This essay poses the question, Is it possible to write a novel about the entire world? Is it possible to tell stories whose narrators travel from continent to continent? If yes, why are there so few of them? The essay proceeds in three acts: First, it assesses the accounts of world literature given by Pascale Casanova and Franco Moretti, explaining their achievement while also identifying where each finally subtracts the world from world literature. Second, it begins to consider the formal limitations of the novel as genre, and in particular how the late eighteenth-century epistolary novel begins to malfunction when it expands its scope beyond the nation—when, that is, characters start exchanging letters across very long distances. Third, the essay concludes not with an answer but with a recommendation: that we should go back and read widely in the early history of the novel in order to ask which features of the realist novel we could imagine repurposing to planetary ends. Is it really all that hard to conceive, say, of a multiplot Mansfield Park—an Austen novel reunited with its twelve mislaid Caribbean chapters? What are the various ways in which regional and national novels cauterize their edges? How does any given novel constitute its geographical borders? How does it set territorial limits to what it is willing to narrate, or how does it mark out a beyond into which it will not follow even major characters? Do maritime novels have distinctive narrative strategies for expanding the realist novel’s scope? Do immigrant novels? And could the realist novel still learn from the genres against which it typically defines itself? Can it learn from science fiction novels, which, after all, have an easier time than most talking about planets?

You do not currently have access to this content.