Hmm, just getting around to this, very nice to be blogged by the New Yorker.
Last week, the essay as published at the Rumpus:
... With the beginning of the twenty-first century, the sprawling literary novel has regained pre-eminence. The realist recoil is cyclical—Bellows springs to mind as indicative of a generation that tended toward socially engaged novels of nebulous structure. In the larger political context, the “realist” novel indicates conservative values. The novel that puts content second to structure parallels a nation (a globe) that espouses an ideology of the systemic over the sovereign. To maintain that content comes before structure is a precept for revolution: a particular idea, person or solution comes before the nation, the corporation, the praxis.
Max Brand (Frederick Schiller Faust), a prolific pulp western writer of the 1920s and 30s, maintained that there were two types of stories: coming home, or leaving home. The assertion neatly correlates to the classical definition of comedy and tragedy, as well as a content-first v. structure-first division of the arts. The coming home story (usually comedic or “feel good”): the cowboy accepts and/or is accepted by society. The leaving home story (usually tragic or “dark”): the cowboy rejects and/or is rejected by society. Structure-first stories, i.e. coming home, tend to be about assimilation, while content-first stories, i.e. leaving home, tend toward dissent.
The difficulty of reading a text that puts forth a dissenting structure is that it is self-aware. The sentence-to-sentence qualifications, the adjustments to expected language and idiom, place readers in unfamiliar territories. In counterpoint, the assimilative text is necessarily unconscious of its own intentions. The conformist can’t “try.” (The grade school realization: you can’t try to be normal, in the trying, you’re abnormal.) The conformist story, i.e., the “coming home,” must assume that the state of conformity is the norm. The hero gains acceptance, which is “better.” To acknowledge that a conformist state must be gained, or acquired, is to acknowledge that the conformist state is as difficult to attain as some other alternative state. In the context of literature, the acknowledgement would be tantamount to acknowledging that the structures commonly perceived as “easy” or “naturalistic” are only so because readers have been guided, or indoctrinated, to them. …