Definitions of the Novel

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Definitions of the Novel

William B. Warner

How does one define the novel? Does it consist of a story of love, sex, and romance, or is it centrally concerned with adventure, travel, and tests of strength? Does it happen in the private spaces of the boudoir and the drawing room, or in the public spaces of the tavern and the road? Does it have a gender? Is it written in prose (as most agree), or should we include some verse romances in the category of the novel? Does its relatively late arrival in the literary canon, when compared to poetry and drama, make the novel a distinctly modern genre, or does the novel have a crucial ancient pedigree? Does the novel have a distinct repertoire of forms and genres, or is it, as Mikhail bakhtin has famously claimed, a kind of anti-formalistic non-genre, which subverts, with its protean fecundity, any effort at generic stability or purity? Should the novel be defined according to its long and unruly popularity (which extends from pornography and the GOTHIC to DETECTIVE fiction and SCIENCE FICTION), or should we define it so that we can take the measure of the most ambitious achievements of novelistic art? Finally, and perhaps most fundamentally, how should we define the purpose of the novel? Is it supposed to enchant or to inform, to entertain or to improve, to allow readers to know, or to escape from, reality? Confronted with this set of alternatives, I would like to begin this entry's effort at definition by saying, with a certain dogmatic pluralism, that the novel is “all of the above.” However, I would immediately add that the writers and readers of novels, over the long history of novels, have had strongly divergent opinions on what the novel is. Indeed, the history of the effort to define what the novel is and the history of the novel are inextricably entangled. For this reason, my strategy is to describe how a prominent thread of the novel's long history—its rise from a form of entertainment to a kind of literature—involves authors, critics, and readers of the novel in efforts to define what it is.

Histories of the Novel's Rise

While critical paradigms have been developed for interpreting both individual novels and the novel as a genre—the concepts of dialogism and heteroglossia (Bakhtin), mythic archetypes (Northrop Frye), the rhetoric of fiction (Wayne C. Booth), and reader response (Wolfgang Iser), to name only a few of the most influential—none of these approaches engage the distinct two-hundred-and-fifty-year history of the novel's elevation into cultural centrality, and they thus fail to come to terms with our culture's investment in the novel. One of the grand narratives of British literary studies might be entitled “The Progress of the Novel” (see HISTORY). It tells the story of the novel's “rise” in the eighteenth century (with Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, and Henry Fielding), its achievement of classical solidity of form in the nineteenth century (with Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, George Eliot, the early Henry James, and Joseph Conrad), and its culmination in a modernist experimentation and self-reflection (with the late James, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett) that paradoxically fulfills and surpasses “the novel” in one blow. The eighteenth-century segment of this narrative was consolidated in 1957 with the publication of Ian Watt's enormously influential book, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. Watt's study correlates the middle-CLASS provenance of the eighteenth-century British novel with a realism said to be distinctively modern for the way it features a complex, “deep” reading subject. Precisely because of the way that history flows into and through Watt's book, The Rise of the Novel functions as a watershed in the consolidation of the story of the novel's rise.

Where and when and why does the story of the novel's rise begin to be told? This history of the British novel's beginnings turns out to have a history. In order to grasp the complex diversity of earlier understandings of the novel, one must defer the question that haunts and hurries too many literary histories of the novel: what is “the first real novel?” There are several reasons we should be skeptical of the efforts of those novelists and literary critics who hasten to designate the first real novel. First, the absence of an authoritative Greek or Latin precursor for the modern novel—i.e., there is no “Homer” or “Sophocles” for the modern novel—has encouraged the wishful performative of claiming that position for a range of different novels, within different national settings: e.g., in Spain, Don Quixote (1605), in France, La Princesse de Clèves (1678, The Princess of Cleves); or, in England, the “new species” of writing of Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding. When one watches how literary critics have sought to adjudicate these claims, one inevitably finds a suspicious feedback loop that Cathy Davidson has noted in efforts to designate the first American novel: the general minimal criteria for being a “true” novel are elucidated through a first paradigmatic instance, which then confirms the initial criteria (Davidson, 83—85).

Any literary history focused around designating the “first” “real” novel—with its restless intention to promote and demote, and designate winners and losers—can't stand outside, but instead inhabits the terms of that culturally improving, Enlightenment narrative that tradition has dubbed “the rise of the novel.” Before the emergence of the novel into literary studies and literary pedagogy, novels played a subsidiary role in several crucial cultural episodes—the debate, over the course of the eighteenth century, about the pleasures and moral dangers of novel reading; the adjudication of the novel's role in articulating distinct NATIONAL cultures; and finally, the shifting terms for claiming that a certain representation of modern life is “realistic.” It is through these three articulations that the novel secures its place as a type of literature. By briefly surveying these three episodes in the cultural institutionalization of the British novel, I will jump back before the sedimentation and consolidation of the idea of the legitimate, valued, modern novel, which can then be given its lead role in “the rise of the novel,” and assume its secure place as a genre of literature.

Novel as a Debased and Scandalous Object

Novels have been a respectable component of culture for so long that it is difficult for twentieth-century observers to grasp the unease produced by novel reading in the eighteenth century. During the decades following 1700, a quantum leap in the number, variety, and popularity of novels led many to see novels as a catastrophe to book-centered culture. Although the novel was not clearly defined or conceptualized, the object of the early anti-novel discourse was quite precise: seventeenth-century RO-MANCES and novellas of continental origin, as well as the “novels” and “secret histories“ written by Aphra Behn, Delariviere Manley, and Eliza Haywood in the decades following the early 1680s. Any who would defend novels had to cope with the aura of sexual scandal that clung to them, and respond to the accusation that they corrupted their enthusiastic readers.

From the vantage point of the late twentieth century, the alarm provoked by novel reading may seem hyperbolic, or even quaint. Sometimes it is difficult to credit the specific object of the alarm of the eighteenth-century critics of novels: after all, we recommend to students some of the very novels these early modern critics inveighed against. But, at least since Plato's attack on the poets, philosophers, and cultural critics had worried about the effects of an audience's absorption in fictional entertainments that may be little more than beautiful lies. During the early eighteenth century the circulation of novels on the market gave this old cultural issue new urgency. Often published anonymously, by parvenu authors supported by no patron of rank, novels seemed irresponsible creations, conceived with only one guiding intention: to pander to any desire that would produce a sale (see PUBLISHING). Many of the vices attributed to the novel are also attributes of the market: both breed imitation, incite desire, are oblivious to their moral effects, and reach into every corner of the kingdom. Rampant production allows bad imitations to proliferate, and develops and uses new institutions to deliver novels indiscriminately into the hands of every reader.

But why was novel reading considered so dangerous? The power and danger of novels, especially to young women not exposed to classical education, is supposed to arise from the pleasures novels induce. Clara Reeve's The Progress of Romance (1785) ends with a staged debate between the book's protagonist, the woman scholar Euphrasia, and a high cultural snob named Hortensius. Hortensius develops a wide-ranging indictment of novel reading. First, novels turn the reader's taste against serious reading: “A person used to this kind of reading will be disgusted with everything serious or solid, as a weakened and depraved stomach rejects plain and wholesome food.” (2.78). Second, novels incite the heart with false emotions: “The seeds of vice and folly are sown in the heart,—the passions are awakened,—false expectations are raised.—A young woman is taught to expect adventures and intrigues...If a plain man addresses her in rational terms and pays her the greatest of compliments,—that of desiring to spend his life with her,—that is not sufficient, her vanity is disappointed, she expects to meet a Hero in Romance” (2.78). Finally, novels induce a dangerous autonomy from parents and guardians: “From this kind of reading, young people fancy themselves capable of judging of men and manners, and...believe themselves wiser than their parents and guardians, whom they treat with contempt and ridicule” (2.79). Hortensius indicts novels for transforming the cultural function of reading from solid nourishment to exotic tastes; from preparing a woman for the ordinary rational address of a plain good man to romance fantasies of a “hero”; from reliance upon parents and guardians to a belief in the reader's autonomy. Taken together, novels have disfigured their reader's body: the taste, passions, and judgment of stomach, heart, and mind. Here, as so often in the polemics around novels, the novel reader is characterized as a susceptible female, whose moral life is at risk. By strong implication, she is most responsible for transmitting the media virus of novel reading.

The debate about the dangers of novel reading changed the kind of novels that were written. First, cultural critics sketched the first profile of the culture-destroying pleasure-seeker who haunts the modern era: the obsessive, unrestrained consumer of fantasy. Novelists like Manley and Haywood included this figure of the pleasure-seeking reader within their novels, as a moral warning to their readers (see Warner, 88—127). Then, novelists like Richardson and Fielding, assuming the cogency of this critique, developed replacement fictions as a cure for the novel-addicted reader. In doing so, they aimed to deflect and reform, improve and justify novelistic entertainment. Thanks to the success of Richardson's Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1747—48) and Fielding's Joseph Andrews (1742), and Tom Jones (1749), the terms of the debate about the dangers of novel reading shifted. Those critics who stepped forward after the mid-eighteenth century to describe the salient features and communicable virtues of these two author's works offered an unprecedented countersigning of the cultural value of their novels. Between uncritical surrender to novel reading, and a wholesale rejection of novels in favor of “serious” reading, Richardson and Fielding's novels seemed to be a third pathway for the novel. Clara Reeve described the strategy in these terms: to “write an antidote to the bad effects” of novels “under the disguise” of being novels (85). For Samuel Johnson, a critical intervention on behalf of the new novel meant arguing in favor of the “exemplary” characters of Richardson, over the more true-to-life “mixed” characters of Fielding or Tobias Smollett (Rambler 4) By contrast, Francis Coventry, in a pamphlet published anonymously, “An Essay on the New Species of Writing Founded by Mr. Fielding” (1751), follows the basic procedure Fielding had devised in the many interpolated prefaces of Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones: he applies the critical terms and ideas developed earlier for poetry, epic, and drama to the novel.

The Novel as an Expression of the Nation

Because Italy, Spain, and France provided the most influential models for romance and novel writing in England, in the eighteenth century, novels were considered a species of entertainment most likely to move easily across linguistic and national boundaries. Both the opponents and proponents of novel reading read the novels of different nations off the same shelves. But by the nineteenth century, the novel was gradually nationalized. Influential critics like William Hazlitt (1778—1830) and Walter Scott came to understand novels as a type of writing particularly suited to representing the character, mores, landscape, and “spirit” of particular nations. In a different but no less complete way than poetry, the novel is reinterpreted as a distinct expression of the nation. However, this articulation of nation and novel has a rich prehistory. Over the course of the eighteenth-century debate about novels there develops a correlation that would inflect the idea of a distinctly English novel. Repeatedly it is claimed that England is to France as the novel is to the romance, as fact is to fantasy, as morality is to sensuality, as men are to women. (Terms can be added to this series: genuine and counterfeit, simple and frothy, substantial and sophisticated.) Grounded in a caricature of France as effeminate and England as manly, this loaded set of oppositions is simultaneously nationalist and sexist. These correlations weave themselves like a gaudy thread through all the subsequent nineteenth-century literary histories of the novel's rise.

Novel reading is assumed to have the power to create an imagined community of English readers (see Anderson). For Hazlitt and Scott the idea of the novel as a vehicle for expressing cultural difference becomes folded into an historicism that assumes a people and their culture are an organic totality, essentially different from one another in every aspect of their identity. Within this romantic literary history, the nation, people, or RACE becomes the truth that particular genres, authors, and periods disclose. Now, bracing new questions about the historical causes of the ebb and flow of national genius can be posed within a literary history of the novel. Thus, in his Lectures on the Comic Writers (1819), Hazlitt speculates why the four great novelists of the mid-eighteenth century emerged at the same time. This enables him to develop the thesis that the novel's rise can be attributed to one of the bywords of English identity: the idea of English liberty.

It is remarkable that our four best novel-writers belong nearly to the same age [the reign of George II]...If I were called upon to account for this coincidence, I should waive the consideration of more general causes, and ascribe it at once to the establishment of the Protestant ascendancy, and the succession of the House of Hanover. These great events appear to have given a more popular turn to our literature and genius, as well as to our government. It was found high time that the people should be represented in books as well as in Parliament. They wished to see some account of themselves in what they read; and not to be confined always to the vices, the miseries, and frivolities of the great. ... [In France] the canaille are objects rather of disgust than curiosity; and there are no middle classes. The works of Racine and Molière are either imitations of the verbiage of the court, before which they were represented, or fanciful caricatures of the manners of the lowest people. But in the period of our history in question, a security of person and property, and a freedom of opinion had been established, which made every man feel of some consequence to himself, and appear an object of some curiosity to his neighbours: our manners became more domesticated; there was a general spirit of sturdiness and independence, which made the English character more truly English than perhaps at any other period—that is, more tenacious of its own opinions and purposes. The whole surface of society appeared cut out into square enclosures and sharp angles, which extended to the dresses of the time, their gravel-walks, and clipped hedges. Each individual had a certain ground-plot of his own to cultivate his particular humours in, and let them shoot out at pleasure; and a most plentiful crop they have produced accordingly. The reign of George II was, in a word, the age of hobby-horses: but, since that period, things have taken a different turn. (143—44)

After these words, Hazlitt goes on to regret the way the constant wars of the previous fifty years have driven out this “domestic” interest, and made the king's and nation's actions central, even up to the point of restoring “the divine right of kings.”

There are several remarkable features to the way Hazlitt explains the comparatively sudden, and regrettably temporary, effulgence of British genius in the early (by now, canonical) novel writers of the period of George II (1727—60: Richardson, Fielding, Smollett, and Laurence Sterne. First, Hazlitt offers an early rendering of what is by now the classic explanation for the rise of the novel: a correlation of the rise of the middle class (with its Protestantism, individualism and domesticity, or in other words, its subjectivity) with the rise of the novel. But here, that thesis is not an abstract sociological correlation, applicable to all societies undergoing modern economic development. It is interwoven, at every point, with the central myths of English national identity—its idea of what separates French “despotism” from English liberty. Thus the political upheaval that brought the House of Hanover to the throne is said to have given “a more popular turn to our literature and genius.” How does this “turn” come about? Although Hazlitt blurs the agency for this change through the use of a passive construction (“It was found high time”), he aligns the cultural and political demands for representation as they express themselves “in books as well as Parliament.” This brings into existence a new species of culturally enfranchised reader: one who demands a turn away from representations of the “vices, miseries, and frivolities of the great” to “an account of themselves.” This break from cultural despotism (as expressed in the continental romance and novella) is grounded in the flowering of English liberty, which wins for each “a security of person and property, and freedom of opinion.” Since this turn toward a more popular and “domestic” culture wins the English reader a certain “life” and “liberty,” he (not she) becomes propertied—“each individual had a certain ground-plot of his own to cultivate his particular humours in.” The novel—in the epoch of its flowering—thus allows every English citizen to realize a claim to the Lockean trinity of life, liberty, and property. English novels put English readers of a certain epoch in possession of a self.

Hazlitt's Whig interpretation of the free Golden Age of the mid-eighteenth century, written from the vantage point of his conception of English democratic identity, is embedded in many subsequent understandings of what the novel is and does. Because of the novel's celebrated grasp of ordinary life, its use of detailed description, its incorporation of social DIALOGUE and inner thoughts, at least since the nineteenth century, the novel has served as the royal road to identity. If one is a writer from a certain region, ethnic group, or nation, it is assumed that writing a novel will help to define it, e.g., the American South, blackness, or Nigeria (see REGIONAL). And if you, as a member of one of those groups (or as a curious reader), want to absorb the deep truth of those identities, it is assumed that reading William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, or Chinua Achebe will take you closer to that special flavor of human identity. The global dissemination of novel reading and novel writing has made the novel a privileged discursive site for brokering the relations among nations and peoples (Lynch and Warner, 3). This has also given the novel a starring role in today's multicultural curriculum.

The Novel's Realist Claims

Novels, which are at their simplest level lively stories about people who never existed, have no necessary relation to moral life or national identity. The articulations between these different cultural terms—novels, morality, nationhood—are the contingent effect of the institutionalization of the novel carried out by writers, critics, and readers. Both these articulations lend support to and are grounded in a third, equally important connection—that between the “novel” and “real life”. The idea that the novel effects a particularly compelling imitation of “real life” is as old as seventeenth-century critical claims on behalf of the novella against the romance. Similar claims were made on behalf of the anti-romance of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. But since the eighteenth century, the claim to represent “real” life and manners has never been merely descriptive; it has also been normative see DECORUM). To represent “real” life is to attain a more valuable species of writing. Making this claim on behalf of the novel and against romance was a way critics promoted the surpassing of the old romance, with its fabulous elements and its extravagant codes of honor, in favor of a rational modern taste in entertainment.

Any systematic effort to deal with the many theoretical and historical horizons of “realism” is beyond the scope of this entry. My concern is to understand how the “realist claim” so frequently made for novels operates as a third criterion for defining the novel and rationalizing its rise. Ever since critics and novelists have been making this claim for the novel, there have been compelling reasons for critical skepticism. First, any claim that the novel re-presents the real runs up against a systematic obstacle arising from its linguistic medium. No text, whether it is history, science, or fiction, once transported from the SPACE or TIME of its production, and no matter how earnest its aspirations to truth, can bear a mark in its own language that verifies its relation to something outside itself. The tenuousness of the novel's realist claim is evident from the wide historical vacillations in accepted critical wisdom as to what constitutes the most truthful representation of “real” life. There are several reasons why the concept of mimesis, or imitation, becomes inevitable within formulations of the role of novels: a mimetic relation is implicit in the structure of the sign, in every effort at narrative, in the attempt to bring truth into the presence of consciousness through language (Derrida, 186—87). As realist claims begin to be made in the mid-eighteenth century, there are certain background axioms operating within such a claim. First, this claim does not establish a naively empirical relationship between word and thing, but unfolds within an understanding that the novel has a mediated aesthetic relation to what it represents (McKeon, 118—28). Thus for example, a dialogue in a tavern is not, whatever its verisimilitude, the same as a transcript of an actual dialogue. Second, the realist claim is founded upon, and therefore limited by, a judgment made at a particular time among a social network of readers who produce, consume, and criticize.

For the readers who experience the “realist effect” (Barthes, 182) of a particular novel's alignment of language and referent, the judgment that this or that novel is intrinsically realistic is a pleasing consensus. Its being shared by a community of readers encourages the critical consolidation of a certain specific form of writing as a prescribed form of realism: e.g., in the history of novels, “writing to the moment” (Richardson), “formal realism” (Watt), omniscient narrative, stream-of-consciousness writing, etc. But the repeated use of a particular form of fiction wears away its realist effect, until it appears to be a mechanical, formula fiction referring to nothing so much as itself. The decay of the realist effect of old realisms incites practices and manifestoes which promote new species of realism. In the over three-hundred years of novel criticism in English, one question—“Is it realistic?”—has served as the most generally accepted criterion of value. But while critics have at times sought to regularize novelistic production around the goal of representing real life, and advocated the novel as the most powerful literary technology for representing reality, readers, and the authors who write for them, have happily indulged periodic returns to romance, whether through the development of the gothic novel (Horace Walpole, 1764, The Castle of Otranto), the novel of fantasy, or the novel of adolescent action and adventure (see Glazener, in Lynch and Warner).

The Novel as a Form of Art

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the novel's realism is complicated and enriched by novelists such as Gustave Flaubert and Henry James, who aestheticize the novel. While it may seem that such a movement would vitiate the novel's realist claims, in fact it aligns the novel with a critical tradition that goes back to Aristotle, whereby art's power to represent nature is dependent on its acceptance of inherited aesthetic forms and types like tragedy, epic, and the pastoral. In James's prefaces to the New York edition of his novels, later gathered by R. P. Blackmur into The Art of the Novel (1934), a new demand is made of novels that would accede to the condition of art: they must have “form.” James develops this term through analogies to drama, painting, and sculpture in order to make the case for the novel's having a graspable contour, shape, or structure. Because James is so protective of the novelist's prerogatives, it is often difficult to be sure what is meant by the novel's “form.” For James a novel has “form” if it achieves a unified and economic commingling of plot, character, and idea. It is clear which novels lack form: those “loose baggy monsters” that James mocks and Victorian novel readers had been all too ready to indulge (1908, x).

The successful articulation of the novel and art has several important effects upon the novel's cultural placement. First, a new sophistication and irony attend critical considerations of the novel's realist claims. It is assumed that the novel's claim to realism depends upon the novel's position as a kind of art, and its claim to represent the real unfolds not in opposition to the artificial, but through the illusion-engendering resources of art. There is a consensus among academic critics of the twentieth century that successful realism is grounded in a reciprocal interplay between literary form and mimetic function.

The expectation that the best and most significant novels possess “form” helps transform the literary history of the novel, and the imagination of its rise. As long as the novel seemed free of the critical constraints that framed the cultural acceptance of epic, drama, and poetry, and its signal feature was the atavistic pleasures it afforded its readers, literary historians could trace the many interconnections between the modern novel and the romances of earlier epochs. As long as the moral function or national telos of novelistic writing guided literary histories, the affinities of early English novels with Shakespeare's characters, Geoffrey Chaucer's stories, Cervantes's anti-romance, and the modern French novel seemed plausible, and open to exploration. But once the novel's generic identity was understood to depend upon realist claims achieved through a particular form, the arrival of the modern novel appeared unheralded and contingent (see MODERNIS). Its first instance could now be sought. The emergence of the modern novel comes to be represented as dependent upon an abrupt invention of new and more powerful techniques for representing reality.

The wide influence of The Rise of the Novel results in part from the way Watt adds an important new dimension to the story of the novel's rise, by updating its realist claim. By aligning Richardson's “writing to the moment” with the distinctly modern turn toward a rendering of private experience and subjective intensities, Watt redefines the object of novelistic mimesis from the social surface to the PSYCHOLOGICAL interior. Watt's argument ends up redefining the novel—and the “formal realism” it is built upon—so as to revalue Richardson at Fielding's expense. How and why does the novel shift the terrain of its realist claims from the social surface to the ineluctable psychological interior? Here is my speculation. By the turn of the twentieth century, novelistic writing is but one of several kinds of representation within culture claiming to represent reality. Over the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century, PHOTOGRAPHY and cinema co-opt the sort of social description and precise verisimilitude of the visible surface most characteristic of nineteenth-century novelistic realism. To sustain its realist claims, novel writers locate a more obscure object, one inaccessible to the camera lens, by turning inward. Now the most advanced novels, those, for example, of Joyce, Marcel Proust, Woolf, and Faulkner, are claimed by critics to affect a mimesis of the inner consciousness. The old aesthetic demand that art have a certain “form” receives a technological spin in the invention of a narrative of the mind. Just as the new media of photography and the phonograph and their merger into cinema enable a new set of realist claims, so the novel is reinterpreted as the medium uniquely suited to representing the inner life. Within Watt's literary history, Richardson's “writing to the moment” can be revalued as the early modern precursor of the stream-of-consciousness writing attributed to some late modern novelists.

This highly selective historical overview of various definitions of the novel demonstrates how history works on, with, and through the novel, so that we might say of the novel what is said of Cleopatra: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale/Her infinite variety” (Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra, II.ii).


1. Anderson, B. (1983), Imagined Communities.

2. Barthes, R. (1970/1974), S/Z, trans. R. Miller.

3. Coventry, F. (1751), “An Essay on the New Species of Writing Founded by Mr. Fielding,” Augustan Reprint Society No. 95 1962.

4. Davidson, C. (1986), Revolution and the Word.

5. Derrida, J. (1983), Dissemination, trans. B. Johnson.

6. Doody, M.A. (1996), True Story of the Novel.

7. Glazener, N. (1996), “Romances for ’Big and Little Boys',” in Lynch.

8. Hazlitt, W. (1845), Lectures on the Comic Writers, 3rd ed.

9. James, H. (1908), “Preface,” in Tragic Muse, vol. 7.

10. James, H. (1934), Art of the Novel, ed. R.P. Blackmur.

11. Johnson, S. (1750), Rambler 4.

12. Lynch, D. and W.B. Warner, ed. (1996), Cultural Institutions of the Novel.

13. McKeon, M. (1987), Origins of the English Novel, 1600—1740.

14. Reeve, C. (1785), Progress of Romance.

15. Warner, W.B. (1998), Licensing Entertainment.

16. Watt, I. (1957), Rise of the Novel.