The history of a novel idea

Looking into the roots of the modern novel and the context from which it emerged

The novel is a creation which has undergone major changes with its evolution through history.
The novel is a creation which has undergone major changes with its evolution through history.

Curling up with a good book has been a popular pastime through the ages, but students today might not realize how far back the novel’s history goes.

Marta Straznicky, an English professor who specializes in early modern theatre, print culture and book history said the novel would be unrecognizable to students today.

“The novel as we know it today didn’t exist in the modern period,” she said. “People were reading fiction of various kinds but it wasn’t realistic fiction—it was medieval romance, collections of tales, or Philip Sidney’s Arcadia.”

These works were repetitive, episodic, spectacular and violent, Straznicky said, adding that they portrayed rapes, incest and racey content.

“People who wrote it were embarrassed,” she said. “There was an anxiety about it as a literary form. If you were a serious writer, you wouldn’t be writing a prose romance.”

If there was a famous “novelist” at this time, it would be Phillip Sydney, Straznicky said, adding that even Sydney dismissed his own work.

During this time, novels were associated with women. Men who read novels were considered feminized, Straznicky said.

“When they talked about reading, they contrasted reading the Bible with reading novels or romances,” she said. “Those who read novels were thought to be compromising their time and ethics.”

Leslie Ritchie, an English professor who specializes in 18th century literature, said the novel was an emerging generic term during 1590 to the 1700s.

“Works that we would now consider novels were not always so called by their authors or readers,” she said. “Henry Fielding, for instance, calls his novel Joseph Andrews a comic Epic-Poem in Prose—other eighteenth-century novelists sometimes used the terms romance or history.”

Ritchie said some of the most popular novelists from the early 18th century, to the early 19th-century include Daniel Defoe, Fanny Burney, Ann Radcliffe, Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott.

She said these authors wrote political and cultural satire, novels of manners, novels based on real-life criminals such as Jonathan Wild, spiritual autobiography, histories and stories of love and courtship.

“Horace Walpoles fantastic tale, The Castle of Otranto (1764), created a new sub-genre, the Gothic novel, which today is more popular than ever.”

Readers could purchase books from the printers, or for a small subscription fee, they could borrow popular novels, books of sermons, periodicals and music from a circulating library, Ritchie said.

“Circulating libraries were crucial to the development of the novel and to the formation of literary taste.”

Following in the footsteps of 18th-century writers, 19th-century writers had to pay attention to literary conventions, Catherine Harland, an English professor, said.

“Publishers tended to be conservative in their social outlook,” she said. “The circulating libraries had a tremendous effect on not only the distribution but the actual creation or production of Victorian fiction.”

Harland, who specializes in 19th-century literature, said there were certain issues authors avoided.

“It was understood that certain aspects of human life couldn’t be directly written about—sex, for example,” she said. “Novels were often family reading and young people had to be protected.”

“There were many different kinds of novels, some of which were specific to a particular decade,” she said. “The dominant mode of the ‘serious novel’ was realism, but many sub-genres, such as the “historical novel” or “silverfolk novels”—which focused on upper-class culture—were popular earlier in the century.”

For example, Harland said the 1840s featured the “social novel” which focused on the problems in society resulting from industrialization and the terrible living conditions of the poor. In the 1860s, the “sensation novel” was introduced, featuring murder, bigamy and arson with a woman criminal at the centre. By the 1880s, “Gothic romance,” such as The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, became popular.

Victorian novelists wrote about many things, Harland said, adding that they were increasingly interested in human psychology, consciousness, relations between men and women, morality, meaning and individual development.

“They wrote to entertain, they wrote to instruct, they wrote to represent the rich complexity of a unique and determining culture.”

For Victorian novelists, getting their work published was a difficult process, Harland said.

“Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights was first published by an incompetent and unscrupulous publisher, T.C. Newby, who delayed publishing the novel and then when it appeared it was full of errors,” she said. “She didn’t make any money from the publication.”

Harland said other authors, such as Charles Dickens and George Eliot, became quite wealthy and made a decent living off their work.

“Once they were well-known, authors could negotiate for better contracts,” she said. “Recent scholarship shows that on the whole, women writers didn’t do as well in these negotiations as male writers.

“The public read the novel as it was written, like television serials today,” she said. “As the populace became more literate, and the delivery of fiction less expensive, more people read novels.”

Early in the century, Harland said novelists such as Jane Austen felt like they had to defend the novel as a viable genre, but by 1870, this view began to change.

Christopher Bongie, an English professor specializing in Victorian literature, postcolonial theory and modernism, said there has been a lot of research on the history of the novel, especially from Franco Moretti, founder of the Standford Centre for the Study of the Novel (CSN).

Moretti, an Italian literary scholar and Marxist critic, focuses on the history of the novel as a “planetary form” and in 2004, published II Romanxo, a five-volume collaborative study of the novel throughout all history, in all its forms.

The CSN examines the novel as a fundamental literary expression of modernity and inquires into the cultural role played by types of narrative beyond the novel.

Bongie said issues of language are important in understanding contemporary literature in terms of knowing where a novel originates from.

For example, magical realism plays an important role in many English language novels, Bongie said, but its genre is argued to have originated out of Latin America which questions the centrality of English language literary texts.

“It’s an Anglo-centric narrative,” Bongie said. “The minute you put magical realism into the mix, influenced by global modernism and Latin American writers, you throw a wrench in the idea of a single literary history, based in national literature or languages.”

Michael Snediker, English professor specializing in American renaissance, postmodernism, queer and disability theory, said fiction today is innovative and depends on the reader.

“It’s fucking with genre and readerly expectations,” he said.

Snediker said readerly expectations involve questions of characterological plausibility and development, as well as necessities of what we imagine as narrative.

“Both narrative and character are imagined in terms of development, but the criteria for developedness seem undertheorized and some of the best fiction writers out there today—Lydia Davis and Rick Moody, for instance—seem to theorize the vicissitudes of development-within-a-genre.”

Snediker said a reader’s expectations for what a novel provides or doesn’t provide haunts not only the text, but the reading of the text.

“These expectations are there and not there,” he said. “It’s not that ‘the best’ contemporary novels exorcize these expectations … so much as flirt with them, mobilize them.”

Snediker said the architecture of the novel is falling apart, adding that the novel isn’t only splintered, but held together in different ways.

“[Novels] have the guts to risk seeming less than cohesive by normative writerly standards, for the sake of cultivating new relations to unity and estrangement,” he said.

Snediker said with the onset of Facebook and e-publishing, Penguin and other publishing companies may no longer matter.

“Technology is constantly shifting,” he said. “It’s important to look at how technology will respond to the novel and how the novel will in turn respond to technology.”

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