And here I thought that Stephen Marche, writing for The Los Angeles Review of Books ("The Literature of the Second Gilded Age"), had discovered something I discovered in what will certainly be the most influential economics book of this decade, Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century. The discovery: It not only contains the foundations for a new form of literary criticism but also the tools to challenge the key assumptions of a fairly recent lit crit movement called Darwinian literary criticism (this will be the subject of Part 2).

Marche begins by correctly recognizing that the amount of attention Piketty gives to 19th century literature (particularly Jane Austen and Honoré de Balzac) is so considerable that Capital can also be counted as a book about the art of writing, about how novels work, about the springs and cogs of literary fiction...

Capital in the Twenty-First Century is perhaps the only major work of economics that could reasonably be mistaken for a work of literary criticism. Thomas Piketty’s grand analysis of the state of wealth and inequality, currently hovering near the top on the New York Times bestseller list, doesn’t just toss in a throwaway reference to fiction here or there. The novel is at its heart. “[Austen and Balzac] grasped the hidden contours of wealth and its inevitable implications for the lives of men and women, including their marital strategies and personal hopes and disappointments,” Piketty writes. “These and other novelists depicted the effects of inequality with a verisimilitude and evocative power that no statistical or theoretical analysis can match.” Fiction is the living flesh on the mathematical skeleton of Capital in the Twenty-first Century. Piketty believes in the power of the novel more than most professors of literature.
Here Marche and I meet. But for the rest of the post/essay, he goes in a direction that I think will not provide the best results. This direction is taken from a perceived hole in Piketty's literary thinking: He understands 19th century literature but knows jack about its substance in the 21st century. As a consequence, Marche argues, he misses the fact that contemporary writers are aware of the very economic conditions that Piketty describes: inherited wealth is growing in importance, and earned wealth is losing significance. Marche points to Jonathan Franzen as the leader (if not father) of this current trend.

But clearly Marche missed Piketty's point, which is that the novels of the 19th century contain hard economic data, whereas the novels of the following centuries just do not. The key paragraph in Capital...

I merely want to stress the fact that the loss of stable monetary reference points in the twentieth century marks a significant rupture with previous centuries, not only in the realms of economics and politics but also in regard to social, cultural, and literary matters. It is surely no accident that money-at least in the form of specific amounts-virtually disappeared from literature after the shocks of 1914-1945. Specific references to wealth and income were omnipresent in the literature of all countries before 1914; these references gradually dropped out of sight between 1914 and 1945 and never truly reemerged. This is true not only of European and American novels but also of the literature of other continents.

The question is: Do the novels of our day provide us with hard facts about the financial status of their characters? Can an economist get that from the novels by "Adelle Waldman, Meg Wolitzer, Chad Harbach, Rachel Kushner, Claire Messud and, above all, Jonathan Franzen"? Judging from Marche's post/essay, which breaks down a number of the novels by these authors, we don't. The economic information isn't specific but very general (and this lack specificity has a lot to do, in my opinion, with the normalization of capitalist ideology).

What we learn from the novels that Marche discusses is that the characters are from the upper parts of the middle class. But what does that exactly mean? How much money does it take to be a member of that class? What do you need in the bank and what do you need to own (assets)? Piketty argues that in Austen we get those kinds of details. But in contemporary fiction, we get something like a cloud of gas (he has money but he fears poverty, she has property but her investments could go bad at any moment, he was once rich but now he is not so rich, she can afford to fly Iceland at the drop of a hat but she worries about the high cost of booze Reykjavik).

The real value of Piketty is found in another direction, one that points to a confrontation with Darwinian literary theory. That confrontation will be the subject of the next post.