In his 1884 essay “The Art of Fiction,” Henry James criticizes the critics, chastising their propensity to divide novels into discrete categories. Over here, there’s the “novel of incident,” which propels the reader forward through “extraordinary and startling” events: public scandal and private misadventure, murder, blackmail, and the stuff of melodrama. Over there, there’s the “novel of character,” which homes in not on plot but interiority, finding the drama of the mind dramatic enough on its own terms. To James, such “clumsy separations” reflect the critical will to distinguish rather than any property inherent in the things being distinguished. After all, “what is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?” What matters is the quality of the novel, not its kind. As James writes, “The only classification of the novel that I can understand is into that which has life and that which has it not.” The novel came that we might have life and have it more abundantly, and that is the standard—does it have life or doesn’t it?—by which novels should be judged.
James’s essay is quoted at length in Siobhan Phillips’s debut novel, Benefit. The narrator, Laura, is an adjunct who finds that academia is breaking up with her. The novel begins in 2011, three weeks after Laura has lost her temporary teaching position “at a small all-women’s school north of Boston.” She previously wrote her dissertation on “characterization and indirection in James’s theory of the novel,” focusing on characters who dwell on the periphery, like The Golden Bowl’s Fanny Assingham. Laura did not choose James as her research topic because of the pleasure his writing offered. (“None of my students found Henry James fun or imaginative. I wasn’t sure I did.”) Nor did she choose him because of the job prospects writing on him promised. (There are few jobs left in academia; there are even fewer for people interested, as Laura is, in James’s notion of beauty as “a grace and magnanimity of gesture”). Rather, Laura decided to work on James because he offered so much material to work on: “He produced many long books that grow progressively more difficult without ever becoming obviously experimental or solidly classic. James’s writing would never be significant or easy. On this I had spent a decade. On this I could spend a lifetime.”
Academic work, though, appears to be at an end, and Laura moves back in with her mother in Connecticut. A temporary job soon comes along: Laura was once a Weatherfield Fellow (the program is a fictionalized version of the Rhodes Scholarship, which Phillips herself received), and she’s asked by another former Fellow and current Foundation board member to contribute an essay on the founder, Ennis Weatherfield, for a centennial gala. The Weatherfield family made its money in sugar, and Laura soon sees that thinking about sugar leads to thinking about capitalism, and thinking about capitalism leads to thinking about the systems—academic, economic, social, and racial—that have shaped you: “Taylorism, Fordism, the alienation of factory work: It’s all there in sugar production.” Phillips tacks between these kinds of thoughts (true but not terribly surprising) and Laura’s thoughts on James and her own failed relationships. We get a sense of Laura’s mind: its severity, often toward herself and sometimes toward others; its dry humor (“I think you need to be very beautiful to do everything exactly as it should be done. Also, you need to have money”); its unfussy learnedness. Laura soon becomes interested in Florence Weatherfield, Ennis’s wife. It was she who actually established the Foundation, but she left little else to the historical record. Laura begins volunteering at Welcome House, a shelter in New Haven. She starts working as a fellowship advisor. She drifts, worrying over what to do next: “Anything you do is part of something, some institution, system, way of operating, and all of these ways are founded on cruelty or heading for a crash or they have no use for you. Or all three. Have no use for me. I mean me when I say you.”