This chapter argues that in the contemporary moment Anglo-American novelists defend the writing and reading of fiction by making a new case for an old view of literature as ethically transformative. This new ethics is rooted in the value of pursued or achieved otherness, a value that fiction is deemed to achieve not just through its depiction of storyworld events but also through its narrative modes of representation. Offering a synthetic analysis of key contemporary writers (especially David Levithan, Gish Jen, Jonathan Franzen, and Ian McEwan), the chapter illuminates the key attributes of the new ethics. The chapter further establishes that contemporary novelists develop their idea of a new ethics by staging a return to character-centered narrative practices inaugurated by Henry James and consolidated by modernists such as William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf.
The chapter begins with Toni Morrison, who in Playing in the Dark (1992) espouses a strong view of the ethical value of novels, and who includes Henry James's Maisie Farange in a short list of characters whom she cites as examples of achieved otherness. I argue that Morrison's discussion of What Maisie Knew reveals that two different notions of personhood—liberal humanist and the ideological—inform her assumptions about the ethical value of characterological alterity. I then offer a close reading of What Maisie Knew to show how the novel elucidates the tension in Morrison's own ethical position. This chapter concludes with a broad, synthetic literary history of twentieth-century fiction that defines the Jamesian tradition as a novelistic aesthetics of alterity and links James to Morrison.
This chapter argues that On Beauty develops the novelistic aesthetics of alterity by accomplishing its most important aesthetic goal, the goal of "being just" to other lives, when it successfully performs its failure to be universally beautiful. Smith's title, On Beauty, alludes to Elaine Scarry's On Beauty and Being Just (2001), a philosophical work that argues for the universality of aesthetic experience. I contend that by reading On Beauty as a response to Scarry's philosophic enterprise, we can understand Smith as powerfully defining novelistic aesthetics as grounded in the problem of perspectivalism, which is worked out within the novel through the representation of the ideological positionality that defines characters as social others. The second half of the chapter supports the generic particularity of Smith's ethical idea of the novel and novel form through the contrast with her essay writing.
By focusing on Elizabeth Costello (2003), one of Coetzee's most experimental novels, I show that even when the contemporary novel looks least like a novel, even when it possesses few of the attributes of mimetic realism, it remains defined for the contemporary writer by the aesthetics of alterity. Coetzee depicts the novelistic ethics of alterity as a dominant cultural assumption about the value of the novel in the contemporary moment, shows how this aesthetics is considered to be at issue in a whole range of narrative modalities, and thereby highlights the possibility that what is distinctive about the novel as a genre is not its actual capacity to provide readers with an ethical experience of otherness but the social need to believe that it does.
This chapter turns from fictionalized academic worlds to consider the new ethical arguments made for literary value from within the Anglo-American academy, starting in the 1990s and continuing into the present. I argue that while the return to ethics is framed as a defense of the ethical value of literature generally, a significant body of criticism and theory equates literature with a single genre: the novel. By showing that contemporary ethical theorists who belong to very different philosophical camps hold the same view of the novel's ethical potential for otherness, I demonstrate how academic debates help consolidate the notion that novelistic narration carries with it a necessary ethics. Having previously established James's centrality to the creative writers who develop the aesthetics of alterity, in this chapter I show that James is also an authorizing figure for the theorists who mount an ethical defense of literature from within the academy.
The Novel and the New Ethics concludes by tracking the Jamesian ethics of alterity beyond the fiction writer's study and beyond the halls of English departments to the clinician's office. Focusing on the work of Rita Charon, a leader in Columbia University's graduate program in narrative medicine, the coda argues that Charon follows the new ethical model of deriving absolute ethical value from Henry James's contingent novelistic practice. Her career-long engagement with James's fiction is characterized by her attempt to preserve liberal humanist values even while deploying poststructuralist theory. The tensions in Charon's thought, while providing a problematic philosophical basis for an academic program, effectively reproduce the family of ideas that are central to the ethics of alterity as a novelistic tradition and thus evidence the wide cultural influence that the Jamesian aesthetics of alterity continues to have.