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If you read about recent fiction, particularly in discussions about art since 9/11, you will, increasingly, come across the term "systems novel." It is a phrase often explained in impenetrable theory-speak, but simply put, it refers to a certain kind of ambitious American novel that attempts to portray how the entire society works, with particular attention to economic systems or powerful ideologies that provide a regulating framework for characters' actions.

The most commonly cited examples are the sprawling works of William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace. It is perhaps a coincidence that most of these writers are difficult, experimental to some degree (Gaddis, for example, constructed novels of dialogue without always making it clear who is speaking); this fact might explain why the term "systems novel" has not yet made it into media discussions.

But lots of science fiction meets the criteria as well – particularly that of William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, whose stories comment on current global technological systems by accelerating and amplifying them just a little. Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale might also be seen as a systems novel. Jonathan Franzen's Freedom shows Americans of several generations enmeshed with or reacting to global issues such as environmental degradation and the exploitation of occupied foreign countries; Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad covers five decades and ends with a prediction of a smart-phone-connected society of professional marketers in which the youngest are the most cynical and amoral.

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Generally these fictions paint an unhappy picture of contemporary life. This is why they are exciting to literary academics, who are themselves overwhelmingly leftist, critical of corporatism and economic imperialism.

The critic and editor John Freeman recently brought the idea of the genre into the mainstream media with an article in The Sydney Morning Herald that described the decline of the systems novel in the United States since 9/11. Freeman argues that since that date no American novel, not even those that addressed the attacks directly, has dared posit a theory about the world. He writes, "Not a single one of these novels – not even DeLillo's Falling Man, which is the best of all 9/11 novels and unfolds on the day – offers a kind of unified field theory of the how and the why, the global heave of what happened."

According to Freeman, this is a good thing, as the pre-9/11 systems novel was apparently only concerned with white Americans anyway: "The poor, the weak, the rest of the world, in many ways, are absent from their pages." Future important novels will be more international; they will emerge from places like "Libya and Egypt and Tunisia now that those nations are out from beneath the fist of their U.S.-backed dictators."

Freeman's argument, and his prescription for literature, seems to derive from strong opinions he himself has about the explanations for and the significance of the attacks on America. There were in fact important chroniclers of developing-world political realities long before 9/11 (what was Naipaul? what was Rushdie?). But I'm more interested in the definition of the systems novel. The idea isn't a new one. The publishing industry has for some years referred to big novels and small novels, big meaning novels with some kind of current socio-political theme (terrorism, global warming) as opposed to intimate personal narratives (divorce, cancer).

In fact the systems novel sounds awfully similar to how I understand the word realist. That's what we call the 19th-century novels that attempted to show not just characters' internal lives and personal dramas but their place in social hierarchies and the greater machinations of which they are cogs. As I understood it, literary realism was not solely about natural-sounding dialogue or the domestic life of peasants (that would be naturalism), but about a political vision, a statement about society. That's why Balzac is generally used as the exemplar of realism: His stories are not particularly kitchen-sink in setting or language, but they are visions of a world determined by social class and money.

This kind of economic situating, this kind of subtle arguing, is what the novel has always done; there is nothing particularly pre- or post-9/11 about it. But we make up new descriptive terms to further our own political arguments, and perhaps to dramatize the moment we are living through, to make it unique, even to make it seem more significant than it is.

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