On the importance of the novel

From the Los Angeles Review of Books: "For Adam Smith, what makes us human is not necessarily reason, or speech, or the ability to form concepts, or to establish trade networks, or to create joint-stock companies, or to design communication devices. Instead, it is our unique ability to respond to “sentiments” — the passions and feelings of others. D. H. Lawrence, as Schmidt reminds us, agreed: “It is the way our sympathy flows and recoils that really determines our lives,” he wrote. “And here lies the vast importance of the novel, properly handled. It can inform and lead into new places the flow of our sympathetic consciousness, and it can lead our sympathy away in recoil from things gone dead.” American novels explore the sympathetic consciousness in dramatic ways. In Moby-Dick, Ishmael is forced to acknowledge Queequeg’s humanity (“Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”). In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the conscience of a nation plays out in the mind of an aimless boy. Twentieth century novels turn on the question of sympathy, too. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nathanael West expose the American dream as a dangerous Hollywood fantasy that leads to alienation rather than connection, Hemingway uses plain words to counter the fraudulent valor of statesmen, and Dos Passos proves that history happens behind the headlines and newsreels, in the reality of relationship."