This essay challenges a dominant way of plotting the novel genre’s history as a story of individual development, which is increasingly characterized by an identity crisis within the contemporary media landscape. As an alternative to this story, it develops a provisional account of “novelism” (adjacent to notions like lyricism and essayism) as a flexible and mobile mode of associative world-building across the arts. We can see novelism at play in the intermedial history of how novelistic forms and concerns informed the cinematic genre of the essay film. By recovering that history, from Sergei Eisenstein to Chris Marker, this essay helps explain what novelism does and why it makes sense to describe certain artworks as novelistic, even ones in nonliterary media. The concept of novelism not only applies to certain essay films, it also clarifies a recent essayistic or documentary turn in international fiction writing—involving writers such as W. G. Sebald, Valeria Luiselli, and Teju Cole—which some critics have interpreted as a sign of the novel’s exhaustion. This essay argues instead that such genre-bending works of contemporary fiction (and even nonfiction) are better understood as evidence of the current proliferation of novelism across the arts.

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