What is a social novel? Lethem, Kushner, Silver hash it out

The social novel demystified: From left, Rachel Kushner, moderator and Times book critic David Ulin, Marisa Silver and Jonathan Lethem.
(Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

A few days before Saturday’s panel about the social novel at the Festival of Books, author Marisa Silver joked with L.A. TImes book critic David Ulin: “I don’t know what a social novel is, but I don’t think I write them.”

It ends up she just might.

Ulin, Silver and authors Rachel Kushner and Jonathan Lethem hashed out the meaning of the social novel during their panel discussion -- beginning with Wikipedia’s bare-bones definition and quickly spiraling upward into a talk a bit more suitable for a lecture hall at USC.



Using Charles Dickens (“Hard Times”) and Harriet Beecher Stowe (“Uncle Tom’s Cabin”) as examples, Wikipedia definies the social novel as one that focuses on a particular problem or set of problems, a novel with an agenda, almost like propaganda in a way.

But does that make author’s like Franz Kafka a social novelist? Is it possible to not write a social novel? Doesn’t that just mean writing about characters inside and out? The conversation was fascinating, but like many literary discussions, there’s not always a clear answer.

Lethem said he makes conscious efforts not to propagandize in his novels, as did the other authors. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t write social novels. “The Fortress of Solitude,” Lethem said, could be considered one.

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