign to, e.g., a literary scholar. The very activity of criticism itself is to tame, control, conform. Hence the radical nature of Sontag's proposition: away with the critics, out with criticism. This kind of exaggerated claim is great because it does a perfect job of exposing the logic of the field. Sontag, as anyone who reads, say, any of the other essays in this collection can easily see, is a dyed-in-the-wool critic. What she does and what she says are here so perfectly misaligned (and in other essays she would learn to paper over this gap) that one is forced to ask why; and the moment one does is the moment one sees that such claims are designed to stake a certain kind of position that of the iconoclast, that of the new school, that of the body over the mind.

Sontag takes her let-the-work-of-art-be-there-before-becoming-something attitude from Robbe-Grillet. She reveals as much when she mentions Robbe-Grillet and his opinions on art while discussing the film he wrote for Alain Resnais, Last Year at Marienbad. "From interviews, it appears that Resnais and Robbe-Grillet consciously designed Last Year at Marienbad to accommodate a multiplicity of equally plausible interpretations." She goes on to praise the film in the same terms as Robbe-Grillet himself uses in Pour un nouveau roman. She lauds Marienbad for being, in fact, much more than this appearance for resisting interpretation: "What matters in Marienbad is the pure, untranslatable, sensuous immediacy of some of its images, and its rigorous if narrow solutions to certain problems of cinematic form."42 We can compare this rather directly with Robbe-Grillet's vision for the "future universe of the novel," as articulated in For a New Novel:

​​As for the novel's characters, they may themselves suggest many possible interpretations; they may, according to the preoccupations of each reader, accommodate all kinds of comment psychological, psychiatric, religious, or political yet their indifference to these "potentialities" will soon be apparent. Whereas the traditional hero is constantly solicited, caught up, destroyed by these interpretations of the author's, ceaselessly projected into an immaterial and unstable elsewhere, always more remote and blurred, the future hero will remain, on the contrary, there. It is the commentaries that will be left elsewhere; in the face of his irrefutable presence, they will seem useless, superfluous, even improper.43

The stance against interpretation, in other words, is a key development from the French literary field which Sontag is attempting to import and rework for the American sensibility.

But what she would not have gotten from Robbe-Grillet's theories of the novel is the notion of an erotics of art. Much as she takes from Robbe-Grillet's emphasis on there-ness as against about-ness, the blanket ethos under which she cloaks this new disposition could not be more different from the one championed by Robbe-Grillet in the 1950s and early 60s. Sontag may well have pulled her erotics of art, in part, from Le Voyeur and indeed Last Year at Marienbad, which some have called a rape fantasy; but Robbe-Grillet was careful not to place the erotic at the center of his theories of the novel. For him, the stance against interpretation is not the necessary symptom of a commitment to an erotics of art, but one of a commitment against Sartrean thought and realism more broadly.44 Again, this stance positions Robbe-Grillet and, consequently, the Nouveau Roman in the camp of apolitical art, within the French literary field. We hear in the words, "the world is neither significant nor absurd. It is, quite simply," the rebuke not only of Balzac and the socialist realists but also of the Existentialists, whose major innovation was supposed to be the identification of the absurd in everyday experience. For the Nouveau Roman, such an idea was a mere invention, whipping up the air around an otherwise unmoving, uncaring world. The point is to adopt something like a poetics of presence, to write only "what is," not to subordinate one's art to ulterior (read: political) purposes and meanings.

Sontag's rejection of hermeneutically inclined art takes a different tack. Indeed, she has little to say about realism in "Against Interpretation," aside from her categorizing Thomas Mann as an example of an "overcooperative" author. This difference is not an accident. It is the direct and ineluctable result of what I have been calling structural misunderstanding. For Sontag to import the essential principle of a poetics of presence into the American field, she must, consciously or not, mold it to fit the context and the minute particularities of the American field. Certain aspects of Robbe-Grillet's original theory must be "misunderstood," then, so that they can be used to stake a proper position within the field.

What exactly is the transformation that must be undertaken? As we have seen, Sontag is interested in positioning herself as the champion of modernist aesthetic sensibilities and autonomous art. Those positions against which she would like to oppose and thus define her own territory are the very ones she attacks in "Against Interpretation": the world of ratiocinated criticism, the square circles of stuffy academics, the clueless generation, and so on. In France, as seen, the main oppositional character of Robbe-Grillet's poetics of presence is its refusal of Sartrean engagement and the subordination of art to socialist politics. This is only viable, though, in a field in which those latter positions are salient. In the American field of the 1960s, no such positions held sway, as Gisèle Sapiro has convincingly argued.45 To the extent that Sartre was relevant, it was as a foreign fashion export;46 and American socialism not to mention socialist realism had long-ago been rendered impotent. For Sontag's poetics of presence to land, therefore, it needed to push directly against something that would push back: the gray world of the old sensibility, which was epitomized by its sexual prudishness. Thus, erotics; thus, the new critical sensibility, which valued there-ness over about-ness, and would also value the body over the mind, the organs of sense over the instruments of reason. The art of presence, which Sontag would like to see make its way to America, is one which does not "take the sensory experience of the work of art for granted."47 It is figured as an aesthetics of sensuousness, not only of sight (the privileged sense for Robbe-Grillet), but also taste, touch, and sound: "What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more."48

Sontag's virtuosity in generating the right misunderstanding is probably what made "Against Interpretation" so perfectly popular and enraging at the same time. She found both an ardent audience for and a determined opposition against her argument, which is precisely what's required to import an idea from another context with any lasting success. When it comes to her adoption of the other primary nouveau romanesque aesthetic principles the novel as structure and the novel as laboratory her approach follows the same procedure. As I'll now briefly discuss, Sontag reupholstered these concepts to jibe naturally with other emergent aspects of the "new sensibility" in America.

Sontag's first encounter with Structuralism seems to have come through a direct reading of Lévi-Strauss, whose Tristes Tropiques she discusses in "A Hero of Our Time" (1963) for The New York Review of Books, later slightly revised and published as "The Anthropologist as Hero" in Against Interpretation. Near the end of the essay, Sontag draws several links between the "extreme formalism" and "immense but thoroughly subdued pathos" of Lévi-Strauss's work and the texts of the Nouveau Roman. In fact, the most significant change Sontag made in her revision of the NYRB essay was to make this connection more specific. In the first version, she writes generally of Lévi-Strauss's belonging to a thoroughly anti-Sartrean strain of French thought, one characterized by the "the cult of froideurl'esprit géometrique."49 This tradition, Sontag immediately recognizes, "is represented, among the new novelists, by Nathalie Sarraute, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Michel Butor." The essay as published in Against Interpretation goes further than this, making the kinship between Lévi-Strauss and the Nouveau Roman more explicit: "Exactly in the same spirit as Robbe-Grillet disavows the traditional empirical content of the novel (psychology, social observation), Lévi-Strauss applies the methods of 'structural analysis' to traditional materials of empirical anthropology."50

The petty detail to focus on here is "the traditional empirical content of the novel," which is a sly but very useful understatement of Robbe-Grillet's actual argument. Elsewhere notably in "On Style" Sontag is content to represent Robbe-Grillet faithfully as one who wants to collapse content into form completely.51 In "The Anthropologist as Hero," however, Sontag is trying to frame structuralism as the scholastic equivalent of what she terms "style" in "On Style" that is, as "the particular idiom in which [the artist] deploys the forms of his art."52 Style is not form itself, but something more akin to Barthes's écriture, "the ensemble of features of a literary work such as tone, ethos, rhythm of delivery, naturalness of expression, atmosphere of happiness or malaise," to use Sontag's own definition of the Frenchman's term from her introduction to Writing Degree Zero.53 Structuralism is therefore an idiom in Sontag's conception; it's a deployment of forms. Central to the focus on deployment rather than form itself is that it preserves the structuralist emphasis on the relation between parts over and above any given part: "As in language, where the sounds which make up words are, taken in themselves, meaningless, so the parts of a custom or a rite or a myth (according to Lévi-Strauss) are meaningless in themselves."54 The meaning resides in the mode of their combination, or deployment.

Reducing the austerity of Robbe-Grillet's formalist theories allows Sontag to rope him into her idea of structuralism, of style, which holds that "style has other functions besides that of being."55 Rather than abiding by the pure formalism that might have been implied by the aphoristic "Against Interpretation," Sontag, when speaking of structure/style, does not want to "rule out consideration of the effect or impact or function of art."56 For it is essential to her critical ethos, and to the "new sensibility" more broadly, that an art for-its-own-sake find an articulation that nevertheless embeds it in the social transformations then promised and ongoing in 1960s America. Thus, for Sontag, form can't simply replace content; form needs to be conceived as style so that it can retain a dialectical relationship with content, with about-ness so that it can be considered a sort of technology, something both meaningful in itself and having an application in the world. The "intricate stylistic convolutions of modern art . . . are clearly a function of the unprecedented technical extension of the human will by technology, and the devastating commitment of human will to a novel form of social and psychological order, one based on incessant change."57

If this sounds eerily close to Marshall McLuhan's own proclamations on technology being the extension of man, there's good reason for it. Sontag, keenly aware in 1965 (the publication year of "On Style") of McLuhan's importance to the new sensibility, is embracing a novelistic approach that leans into form qua technology, in McLuhan's sense; that is, into style as "an extension of ourselves," as a "medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action."58 For McLuhan, too, "the medium is the message" did not mean that there were not also messages; it was a reorientation of our focus, not a total upheaval of our aesthetic ontology. One can see immediately how Sontag once more fits the Nouveau Roman, via her notion of structure, into a discourse already endemic to the American field. The latest in French modernism, by her transformative powers, enters the "global village" quite seamlessly.

Embracing a McLuhan-esque vision of the future, as the youth and progressive movements of the 1960s were preparing to do, was always in some sense a techno-utopian proposition. A certain technological and scientific literacy was, in fact, required to grasp the full meaning of the coming global village, the future horizontalized culture. To dig this vision required the dialectical fusion of the so-called "'two cultures,' the literary-artistic and the scientific" within the self-same soul.59 This, in the broadest strokes, is what is meant by Sontag's "new sensibility," which comprises yet another attempt to rework aesthetic principles central to the Nouveau Roman for an American readership. This new "unitary" sensibility is

rooted, as it must be, in our experience, experiences which are new in the history of humanity in extreme social and physical mobility; in the crowdedness of the human scene (both people and material commodities multiplying at a dizzying rate); in the availability of new sensations such as speed (physical speed, as in airplane travel; speed of images, as in the cinema); and in the pan-cultural perspective on the arts that is possible through the mass reproduction of art objects.60

Worth noting here is the fixation on a modern world become almost sublime in technological advancement. Whereas French attitudes toward modernity in this period were grave (ruminations on the atomic bomb, communism's collapsing viability, the rise of consumerism, etc.), Sontag gives us an almost Futurist scene of intoxication, of dizzying speeds, pan-cultural perspectives, crowds of human bodies. Modernity sounds more like a carnival than a catastrophe.

Both the Nouveau Roman and Sontag posit a literature that is like science; for the former, this was encapsulated by the notion of an "experimental literature." We can trace the origin of this conception of the novel directly to Zola, who, in the 1890s, thought it possible to raise literature to the condition of science: "If the experimental method leads to the knowledge of physical life, it should also lead to the knowledge of the passionate and intellectual life."61 For Zola, the founding father of literary Naturalism, the imperative was to do the opposite of what the realists, in his opinion, were doing: rather than beginning with a subject, a theme, a worldview, and then painting the characters according as they might reveal or demonstrate the governing ideas, the novelist should begin with the facts, with "the known," and allow it to take them into "the unknown."62 He described the novel as "a laboratory" on the order of one found in a medical hospital.63 Just as the human biologist, in order to understand how the body works, must dissect every organ, weigh it, assess its features and functions, etc., so too must the novelist understand society by scrutinizing its real places, its people, its grit and grime, before the truth of its functioning emerges. Indeed, the truth in question is said to emerge all on its own after sufficient investigation, as if illuminating itself via empirical logic. This is, not without consequence, the first modern declaration by a novelist that plot should assume no prior importance to the creative process. If the experiment is done carefully and methodically, plot will emerge on its own, as an output of the method.

There is one crucial difference between Zola's laboratory and that of the Nouveau Roman. For Zola, the experimental novel has as its aim a more truthful representation of reality. That is to say that the naturalist novel signifies beyond itself, to the world out there, precisely the sort of thing Robbe-Grillet thought outdated. The science of literature advocated by the Nouveau Roman the one which, as we shall see, became the object of admiration for Sontag and that of ridicule for Vidal rests on the premise that progress lies within. This is why Robbe-Grillet could confidently proclaim himself to be doing something that had only been sketched in the past (most notably by Roussel): "We may be witnessing the birth of the science of literature."64

The idea that the novel's improvement could only point internally is a necessary consequence of the idea of self-sufficient art and the position of autonomy claimed by the movement within the French field. If the novel cannot be made more useful to the world beyond it (as Sartre believed it could, by devoting itself to the liberation of the individual from bad faith), and if it cannot be made to better reflect the world (as Zola believed), then it can only be made to better serve itself. It must become a superior aesthetic object, or at least a new one, for to find new forms would be to broaden its horizon of aesthetic possibilities.

This is of course easier said than done. As some critics have pointed out, beyond the strictures of Robbe-Grillet's metaphorless novels, as Barthes called them,65 many of the works produced by the Nouveau Roman, to the extent that they are experimental, are often aimed at understanding something new about people, or the world they inhabit. That is, they look to the external world more often and more longingly than they might claim. (In Robbe-Grillet's La Jalousie, for instance, the phenomenology of the jealous gaze, as it is actually experienced out there, is explored in novel ways.) In Sarraute's novels, especially, there is a sense that a new theory of consciousness is being discovered by repeated explorations into the microscopic topographies of her tropisms. As Hannah Arendt saw it, Nathalie Sarraute's genius was to move her "laboratory" away from the psychoanalyst's couch and into "the intimacy of family life, this "semidarkness" behind closed curtains with its Strindbergian overtones . . . " in other words, to ground it in the same world beyond, only at a different location.66 This is why, to critic Vivian Mercier, it is sensible to say that the nouveaux romanciers believe themselves to be "scientists capable of making new discoveries about human experience if they use their instrument, their novel, aright."67 This was a novelistic science that couldn't easily keep its nose out of the world's affairs, despite all claims to the contrary.

Successfully or not, the Nouveau Roman's conception of a literary science is not quite what Sontag has in mind for her American audience. Where the nouveaux romanciers envision a set of experiments designed to methodically test hypotheses, Sontag conceives of a different homology: one which emphasizes not the methodological parallels between science and art, but the sociological ones. She insists that, unlike science, "art does not progress," though it does, via its "history-mindedness," achieve a similar "accumulative aspect."68 Where the two are equivalent that is, where the illusion of the "two cultures" melts away is in their contemporary difficulty. "In our own time, art is becoming increasingly the terrain of specialists," she writes. More tellingly: "The most interesting and creative art of our time is not open to the generally educated; it demands a special effort; it speaks a specialized language."69 The point is that real scientists and real artists inhabit similar, rarified domains of esoteric technique and knowledge. The great artist, in Sontag's eyes, should be seen as possessing not only the same degree but also the same kind of intelligence as, say, an Einstein.

And yet, just as the scientist is said to work dispassionately on problems that affect and/or define the experience of everyday people, so too does the modern artist reach into the world of "non-art," that of base construction materials, say, to make her contemporary sculpture, her painting, her recordings.70 In this way, the shared difficulty with science by no means implies a continuation of the high/low split in the matter of capital-A Art. On the contrary, the artists of the new sensibility do away with this very romanticization of the artist, instead recognizing that "art today is a new kind of instrument, an instrument for modifying consciousness and organizing new modes of sensibility."71 The echo of McLuhan here is again purposeful: art and sciences are both in the business of technology, which is what makes them meaningful in the first place. Very much in keeping with the other essays collected in Against Interpretation, "One Culture" argues that the new sensibility is a sociological concept that both explains and performs the deconstruction of previously cherished binaries: art vs. non-art, high vs. low culture, content vs. form.72 Robbe-Grillet is never far behind, especially in claims such as the following: "The work of art is reasserting its existence as 'object' (even as manufactured or mass-produced object, drawing on the popular arts) rather than as 'individual personal expression.'"73 And again the resonance with McLuhan: "Today's art, with its insistence on coolness, its refusal of what it considers to be sentimentality, its spirit of exactness, its sense of 'research' and 'problems,' is closer to the spirit of science than of art in the old-fashioned sense."

As with her importation of structuralism, Sontag's appropriation of literary science (or scientific literature) triangulates Robbe-Grillet and McLuhan to a salient American position. Crucially for our purposes, she writes that the "primary feature of the new sensibility is that its model product is not . . . the novel."74 Rather, it's just about everything else, everything that belongs to "non-literary culture" proper: painting, sculpture, film, TV, neurology, music even social planning.75 The point, of course, is not that the novel can't join this new sensibility, but rather that is has been holed up with "literary intellectuals" who are "entirely unaware" of what the non-literary culture is up to; that is, who still operate according to the illusion of the two cultures. Sontag, in other words, is waiting for the novel to take its place among these other non-literary arts. This is visible in the list of writers she cites as giving shape to "this new cultural alignment," which notably includes McLuhan, Barthes, and Lévi-Strauss.

Sontag agrees, then, with the nouveaux romanciers that the novel needs to approach the condition of science. Only she tweaks just what that means. Literature, she says in "One Culture" just as she does in "On Style" and "Against Interpretation," needs to get out from under its "heavy burden of 'content'" if it is going to join the new sensibility. She calls this burden "the Matthew Arnold notion of culture," which non-literary artists have broken away from by leaning into the technological functionality of art. "There can be no divorce between science and technology, on the one hand, and art, on the other, any more than there can be a divorce between art and the forms of social life."76 All is One, it's all the same trip, etcetera: art is the science that will alter our relationship with consciousness. One can see the appeal of this idea of literary science to, for lack of a better term, hippie and hippie-adjacent culture. Toward the end of the essay, Sontag goes one step further in suggesting that her nouveau romanesque ideas about art and science, which are one and the same with her ideas about content and form, are themselves a remedy to the elitist view of art: "Because the new sensibility demands less 'content' in art, and is more open to the pleasures of 'form' and style, it is also less snobbish, less moralistic in that it does not demand that pleasure in art necessarily be associated with edification."77

Thus is Robbe-Grillet's slogan "art will be there before being something" transformed through Sontag's properly American misunderstanding.78 Even in this takedown of snobbery there is a glimmer of Robbe-Grillet's own rebuttal to those who criticized his own style for being "inhuman." How, he asks, can a novel which deals only with man and what he does "be accused of turning away from man?"79 On the contrary, his novels are those which, unlike realist novels, refuse to insult and belittle man by adopting what he derisively calls the "humanist" point of view to wit, a point of view which would have us believe that "man is everywhere," via, e.g., the incessant use of personification and anthropomorphizing metaphors.80

The transformation, in the case of literature/art as science, is thus both preservative and mutative. The success of "One Culture," part and parcel of the success of Against Interpretation generally speaking, is attributable to Sontag's redoubtable social vision, her fine attention not simply to what was already present in American culture, but to what it integrally lacked, and to her intuitive sense of just what needed to be brought in to fulfill that lack, and just how it needed to be misunderstood.

Some Near-Sighted Chameleon

To complete the balance of this essay, I should speak briefly of the local reactions to Sontag's Americanization of the Nouveau Roman. Hers was not merely a sermon served and soon forgotten. Against Interpretation quickly became the object of praise and contempt, and so just as quickly became a modern classic in public criticism. More importantly, it inaugurated the terms of a new discourse, including the notion that a novel should resist interpretation (strive toward presence), that art should focus on the deployment of forms, i.e. "style" (turn to structure), and that the novel should join the new sensibility that embraces literature-as-technology (approach the condition of science). As Sontag's fame grew, her association with these ideas also naturally affiliated her with the Nouveau Roman: hence, for example, Gore Vidal's critique of her 1967 novel Death Kit, which he titled, tongue practically poking through his cheek, "Miss Sontag's New Novel," and in which he explicitly ties her to the movement, calling her "more than any other American, a link to European writing today."81

As time went on, Sontag's terms appeared increasingly to be winning the day: suddenly, out of the dead matter of American novels past, a "new fiction" seemed to be brewing, one that seemed openly to defy realist techniques, to play with new "deployments of form," and to demand a certain erudition, a certain "specialization" in literary ideas in order to be read. Among these novelists, who will not be discussed here for lack of space, one finds the likes of John Barth, Donald Barthelme, William H. Gass, John Gardner, John Hawkes, Grace Paley, Sontag herself, and the many, many other writers would follow in their wake in the 1980s, 90s, and early 2000s.

Joe David Bellamy is responsible for coining the term "New Fiction" in this sense, in his 1974 book of interviews by that title.82 Bellamy, sensing that a certain "breakthrough" has occurred, or that the literature of the last decade was "at least, drastically different from the fiction written immediately before by the great American modernists," set out to speak directly with the artists responsible for the new literature, among them most of those named just above.83 He lays the credit (or the blame) at the feet of Sontag, whose Against Interpretation led the "now obvious groundswell in American fiction of the last decade [that] has been characterized by incredible transformations of sensibility and language and by a great variety of formal and technical exploration and sophistication."84 Note the adoption of Sontagian terms for Nouveau Romanesque ideas: "sensibility," "formal and technical." Bellamy agrees with the Sontag of "One Culture" that American fiction was "until recently that most arrière-garde of contemporary art forms," and marvels at how, in the ten years since "Against Interpretation was first published" the very decade that saw "the death of the novel" reach new heights the novel is now "in the process of catching up with painting, music, and film [and] may be suddenly in the process of catching up with the age."85

At around the same time, Gore Vidal was surveying the landscape of American fiction and came to a similar conclusion with a dissimilar affect. He read Bellamy's interviews, then went on to read some of the writers included in New Fiction, only to come away deeply disappointed. The result is his landmark essay, "American Plastic: The Matter of Fiction," published in 1976.86 Vidal's first instinct, and thus his first few sentences, is to blame the state and the existence of the new fiction on Roland Barthes, "whose amused and amusing saurian face peers like some near-sighted chameleon from the back of a half dozen slim volumes now being laboriously read in Academe." Indeed, these two associations the French and the academic are those which strike him as the most enduring and nefarious when it comes to the new literary status quo. And, as we have seen, if his feelings about this state of affairs seem overly negative, his assessment of the fact is spot on. I would be the last to disagree with him, when he looks back on over a decade of American novels and proclaims:

What, recently, has one heard of the New Novel, whose official vernissage occurred in 1938 [sic] with Nathalie Sarraute's publication of Tropismes? The answer is not much directly from the founders but a good deal indirectly, for, with characteristic torpor, America's Departments of English have begun slowly, slowly to absorb the stern aesthetics of Sarraute and Robbe-Grillet . . .

He goes on to say, once again, that Barthes himself, via Sontag his interpreter, is most responsible for making the nouveau romanesque ideas legible to wider audiences, which Vidal is certain they should never have earned themselves.

Vidal proceeds, in over 11,000 words, to express his distaste for virtually every one of the novelists he believes, like Bellamy, should be grouped under the Barthesian-Sontagian sign of "new fiction" in order: Barthelme, Paley, Barth, Gardner, and Pynchon. The only writer for whom he reserves a modicum of respect is William H. Gass, in whose Omensetter's Luck (1966) he finds much to admire.87 What Vidal dislikes about the so-called new fiction could be mapped almost perfectly on the back of each of Sontag's borrowings from the Nouveau Roman: the concern with presence, structure, and science.

As for the first two, presence and structure, Vidal takes issue with John Barth's call for a fiction of "irreality" and with Gass's hope that his "work in progress" will be "really original in form and in effect": "As Rilke shattered the journal form with Malte, and Joyce created his own for Ulysses and Finnegan, I should like to create mine," Gass told Bellamy. This self-conscious modernism, with its concern to develop a novel deployment of forms, is at once the statement of a poetics of presence (especially in its reference to Joyce, whom Vivian Mercier cites as an inspiration for the Nouveau Roman's obsession with presence),88 and the claim to a structuralist disposition. As with all of his put-downs, Vidal's disagreements here amount less to a total counterargument than to a witty repartee: "This is worthy of Jimmy Carter. . . . There seems to me to be a good deal wrong not only logically but aesthetically and historically with this analysis . . . The more like something else the novel is, the more like its true self it is." This last comment is the direct antithesis to Robbe-Grillet's view that a novel should not be like anything else at all; it should and can be only itself.

The attack against structuralism extends more broadly, of course, to the critique of Barthes himself and to the importation/development of French Theory within the American academy. Again, with typical verve:

One might put the case that without a French education there is no way of comprehending, say, Roland Barthes (Sontag suggests as much). One can only take a piece here, a piece there, relate it to the tradition that one knows, and hope for the best. There is comfort, however, in knowing that the French do not get the point to us either.

The problem, though, is that the writers being praised as heralds of the "new" sensibility are those who dive headfirst into the notion that one needs an education to dig it. The outcome of this belief, per Vidal, is what he calls the "University Novel," and he suggests that such novels are written not for normal readers, but primarily to be taught in universities. This distasteful orientation is something he applies to John Barth: "Aware of French theories about literature . . . Barth is exactly the sort of writer our departments of English were bound, sooner or later, to produce."

Vidal, who a decade earlier, in the midst of the death of the novel, advocated continuing to "talk[] of books and writ[e] books, pretending all the while not to notice that the church is empty," seems at this juncture to be feeling the sting of the empty congregation to which he preaches.89 "I find it hard to take seriously the novel that is written to be taught, nor can I see how the American university can provide a base for the making of 'new' writing when the American university is, at best, culturally and intellectually conservative and, at worst, reactionary."90 This critique of the university is bound up with Vidal's long-standing disdain of literary science, or science-inspired literary production. A decade earlier, echoing the sentiment of a New York Times reviewer who saw Robbe-Grillet as bringing "a cold, caliper scrutiny" to whatever he observed,91 Vidal dismissed it as "obvious that both [Sarraute] and Robbe-Grillet see themselves in white smocks working out new formulas for a new fiction."92 And he lamented that it was "the spirit of the age to believe that any fact, no matter how suspect, is superior to any imaginative exercise, no matter how true."93 Now, in "American Plastic," he expands these concerns into the university and, by extension, the University Novel by proclaiming the new sensibility to be that of "R and D (Research and Development)."

To the extent that Sontag wanted literature to approach the condition of science, Vidal was vehemently opposed. And yet "American Plastic" serves as testament to the fact that, in some sense, Sontag had already won. Surveying the last decade in American fiction, Vidal is confronted with the offspring of a new sensibility. Everywhere he looks, he sees the saurian face of M. Barthes, where he would much rather see the same old, same old. Or, if that's not quite fair, he would at least prefer to go no further than acknowledging, much as Sontag does in "One Culture," that however accumulative art is, there is no progress thereby implied: "I realize that language changes from generation to generation. But it does not, necessarily, improve."94


If we zoom out, finally, we'll notice something important. For both Bellamy and Vidal, looking back on the "groundswell" in new fictions over the decade since 1964, the same decade over which the discursive battle of the death of the novel was fought, there is an undifferentiated mass of fictions which are deemed "new." Our literary historical habits are to look back at this period, beginning roughly in the mid-to-late 60s, and to distinguish the powerful, local, and organic strain of postmodern literature (Barth, Pynchon, Barthelme), from the residual, Europe-inflected strain of late modernist novelists (Paley, Sontag-as-novelist, or indeed John Hawkes or Robert Coover). Indeed, this latter strain is all but forgotten by literary critics, as a quick comparison of the citation numbers would tell you, and which fact further fuels the notion that these were the subordinate ideas that had to lose out in the dialectical interchange of literary history.

But the longevity of Barthian metafictions and Pynchonian hysterical realisms in American literature is understood falsely when it is assumed to comprise the winning, postmodern team.95 As I hope to have shown, we miss a crucial piece of evidence when we neglect the fact that all of these writers, "dominant" and "residual" alike, only became differentiable after the fact. In the period I am talking about, they seemed the variegated parts of a greater whole, a "new fiction" whose prime terms of engagement arrived, via the prism of Sontagian misunderstanding, from France. We cannot tell the story of American literature after the 1960s without the Nouveau Roman. We must see the Nouveau Roman as Sontag and Vidal once saw it: as an antidote or poison, depending on one's view; in any case an elixir that, with careful hands, might be poured deep into the porches of the American ear.

Ben Libman is a PhD Candidate in English at Stanford University. He is the co-translator of Gisèle Sapiro's The Sociology of Literature (Stanford University Press, forthcoming) and has written public criticism for many venues, including New Left Review, The Yale Review, and the New York Times


  1. Pascale Casanova, The World Republic of Letters, trans. Malcolm DeBevoise (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 16-21. []
  2. Diagnoses of the death of the novel reached a fever pitch in the 1960s. See, e.g., Frank Kermode, "Life and Death of the Novel," The New York Review of Books, October 28, 1965; John Barth, "The Literature of Exhaustion," The Friday Book (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1984); and Raymond Federman, "Death of the Novel or Another Alternative," Revue Française d'études Américaines, no. 3 (1977): 111-15. For the relevant arguments from Sontag and Vidal, see, esp., Susan Sontag, "The Novels of Nathalie Sarraute," in Susan Sontag: Essays of the 1960s & 70s, ed. David Rieff (New York: Library of America, 2013), 99-110; Gore Vidal, "Writers and the World," in United States: Essays, 1952-1992 (Random House, 1993), 41-47; Gore Vidal, "French Letters: Theories of the New Novel," in United States: Essays, 1952-1992 (Random House, 1993), 89-110. See also: Mark Greif, "'The Death of the Novel' And Its Afterlives: Toward a History of the 'Big, Ambitious Novel,'" Boundary 2 36, no. 2 (2009): 11-30. []
  3. Francois Cusset, French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States, trans. Jeff Fort (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 26. []
  4. Ibid. []
  5. Ibid. []
  6. Cusset, French Theory, xv. []
  7. Bourdieu, Pierre, "The Social Conditions of the International Circulation of Ideas," in Bourdieu: A Critical Reader, ed. Richard Shusterman (Oxford; Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 1999), 221. []
  8. Ibid., 222. []
  9. Ibid., 224. []
  10. Ibid., 29. The most representative and relevant sample in our case is Sontag's own essay on the French anthropologist, "A Hero of Our Time" (November 28, 1963). []
  11. As she puts it, "there is no genre in greater need of sustained reexamination and renovation." Sontag, "Nathalie Sarraute and the Novel," 100. []
  12. I can't account in this essay for all of the authors that have, at one point or another, been affiliated with the Nouveau Roman. Among the writers recognized at various times to have been "first generation" nouveaux romanciers are: Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, Michel Butor, Claude Simon, Marguerite Duras, Robert Pinget, Claude Mauriac, Claude Ollier, Samuel Beckett, Jean Ricardou, and Raymond Queneau. For more on these inclusions, see: Vivian Mercier, The New Novel: From Queneau to Pinget (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971); John Sturrock, French New Novel: Claude Simon, Michel Butor, Alain Robbe-Grillet (London: Oxford University Press, 1969); Francine Dugast-Portes, Le nouveau roman: une césure dans l'histoire du récit: Préface de François Dosse (Rennes: PU RENNES, 2018); Lois Oppenheim, Three Decades of the French New Novel (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1986). []
  13. Michel Butor et al., Nouveau Roman: Correspondance, 16. []
  14. Ibid. "Ton nom est partout . . . Nombreux sont ceux qui ont lu un ou deux de tes livres en français . . ." []
  15. Ibid., 16. " . . . le poussa à souvent renouveler l'expérience dans différentes universités aux États-Unis et ailleurs dans le monde." []
  16. Ibid. 175, "J'ai été reçu très amicalement par Coindreau . . . "Il semble malheureusement s'intéresser plus à Butor qu'à toi." Coindreau was a professor of French literature at Princeton. Notably, he was one of Faulkner's most important translators into French. []
  17. "Surface Without Depth," Time Magazine, December 14, 1959. []
  18. Butor et al., Correspondance, 180. "Encore la dernière phrase relève-t-elle de ce besoin maladif de suspense et de résolution du suspense qui flotte ici dans l'atmosphère littéraire, théâtrale et cinématographique, comme un miasme indestructible." []
  19. Alain Robbe-Grillet, For a New NovelEssays on Fiction, trans. Richard Howard (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1992), 24. []
  20. "Many Tentacled Evasions," Time Magazine, August 4, 1958. []
  21. "Watered Whine," Time, July 19, 1963. []
  22. A partial list of the most exemplary of these articles: "Books: Beware the Blob," Time, October 13, 1958; "Movies Abroad: The Top Drop," Time, September 15, 1961; "Books: Unlucky Pierres," Time, January 5, 1962; "Cinema: All Things to All Men," Time, March 16, 1962; "Books: Eddies of Thought," Time, April 27, 1962; "Books: The Neo-Realists," Time, July 20, 1962; "Cinema: New Wavelet," Time, August 3, 1962; "Books: The Wages of Guilt," Time, April 26, 1963; "Books: Let Me Count the Ways," Time, December 3, 1965; "Books: Polyperse," Time, March 10, 1967; "Books: Ways of Love," Time, April 14, 1967; "Books: Floating Picnic," Time, July 7, 1967; "Books: Bugged Vegetable," Time, April 25, 1969; "Books: Imminent Victorians," Time, November 7, 1969. []
  23. Mark Greif, conversation with source. For Greif's pathbreaking work on American mid-century literature and ideas, see: Mark Greif, The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016). []
  24. A sampling of such articles includes: Justin O'Brien, "These Things They Saw; THE VOYEUR. By Alain Robbe-Grillet," The New York Times, October 12, 1958; Henri Peyre, "Monkeys in a Cage; JEALOUSY. By Alain Robbe-Grillet. Translated by Richard Howard from the French, 'La Jalousie,'" The New York Times, November 22, 1959; Eliot Fremont-Smith, "Books of The Times; An Adventure in Invention," The New York Times, November 23, 1966; Eliot Fremont-Smith, "Books of The Times; A Future for Fiction?," The New York Times, March 11, 1966; Robert Kanters, "The Author Has His Say; The Author," The New York Times, April 3, 1966; Robert Phelps, "Appearances Are Not Deceiving; IN THE LABYRINTH. By Alain Robbe-Grillet. Translated by Richard Howard from the French, 'Dans Le Labyrinthe.' 207 Pp. New York," The New York Times, October 30, 1960; Marc Slonim, "What Europe Is Saying in Fiction," The New York Times, April 18, 1965. []
  25. The role of presses like Grove, reviews like the Evergreen Review, and translators like Richard Howard and Maria Jolas cannot be overstated in this regard. See, on this topic, Loren Glass, Grove Press, the Evergreen Review, and the Incorporation of the Avant-Garde (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013); and Richard Seaver, The Tender Hour of Twilight: Paris in the '50s, New York in the '60s: A Memoir of Publishing's Golden Age, ed. Jeannette Seaver (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012). []
  26. Butor et al., Correspondance, 176. "le point de vue des étudiants qui m'en parlent me semble plus sensé et plus juste que celui de leurs professeurs." []
  27. See his influential book: Bruce Morrissette, Les Romans De Robbe-Grillet (Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1963). []
  28. This affiliation, it should be stressed, is both explicit to the extent that Barthes openly promoted the work of the Nouveau Roman, and that the Nouveau Roman shared structuralist ideas, as will be discussed and implicit in the sense that all of these intellectual currents occupied roughly the same position in the French cultural field, and could thus quite easily be packaged and imported together. []
  29. For an exhaustive account of the Nouveau Roman's relationships with Barthes and Structuralism, see Celia Britton, The Nouveau Roman: Fiction, Theory and Politics (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1992). []
  30. Susan Sontag, "Remembering Barthes," The New York Review of Books, May 5, 1980. []
  31. It is sometimes said that Nadeau himself named the group, but this is disputed by most accounts and ultimately untrue. Lynn Higgins attributes the coinage to Nadeau, whereas Richard Seaver, in an obituary for Jérôme Lindon, publisher of Les Éditions du Minuit from 1948 until his death in 2001, attributes it to Le Monde critic Émile Henriot. Henriot, a detractor of the movement, also popularized the term in 1957. However, the first usage, which went virtually unnoticed, was probably by critic Bernard Dort in 1955. See: Richard Seaver, "On Jérôme Lindon, 1926-2001," The New York Review of Books, June 21, 2001; Bernard Dort, "Tentative de Description," Cahiers Du Sud, April 1955. []
  32. See Maurice Nadeau, "Nouvelles Formules Pour Le Roman," Critique, no. 13 (Fall 1957): 707-722. For his history of Surrealism, see Maurice Nadeau, The History of Surrealism, trans. Richard Howard (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1989). []
  33. The most relevant texts here are: Robbe-Grillet, For a New Novel; Nathalie Sarraute, The Age of Suspicion, (New York: George Braziller, 1963); Michel Butor, Inventory: Essays, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968). []
  34. Contemporaneous critical responses to the Nouveau Roman varied widely, often according to the critic's own positional sympathies. I'm grateful to Lynn A. Higgins's pathbreaking work to gather and sketch an initial bibliography of these responses. A representative sample of them runs as follows. Praiseworthy: Jean Ricardou, Problemes du nouveau roman (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1967); Jean Ricardou, Pour une théorie du nouveau roman (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1971); Jean Ricardou, Le Nouveau Roman (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1973); Gérard Genette, Figures III (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1972); Stephen Heath, The Nouveau Roman: A Study in the Practice of Writing (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1972); John Sturrock, French New Novel: Claude Simon, Michel Butor, Alain Robbe-Grillet (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969); Leon Samuel Roudiez, French Fiction Today: A New Direction (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1972); Justin O'Brien, The French Literary Horizon (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1967); Bruce Morrissette, Les Romans De Robbe-Grillet (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1963). Negative: Pierre Boisdeffre, La Cafetière est sur la table (Paris: Table Ronde, 1967); Jean-Bertrand Barrère, La cure d'amaigrissement du roman (Paris: A. Michel, 1964). Sympathetic: J. Bloch-Michel, Le Present de l'indicatif (Paris: Gallimard, 1963); Goldmann, Pour une sociologie du roman (Gallimard, 1964); J. Leenhardt, Lecture politique du roman (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1973). []
  35. Minuit famously began as a wartime resistance press with the publication of Vercors's La Silence de la mer. On its development into a press for nouveau romanesque experimental fictions, via its publication of Beckett and Robbe-Grillet, see: Anne Simonin, Les Éditions de Minuit, 1942-1955. Le devoir d'insoumission, Edition contemporaine (Paris: IMEC, 2008); Steve Spalding, Minuit (Funks Grove: Dalkey Archive Press, 2022). []
  36. See the relevant Ricardou texts: Ricardou, Problemes du nouveau roman; Ricardou, Pour une théorie du nouveau roman; Ricardou, Nouveau roman. See also Celia Britton's account of how Robbe-Grillet's own theories evolved over time: Celia Britton, The Nouveau Roman: Fiction, Theory and Politics (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1992). []
  37. It should be acknowledged that, of course, not every one of these texts and authors was, in the final analysis, apolitical. No doubt many of them were, as Lynn A. Higgins most prominently has argued. But even Higgins has had to agree that the pressures exerted by the claimed position of apolitical art helped to shape a literature in whose actual texts a political proposition is hard to find. Thus, the writers, as citizens, were all political in ways their art typically wasn't: as citizens, and not as writers, Duras, Ollier, Robbe-Grillet, Sarraute, and Simon all joined Lévi-Strauss in signing the Manifesto of the 121, as did Jérôme Lindon, their publisher at Minuit. (Higgins also lists Butor as a signatory, but I have been unable to independently verify this claim.) And where the writing itself is deemed political, this is acknowledged in, as it were, an Adornian way; Celia Britton, for example, notes that Robbe-Grillet believed that formal experimentation itself could, in some oblique way, be a political act. See Lynn A. Higgins, New Novel, New Wave, New Politics: Fiction and the Representation of History in Postwar France (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998); Britton, The Nouveau Roman, 26. []
  38. This perspective of "presence" became synonymous with the "Nouveau Roman," which, in turn, was a label then socially synonymous with the writers under discussion. Robbe-Grillet, For a New Novel, 19. []
  39. Susan Sontag, "Against Interpretation," in Susan Sontag: Essays of the 1960s & 70s, ed. David Rieff, First Edition (New York: Library of America, 2013), 20. []
  40. Ibid., 14. []
  41. Ibid. []
  42. Sontag, "Against Interpretation," 16. For Robbe-Grillet's similar comments on the film, see For a New Novel, 152-154. []
  43. Robbe-Grillet, For a New Novel, 22. My emphasis. []
  44. Again, this is in no way to pin Robbe-Grillet as somehow anti-erotic, which would be easily falsifiable. For one, his final novel, Un roman sentimental (2007), is deeply pornographic; and his wife, Catherine Robbe-Grillet, became infamous for writing smutty, sadomasochistic novels under the name Jean de Berg (sometimes Jeanne de Berg). And as many astute critics have pointed out, his early novels Le Voyeur and La Jalousie are, in their way, charged by sometimes violent "sado-erotic" energies. See, e.g., Susan Rubin Suleiman, Subversive Intent: Gender, Politics, and the Avant-Garde (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012). But the idea here is to point out that Robbe-Grillet's theories of the novel, as propounded in the 1950s and 1960s, did not take the notion of "erotics" as a salient axis of distinction vis-à-vis Sartre and the social realists for the simple reason that these latter themselves readily embraced, for varied reasons, the import of eroticism. []
  45. Gisèle Sapiro, "The Debate on the Writer's Responsibility in France and the United States from the 1920s to the 1950s," International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 23, no. 2/3 (2010): 69-83. []
  46. For more on the fashion of Existentialism in America see Louis Menand, The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021), 86-91. []
  47. Sontag, "Against Interpretation," 20. []
  48. Ibid. []
  49. Susan Sontag, "A Hero of Our Time," The New York Review of Books, November 28, 1963. []
  50. Susan Sontag, "The Anthropologist as Hero," in Susan Sontag: Essays of the 1960s & 70s, ed. David Rieff (New York: Library of America, 2013), 71-82. []
  51. Cf. Susan Sontag, "On Style" in Susan Sontag: Essays of the 1960s & 70s, ed. David Rieff (New York: Library of America, 2013), 36. []
  52. Ibid., 39. []
  53. Susan Sontag, introduction to Writing Degree Zero, by Roland Barthes, trans. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith (New York: Hill and Wang, 2012), xvii. []
  54. Sontag, "The Anthropologist as Hero," 81. []
  55. Sontag, "On Style," 40. []
  56. Ibid., 33. []
  57. Ibid., 37. []
  58. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1994), 9. []
  59. Susan Sontag, "One Culture and the New Sensibility," in Susan Sontag: Essays of the 1960s & 70s, ed. David Rieff (New York: Library of America, 2013), 275. []
  60. Ibid., 277. []
  61. Emile Zola, The Experimental Novel, and Other Essays (London: Cassel Publishing Company, 1893), 2. []
  62. Ibid., 27. []
  63. Ibid., and elsewhere in the text. []
  64. "Nous sommes peut-être en train d'assister à la naissance des sciences de la littérature." Quoted in: Bernard Valette, "Robbe-Grillet: Révolutions Du Nouveau Roman," in Alain Robbe-Grillet: Balises Pour Le XXIe Siècle, ed. Roger-Michel Allemand and Christian Milat (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2010), 396n14. Emphasis mine. []
  65. See Barthes, "Objective Literature" in Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jealousy & In the Labyrinth (New York: Grove Press, 2018), 18. "In the entire published work of this author, I can think of only one metaphor" the "softness of the erasers." []
  66. Hannah Arendt, "Nathalie Sarraute," The New York Review of Books, March 5, 1964. []
  67. Mercier, The New Novel, 16. My emphasis. []
  68. Ibid., 276-277. []
  69. Ibid., 276. []
  70. Ibid., 278. []
  71. Ibid., 277. None of this is to say that Sontag is a leveler, at the end of the day. She is trying to rearrange the hierarchies of aesthetic value; she is not trying to do away with such hierarchies altogether. []
  72. Ibid., 278. []
  73. Ibid. []
  74. Ibid., 279. []
  75. Ibid. []
  76. Ibid., 280. []
  77. Ibid., 284. []
  78. Robbe-Grillet, For a New Novel, 21. []
  79. Ibid., 52. []
  80. Ibid., 53. []
  81. Gore Vidal, "Miss Sontag's New Novel," in United States: Essays, 1952-1992 (New York: Random House, 1993), 379. Susan Sontag, Death Kit (New York: Picador, 2002). []
  82. Joe David Bellamy, The New Fiction: Interviews with Innovative American Writers (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1974). []
  83. Ibid., ix. []
  84. Ibid., x. []
  85. Ibid. []
  86. Gore Vidal, "American Plastic: The Matter of Fiction," The New York Review of Books, July 15, 1976. Later collected in: Gore Vidal, "American Plastic: The Matter of Fiction"," in United States: Essays, 1952-1992 (New York: Random House, 1993), 121-46. All citations from this essay are taken from the online version of this article, retrievable here. []
  87. William H. Gass, Omensetter's Luck (New York: Penguin Classics, 1997). []
  88. Mercier, The New Novel, 27-28. []
  89. Vidal, "French Letters," 110. []
  90. Vidal, "American Plastic." []
  91. Robert Phelps, "Appearances Are Not Deceiving" The New York Times, October 30, 1960. []
  92. Vidal, "French Letters," 97. []
  93. Ibid., 98. []
  94. Vidal, "American Plastic." []
  95. Winning, that is, at least for a time. Like all literary modes, postmodernism has possibly (purportedly? assuredly? who can say?) given way to the new sincerity, or post-postmodernity, or postirony, or indeed something else. And how is this "win" complicated by the critical reconsideration and growing stature of figures like Sarraute, Duras, and Pinget? See, respectively: Jason Gladstone, Andrew Hoberek, and Daniel Worden, eds., Postmodern/Postwar and After: Rethinking American Literature, (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2016); Lee Konstantinou, Cool Characters: Irony and American Fiction (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016). []