The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014
History of the Novel
Deirdre Shauna Lynch
Histories of the novel—accounts that trace, variously, fiction's beginnings, progress, rise, and setbacks, that nominate particular candidates for the title of “the first novelist,” or that identify these pioneers' most important or representative successors — began to be written in England, France, and China in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. A boom in the authoring, reading, and marketing of fiction was then commencing both in Western Europe and East Asia, and histories of the novel, I will suggest, often serve to manage and police such booms. These histories increased in number and were harnessed to new sociopolitical ends after the nineteenth century. That was when the novel became, with history-writing itself, one “sign of the modern,” and when every nation-state that aspired to participate in the world literary system was pressured to display evidence of a well-rooted tradition of narrative fiction (N. B. Dirks, 1990, “History as a Sign of the Modern,” Public Culture 2:25—32).
The histories did not only assist in the canonization of particular works of fiction—though the earliest, like Pierre-Daniel Huet's 1670—71 Traité de l'origine des romans (Treatise on the Origins of Novel/The History of Romance) or Feng Menglong's 1620 survey of the lineage of Chinese fiction, first appeared as prefaces that vouched for newly written texts, Madame de Lafayette's Zaÿde (1670) and Feng's own Gujin Xiaoshuo (1620, Stories Old and New), respectively. They also, more comprehensively, assisted in narrative fiction's elevation in the hierarchy of literary genres. Being endowed with a pedigree helped narrative fiction, in all its unruly plurality, become “the novel” and acquire the respectability and literariness that in the nineteenth century elevated it above the print market into the territory of art.
Novel as Hero
The conventions for emplotment that novelists and historiographers of all stripes ended up sharing after the early nineteenth century were predicated on a modern notion of time as a medium that sponsored meaningful change—not empty succession (one thing after another), but development and growth. While using this plotting, histories of the novel have often entertained a kind of personification of the object of their study. Numerous nineteenth- and twentieth-century literary histories assign to the novel just the storylines that novels typically assign to their own protagonists. They write a sort of novel about the novel. In such schemes, novels, too, are young once, grow up, and even settle down, passing from bastardy to cultural legitimacy. Insinuating itself among established genres like the epic and drama, the parvenu—a “lusty young form”—makes good: it leaves behind its humble beginnings (R. Burton, 1909, Masters of the English Novel, 9). Commenting on Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel (1957), Margaret Reeves has thus noticed, amidst Watt's engagement with the achievements of the three eighteenth-century English authors spotlighted by his subtitle, instances within Rise “of syntactical slippage ... where the novel itself displaces these three writers as the grammatical subject, and an abstraction [’the novel’] designating a generic category becomes situated both grammatically and conceptually as the active agent of its own development” (2000, “Telling the Tale of the Rise of the Novel,” Clio 30:36).
Considerable narrative interest attaches to a literary history framed as a story of how a hero finds his identity by rising above challenges—as with, for instance, Watt's account of how in the eighteenth century the striving young novel needed to contend with various antagonists, among them, a lingering Renaissance belief in an unchanging Nature and the misguided expectations of the backward-looking figure that Henry Fielding called the “classical reader” (Watt, 248—59). But this practice of personification, and the attendant notion that the history of a form might follow the lines of a bildungsroman, have served additional ends. To arrange, in Watt's manner, for Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, and Fielding to disappear together behind “the novel” was a way to suggest, retrospectively, that this triumvirate had devoted itself to the same project of genre-foundation. That suggestion, however, elided the inconvenient fact that, although each claimed to have set up a new species of narrative, none considered his own species to be at all like the others', and none called what he was doing novel-writing. Such framing suppresses heterogeneity. It bestows a transhistorical identity, a singularity, on a form remarkable for its formless plurality—one constitutively riven between the documentation of things as they are and the imagination of things as they are not, between art and popular culture, between the provision of mimetic representation and the provision of entertainment.
Concerned with more than the classification of literary kinds, discourses on a genre function as well to shape readers' responses. Histories of the novel—of an entity which finally exists only through such mediations, in the institutions of commentary and transmission that produce and reproduce the form's boundaries and create the audiences capable of observing them—regulate culture's tremendous investment in narrative fictions and in the entertainment and instruction they purvey. This is why histories are important: the project of recounting the form's past and the project of policing the accounts of reality, or common life, or artistic value, or nationality that are at present being provided in its name are inextricably entangled.
The remainder of this entry treats some of the shifting attitudes that historians of the novel, from the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries, have taken toward the form's categorical instability and polyglot multifariousness and some of the shifting strategies that these historians have adopted to make a shapely narrative from this inchoate past. To that end, and while proceeding chronologically, it addresses the following topics: (1) the way that the earliest historians of the novel narrated history as the story of the transmission of an appetite for fiction and the story of the cultural contacts through which that transmission occurred; (2) the periodization schemes that these historians of fiction and their successors used as they linked the novel with new, modern times, and the conflicting accounts they gave of what the novel must have left behind in order to realize its generic potential; (3) the new insistence, shaping much nineteenth- and twentieth-century commentary, on articulating the novel and nationhood. A brief conclusion brings the discussion up to the present.
The Progress of Romance
As we will see in the later section of this entry that examines the linkages that nineteenth-century commentators forged between modern realist fiction and home truths, one familiar way in which histories of the novel have regulated the genre's constitutive plurality involves ensconcing the form within a national framework. What falls outside national limits has often been marginalized as somehow un-novelistic or not-yet-novelistic. When the story of the novel is presented as linear history that proceeds causally from predecessors to successors, and when realism is identified with native expression, the international dialogism that also shaped the literary past receives short shrift. Accounts of the “progress” of realism, its ever more fine-grained observation of obscure lives or individuals' psychic depths, can seem set up to occlude “progress” in the alternate sense of that term that involves not movement through time but movement across space—the cross-border migrations of narrative via translations and imitations (see ADAPTATION, TRANSLATION).
It is noteworthy accordingly that it was just this sense of progress—as designating diffusion across space—that centered many histories of fiction written in Western Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In these multicultural histories, the work of time is manifested not so much as change in the nature of literature but rather as a change of place. This—and these accounts' infrequent engagement with the formal differences defining and distinguishing genres or eras, their scrambling together of a mishmash of narrative kinds—means that to us they may not look much like literary histories at all.
The topic that linked histories such as those written by Huet in 1670—71, James Beattie in 1783, and Clara Reeve in 1785 was the westward journeying of the art of imaginative narration, often called “romance” or “roman”: its commencement in the Orient, land of mystery and magic, genii and enchantments, and its transplantation to Europe as the Crusaders carried back with them “a large cargo of the fictions of the Arabian imagination” (Moore, 1:37). “The East,” Anna Barbauld notes, “is emphatically the country of invention” (1:3). In presenting fiction as a machine for intercultural connection, these histories recycled the classical notion of the translatio imperii et studii: a scheme in which “culture” had been represented as a process of cultivation that unfolded, east to west, through the military conquests and commercial exchanges that over time had linked, variously, the Egyptians to the Greeks, the Greeks to the Romans, and so forth. Defining fiction more by its relocations than by its origins, these histories highlighted the shape-shifting that facilitated fiction's “transmission ... from one part of the world to another and from one language to another” (McMurran, 57). These histories also highlighted audiences' desire for fiction. As assessed in this context, fiction was by definition about love—“The Persians first affected up this kind of amorous literature,” Salmasius stated, introducing in 1640 a new translation of the ancient Greek romance, The Loves of Clitophon and Leucippe (qtd. in McMurran, 58). Fiction was also itself a love-object, inspiring an attachment that, commentators maintained, spread globally like a contagion. Seventeenth-century prefaces that recounted in allegorical mode the successive retranslations of particular fictions reasserted that emphasis on spatial diffusion and emphasis on desirability. An English example from 1623 thus personifies the text it introduces as it recounts how the rogue-hero of Mateo Aleman's Gúzman de Alfarache (1605, The Life of Guzmán de Alfarache) wandered, telling his tale as he went, from Spain to France and thence to England to steal more hearts there. In this context, histories of the novel—or, to use the terminology of the day, of “the progress of romance”—recorded how a captivating form took “advantage of permeable frontiers” (DeJean, 175).
Ancients vs. Moderns
Yet the same histories that portray the globetrotting that fiction does as a constant in cultural history also in other passages lay out a scheme in which fiction is the product of an epochal break, its literary specificity predicated on the revolutions that terminate stable tradition and inaugurate dynamic modernity. The characteristic gesture of the historian as Michel de Certeau has described it—“separation”; “breakage”—is at work in this scheme. For de Certeau, history writing begins with an initial act of division, which severs past from present—as the historian assumes a gap to exist between the reality historiography seeks to express and the place of its own speech—and that division is repeated and repeated until one has a chronology composed of a cavalcade of periods. Twentieth-century novel theory has internalized this logic of separation. Two architects of that theory, Georg lukÁcs and Mikhail bakhtin, each associated the novel's advent with a “rupture in the history of European civilization” that had precipitated the end of the epic genre (Bakhtin, 1981, “Epic and Novel,” in Dialogic Imagination, ed. M. Holquist, 11), and they diverged only in the way they assessed that rupture—Lukács writing in 1920 a melancholic account of rationalist modernity as disenchantment, Bakhtin in 1975 stressing, in a celebratory vein, emancipation from the narrow horizons of tradition (see Lukács, Theory of the Novel). Many histories of the novel written in the centuries prior to Bakhtin and Lukács subscribe to a comparable scheme. The consensus view, then as now, was that the novel emerged out of an abrupt break from the way things had been done in the past. Indeed, to establish a relation of continuity with what preceded it, it is implied, would have been alien to the novel's nature. And when seventeenth- and eighteenth-century commentators line up around the premise that the novel (or the romance/roman) should be understood as standing for the modern, and when they rigidify (with increasing enthusiasm) the distinctions between “old romances” and “new” that are founded on this premise, their accounts of the “progress of romance” begin to approach literary history as we know it now.
These writers did not always concur about what features of tradition the novel, as it pursued its destiny, would have to leave behind. Sometimes within these histories history-writing itself—“real” rather than “fictitious” “history”—occupies the role of the ancient “parent” from which modern fiction is meant to have broken away. Thus in the early nineteenth century, Barbauld, in the essay she supplied to head up her multi-volume, canon-making collection The British Novelists, and Walter Scott in the essay on Romance that he wrote for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, each devised a parable about the origins of fiction that dramatizes this particular act of separation. Hearkening back to an immemorial past, Barbauld and Scott made the first scene in the history of the novel one that involved the descendants of a great hero, the founder of a tribe, telling and retelling the story of their ancestor's heroic deeds. And they made the genesis of fiction a function of the alterations that would inevitably be introduced—from carelessness, vanity, and the desire to entertain—as these stories were transmitted aurally from one generation to the next. The premise about fiction's origins that this parable proposes is that, as time passes, what was history will become fiction.
More than half a century later, Scott's version of the parable would reappear, woven almost verbatim into the Japanese critic Tsubouchi Shy's influential essay, “Shsetsu shinzui” (1885—86, “The Essence of the Novel,” 52). That Shy, a student of English literature whose essay is balanced trickily between advocacy for the example set by realist novels newly imported from the West and a demonstration of the novel's deep roots in Japan, should find Scott's account of fiction's origins attractive makes sense. During Shy's day, the term that was being requisitioned as a designation for the novels entering East Asia from the West, xiaoshuo (a Chinese term that is rendered in Japanese as shsetsu, in Korean as sosl) had been associated, for centuries, with a narrative kind that had appeared on the scene just as “the tradition of historical writing began to weaken” (qtd. in Zeitlin, 255). The latter was just the proposal about periodization that, back in 1620, Feng Menglong had floated in the preface to Stories Old and New, where that Chinese author had outlined his own hypotheses about fiction's origins. As that proposal suggests, the topic of the xiaoshuo lent itself with remarkable ease to historiographical narratives that could be framed in terms parallel to those organizing contemporaneous European narratives about the novel's genesis: either narratives in which novels appeared on the scene to remedy the shortcomings of history, or alternately—since xiaoshuo originally designated matter deemed unfit to be included into the official history of the state, because of its association with the weird or the common or the homely, with vulgar gossip and hearsay in the streets—narratives organized around the rags-to-riches ascent of a once-despised form. Shy's recontextualization of Scott's parable within an account of the standing of the novel in nineteenth-century Japan demonstrates nicely how stories about fiction's deviation from the history to which it was originally kin could actually lay the groundwork for a rapprochement between the two practices of writing. In this style of account, the novel's movement in modern times toward realist mimesis can represent one way that such a rapprochement is achieved: and indeed, in his essay Shy suggests that the progress of the novel lies and will continue to lie with its honing of the mimetic powers that have allowed it to do the work of “supplementing official histories” (91—92).
Feminine vs. Masculine
Within seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European accounts of the progress of romance, the epic, as well as real history, was liable to be identified as the foil for fiction. (Fielding famously identified his compositions as comic epics in prose, in his 1742 Joseph Andrews.) The epic too could be cast as the “parent” form from which the novel had broken away, the form fated to be superseded by the advent of modern, “novelistic” times. However, when, prior to the nineteenth century, commentators on fiction's origins slotted the epic into the role of the novel's significant other, it was for different reasons than those motivating Lukács and Bakhtin, different not least because the earlier commentators drew on a historiography that cast sexual politics rather than class politics as the determining factor in the creation of literary modernity. Epic was defunct, some commentators contended: the relations between the genders had altered drastically since the days of Homer and Virgil, when women were men's chattels, rather than their companions, and when feats of military might alone were deemed worthy of narrating. Although there was no disputing that the writers of Augustan Rome had supplied posterity with “many models of composition in other branches,” it was a black mark against them, an English historian contended in 1771, that they had “left no work of imagination, describing the manners of their own countrymen, in which love is supposed to be productive of any ... very serious effects” (Millar, 155). To do justice to modern times what was needed was a body of narrative that, altered in both its content and its address, gave love and female readers their due.
This style of historiography thus both explained the popularity of novels, making them a sign of a properly civilized world, and dictated what novels ought to be like. Seventeenth-century France was the site where the roman (novel/romance) had been brought to perfection, Huet had previously asserted in his Traité. (The assertion was a salvo in the disputes being fought out in France at that moment between the champions of the literary authority of the Ancients, and champions of that of the Moderns, as well as an expression of a patriotism somewhat gainsaying the emphasis that Huet had placed elsewhere on the cosmopolitanism of fiction.) The reason for his compatriots' success was, Huet contended, that the conversation between men and women was more free in France than anywhere else or at any other time. The explanation proposed a reciprocal relation between feminine influence and the attainment of literary modernity.
As the account above of Shy's recycling of Scott has already intimated, later historians would, in part by virtue of their increasing tendency to see realism as the novel's raison d'être, take a different, dimmer view of the particular epoch in the history of fiction that Huet references. Later historians often represented the writing produced in seventeenth-century France—in a culture presided over by women (Madame de Lafayette and Madeleine de Scudéry particularly)—as a false start or sag in the novel's rise. The novel's real history could only commence, many implied, with the form's secure masculinization. Voltaire in France, and then, in a later version of this argument that was centered on Britain, Scott, were each lauded for helping the novel get back on the right track. For these authors had, as Voltaire's eulogist declared in 1779, “taken the empire of the novel from women” (qtd. in DeJean, 163). Feminine influence was also deemed unfortunate in other cultural locations. Because in the era of Murasaki Shikibu's Genji monogatari (ca. 1010, Tale of Genji) “native writing had fallen largely into the hands of women,” this writing “lacked the spirit essential to literature,” Tagachi Ukichi complained in 1877 (qtd. in T. Keirstead, 1995, “The Gendering and Regendering of Medieval Japan,” U.S.-Japan Women's Journal 9:80).
As the representation of the past as a sequence of distinct periods became an established feature of history-writing, according to that disciplinary logic that de Certeau outlines, writing up the story of the novel became in some measure a matter of identifying the turning points between one period and the next. (Periodization itself has been read as a legacy of the Quarrel between the Ancients and Moderns, which in calling into question the agelessness of classic writing, laid the ground for new accounts of historical discontinuity.) Various candidates in the European novel's history—Voltaire and Scott included—have been credited with ushering in a new era and advancing their genre's fortunes. De Lafayette did figure in this guise for Barbauld in 1810 and John Dunlop in 1814: her Princesse de Clèves (1678, The Princess of Cleves) formed an “era” by modeling for its successors how novels should attempt to please, not by “unnatural or exaggerated representations,” but by “the genuine exhibition of human character and the manners of real life” (Dunlop, 366). Surveying histories of the novel can make one realize how much it matters who the historian selects to serve in the role of vanguard of the new. To gloss over La Princesse and slot Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra's Don Quixote (1605, 1615) or Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719—22) into the role of “first novel” could serve as a way to peg the form's fortunes to a story of class rather than gender. This is part of what is happening when Don Quixote is said to occasion through its satire the death of “the old Romance” and the birth of a new kind in which Fiction descends “to the level of common life [and] converse[s] with man as his equal”—or when Crusoe is read as an announcement of bourgeois revolution, a “severe emanation of the middle class” welling up amidst “the splendid corruption of high life” (J. Beattie, 1783, “On Fable and Romance,” in Dissertations Moral and Critical, 2:307; Taine, 3:257).
Art vs. Life: Realism's Home Truths
This understanding of history as a structure anchored by a succession of turning points came to the fore as progresses of romance were replaced by what may, in fact, properly be deemed progressive histories. These conceptualized the novel as moving through time—“rising,” in fact—rather than through space. Downplaying fiction's capacity to entertain, downplaying the internationalism spotlighted by earlier writers, and downplaying the access to other worlds that fiction grants readers, while playing up the access it grants them to this one, these histories by and large identified realism as the engine that drove the novel forward along that evolutionary axis. Often in gendered terms, they identified propensities for fantasy or sentimentality as the cause of the occasional episode of regression.
Certainly, other options for describing the form's life in time have been possible. For instance, well into the nineteenth century, the novel's advance was pegged to writers' increasingly careful observance of protocols of modesty and delicacy. Some histories were organized, in a scheme that downplays teleology, so as to record series of dialectical oscillations between realistic and romantic movements (or “romance revivals”), between realism and idealism, or between novels “of character” and novels “of incident.” But Whiggish histories written under the sign of realism increasingly dominated critical discourse from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries, and, notably, where discussions of British fiction particularly were concerned, such writing was shaped decisively by assertions of historical discontinuity and denials of historical interconnectedness. Those priorities reflect the fact that, within the Anglophone context, romance by the early nineteenth century ceased to be a term interchangeable with novel. It came instead to designate the antecedent form from which the novel had broken to realize its identity. (Other European literary languages have never needed to mark that distinction: roman, like romanzo, covers the predecessor and the successor form alike.) This same semantic shift also facilitated the process by which the nation became naturalized as the framework for historians' analyses. In part this was the logical consequence of the emergent presupposition that the novel's fundamental aims involved mimesis, rather than entertainment, and that what novels had to do to be novels was to represent in realist terms the life and manners of the local group. Novels as such came, increasingly, to be seen as speaking for particular, bounded territories and conveying their home truths. By contrast, romance was elsewhere, as well as else-when. This was because romance also came to designate in England the kind of narrative that might suit readers on the benighted Continent, France especially: a site where affectation remained the rule within cultures that were still dominated by their courtiers, and where, accordingly, readers remained unaware that the primary demand that they should make of a fiction was that it should be “realistic.” More and more frequently, the novel was presented as something that the English had practically patented, because, according to a circular logic, it was understood to have been the vehicle in which the middle-class, democratic culture of Protestant individualism particular to eighteenth-century England found its voice. “The great inventors in novel-writing wrote in English,” claimed Charles William Eliot, justifying in 1917 the English-heavy selection he had made for the The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction (1917, 1:i). Forty years later Ian Watt could take this premise for granted. Realism's global ascent was uneven. Other nations were described as having to play a game of catch-up.
The flaws lurking within such arguments become evident, however, when one recalls, for instance, that a scant eleven years before Watt published Rise, Erich Auerbach had tracked in Mimesis the long history of the democratization of style, and so made Stendhal, Honoré de Balzac, and Gustave Flaubert a culmination of his story of realism, while excluding their contemporaries in England. Victorian critics, for their part, however, tended to find the French realists' commitment to empirical precision “morbid” or “materialistic.” They thought that nineteenth-century English novels, by contrast, proved that lifelike characterization and a rejection of romance extravagancies could be combined with moral purpose. The criteria that present-day critics employ, as we strive even harder to make the history of the novel follow the linear lines of a “rise,” makes that blithe intertwining of realism and idealism baffling. According to our criteria, those Victorian critics had their own catching up to do.
Still, such complications notwithstanding, the historiographic consequences of the arrangement that produced two genres, novel and romance, where earlier commentators had seen one, were plentiful. On the one hand, that the question of the origins of the novel was being refocused through a national lens meant that the early English novel came to be redescribed as the product of distinctively English influences. In its nascent realism, it had less and less to do with precursor texts written in seventeenth-century France or Spain. It was cut off as well from prose fictions written before Fielding's and Richardson's works of the 1740s, many of them female-authored. Recategorized as romances, these fictions were now consigned to the novel's prehistory. On the other hand, strangely enough, the parochialism underwritten by this habit of segregating novel from romance actually traveled. When in Meiji Japan, Shy set out to convince his compatriots to value the novel as a form fit to “attract men of discrimination rather than to entertain women and children,” he identified, as an obstacle to just that assessment, commentators' insufficient rigor in distinguishing novel and romance. Making this argument, Shy adopted the term romance wholesale from English, without bothering to dig up a Japanese term (87). Literary history for Shy, as for numerous others, was supposed to be a register of the discriminations of taste and intellect rather than of the desires incited by the vulgar entertainment of a plot. His scheme requires a novel/romance distinction because in it the “true novel” looms over popular fictions—lachrymose melodramas, the translated detective fictions currently entering Japan in droves—that readers actually read (J. Zwicker, 2006, “The Long Nineteenth Century of the Japanese Novel,” in The Novel, ed. F. Moretti, 1:593).
In 1894 Walter Raleigh celebrated the readiness of Defoe and other early eighteenth-century Englishmen to form their style under influences far removed from romance. Those men recognized, Raleigh stated, that inspiration could be taken from the life of the people—and from artless writing close to that life, “whether ... a broadside or a blue-book”—rather than from the pages of their “predecessors in ... art” (1919, The English Novel, 109). Casting non-literary materials as the origins from which novels sprung helped Raleigh present English realist fiction as a homegrown product. This account also buttressed definitions of realism as hinging on a rejection of the mediation of art. For some scholars annotating the rise of realism, the novel needed to be apprehended as something that was as close to “science” as it was to “art,” which was why “there were no true novels until a prose suitable for scientific record ... was in common use” (Baker, 1:17). One way to sort out nineteenth- and twentieth-century histories of the novel is, in fact, according to how they identify the aim of novels' realism and the particular analogies that help them do that identifying. Did realism aim at objective delineation of humanity en masse? (Balzac's description of his Comédie Humaine as a natural history that would classify and exhibit the various orders of human beings may lurk in the background of Baker's comment above.) Was its goal “the propagation of altruism,” as Richard Burton declared in 1909, ascribing an ethical import to the novel's mimetic commitments and subordinating those to fiction's capacity to arouse sympathy (9)? (One prevalent scheme had novels' realist evolution and nations' moral reforms advancing in tandem.)
Realism in an International Context
In some histories, the telos toward which the novel should be evolving was the comprehensive picture of national life that realism's broad canvas afforded; realism was valued as an aesthetic of social cohesiveness. Arguing, by contrast, that such valuations invited tasteless amplitude and demoted novelists to the rank of journalists or statisticians, others histories, especially ones written in the wake of the modernist experiments of Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf, made the form's progress contingent on an inward turn and a mimetic commitment to private psyches rather than social surfaces (see MODERNIST novel, PSYCHOLOGICAL NOVEL). In mid-twentieth-century histories, the particularization of character was often named as the criterion by which fiction's evolution might be measured. The novel's modern outlook was linked to the novelist's respect for human individuality in ways that were often meant to critique the Communist affinities of proletarian fiction. New pressures to mark the difference between the West's realism and the Eastern bloc's socialist realism prompted Anglo-American critics to link, for instance, Jane Austen's importance for the history of her form to her avoidance of “collective humanity,” and to laud her backgrounding of the civic unrest of her times on the grounds that popular disturbance “gives abnormal importance to humanity in [the] gross” (M. Lascelles, 1939, Jane Austen and Her Art, 132).
Worth noting at this point are the particular narrative challenges with which, in the nineteenth century and after, historians of the novel outside the West have been obliged to grapple. Just when the realist novel became a universally prescribed form for speaking for the local cultures of the modern nation, just when its break from tradition-bound romance was being applauded most zealously, those historians found themselves in locations where the modernity that realism was supposed to mediate was often experienced as an imposition from without, rather than a development from within. Historians of the Japanese shsetsu or the Chinese xiaoshuo or the Arabic riwaya have willy-nilly been obliged to negotiate the asymmetries of power that defined, and define, a global literary system, as this essay's references to Shy's “Essence of the Novel” have already suggested. If British colonial officers in India and Africa and missionaries in China brandished the realist novel before wondering native eyes as they performed their civilizing missions, and if, for different reasons, anticolonial nationalists in a range of imperial possessions perceived that novel as an advanced cultural technology that it behooved their nations to appropriate for themselves, it fell to literary historians in those locations to counter the supposition that this involuntary embrace of Western modernity would render the past irrelevant. From a certain perspective, “the novel ... ’colonized’ preexistent narrative production; already existent modes of narrative production were ... refashioned in the image of the novel” (Layoun, 10—11). Literary histories, however, have often carried out the cultural work of offering an alternate perspective, crafting counter-hegemonies with which to contest the hegemony of that triumphalist account correlating the rise and spread of the novel and of Western culture's technological, financial, and civic know-how. For a start, historians of fiction based outside the West have been able to place the forms of the nation's indigenous narrative traditions and the new fictions written with one eye on Western models together in a continuum.
In this way, they have emplotted their stories of the past in a way that can make it seem as if the new fictions, too, are organic developments of the national character. Shy can thus retroactively claim the Tale of Genji as an early instance of psychological realism, a “true novel,” accordingly, and not, as he points out, a didactic work ancillary to religious doctrine (78). Certainly, some irony resides in the fact that the nineteenth-century resurrections in Persian and Arabic of Alf Layla wa-Layla (The Arabian Nights)—whose appearance in French and English translations early in the eighteenth century had previously confirmed the mappings that commentators had made of the origin and progress of romance—owed a significant debt to European fascination with fables of the East (Rastengar). That irony explains, in fact, the scorn the book's “frivolity” prompted among many commentators, also annoyed that this was the only Arabic text Europeans acknowledged. But this text, which had been borrowed enthusiastically in Europe and later on made representative of the romance that Western realism perforce left behind, became evidence (having traveled eastward again in modern and postmodern times) refuting the premise that in the Middle East fiction could not possibly be anything but a borrowed form. Such rereadings of the past—and constructions of a usable past—of course remain critical at a time when “world literature” is still far from being a level playing field.
This represents, however, only one reason why the history of the history of the novel currently appears as a never-ending story. Scholars' investment in the history of the novel shows no sign of abating, in large part because the premise that this literary genre has the monopoly on cultural representativeness commands more assent than ever. On the one hand, the novel continues to demand historical attention because the form is perceived to provide preeminent opportunities for social representation to subaltern groups: we need histories, therefore, that track, e.g., the evolution of queer and feminist and African-American novels. On the other hand, the novel demands such attention because of its perceived ideological typicality. For practitioners of cultural studies, novels' status as the first mass cultural commodities (formerly an occasion for critical embarrassment) makes the form the site from which to survey the operations of modern social power: to comprehend what novels were, it is promised, will be to comprehend the hegemonic force of mass media at present. Earlier discussions of the synthetic social vision of nineteenth-century realism—e.g., Lukács's and Raymond Williams's The English Novel, from Dickens to Lawrence— likely prepared the ground for this turn, which sees novel studies, in a fusion of formalist and sociohistorical critical aims, doing double duty as cultural analysis and sees its scholars reading individual texts as though they were ideological microcosms (see Hale). But in the era of cultural studies, realism has been regarded mainly as an ideological instrument rather than an epistemological or aesthetic one. We are to investigate its techniques because realist fiction's success in convincing its audience to extend credit to its representations has naturalized historically contingent arrangements of identity, assisting in the social construction and the policing of gender and sexuality, helping make the nation the dominant form in which communities are imagined and envisioned. Where mid-twentieth-century literary histories might have deciphered how the social relations of a given moment achieved expression in a text thanks to its mobilizing of realist codes, the new analytical paradigms tend to position these novels in society, as implements of social regulation and indoctrination.
No longer deemed external to the society it formerly seemed only to represent, divested accordingly of its reputation for ethical neutrality, realism also seems of late to have lost some of the aura of inevitability it had acquired during the nineteenth century. It increasingly seems an indefensible premise that writing follows a single evolutionary path, leading from romance to realism, from modernist experiments to postmodern metafictions. Since the late 1980s, accordingly, novel studies has dedicated a new energy to the investigation of counter-traditions. Thus, for example, in a recoil against the canon-making projects of an Ian Watt or F. R. Leavis (1948, The Great Tradition), recent accounts of the “rise” of the woman novelist and recent histories of gothic romances treat their objects as modern productions rather than as primitive fantasies that accidentally and regrettably survived into the era of the rational novel. And thus appear new speculations—that might well have caught the fancy of the early modern chroniclers of the progress of romance—about how an anti-mimeticism that bypasses the given world might contribute as much to narrative fiction's cultural centrality as its commitment to the verisimilar.
Archival histories of the sort produced since the late 1990s often reveal, among other things, just how few texts it was once necessary to read in order to discern, as earlier historians of fiction urged us to do, the line of the Great Tradition, and so reveal just how big the residual category of the unread remains accordingly. Margaret Cohen, for instance, has drawn on reams of long out-of-print female-authored fiction so as to reenvision nineteenth-century French literary history through lenses provided by the sentimental novel. Where historians formerly discovered in that literary culture signs of an evolving realism, Cohen sees a series of gendered struggles over the novel-genre: realism was not the natural upshot of the novel's evolution, she proposes, but emerged in the course of a hostile take-over by men of women's sentimental practice (12).
I want to conclude with Franco Moretti who, building on Cohen's scholarship, has recently proposed a mode of novel studies oriented decisively toward those reams of unread books and so toward “normal literature” rather than the minuscule canonical fraction of the literary field. The new historiography he projects would embrace the quantitative methods of sociologists and social historians (the global reach of world-systems theorists particularly); it would press into service the sales figures and statistics on distribution compiled by historians of the book; and, jettisoning close readings for the “distant” readings that alone can bring into visibility the contours of genres, it would take a macro rather than a micro approach to its object (1998, Atlas of the European Novel, 50). The more often Moretti has implemented this new methodology, the more apparent it has become that the field may need to give up on the old impulse to personify the novel and narrate a bildungsroman about its quest for identity. For the data he has compiled tell of many rises—wave-like patterns, cycles—but nothing we can make add up to a recognizable storyline. Similarly, “the” English novel (the scare-quotes are Moretti's own) emerges from the diagrams on which he plots his statistical findings not as a single entity evolving over time, but as a system that synchronically and diachronically holds together a plurality of conventionalized genres—such as courtship novels, gothic tales, sensation novels, and school stories (11). The novel is in pieces here, less than the sum of its subgenres. The dynamism that will carry novel studies into the twenty-first century is amply on display in Moretti's scholarship. But his histories also suggest, contrariwise, that in the twenty-first century the survival of the novel, the protagonist whose shifting fortunes so many scholars chronicled over the years in their bildungsromane of the genre, may not be a sure thing.
SEE ALSO: Comparativism, Definitions of the Novel, Intertextuality, National Literature, Novel Theory (19th Century), Novel Theory (20th Century), Romance.
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