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Sunday, August 14, 2011


The Rise of the Novel
by Ian Watt
University of California Press
p. 1957

   The Rise of the Novel was in the 18th century, in England.  Like rock and roll and rap music, the novel emerged as a result of artists  blending various and disparate influences into a new cultural product that took a mass audience by storm.  By the close of the 18th century, the novel was established as the primary form of literature and it's maintained the status into the present.  Compare sales of novels to poetry or short stories.  There is no comparison.  They don't sell poetry in airports, the "airport novel" is, by itself, a hugely lucrative market for cultural products.

    Sooo... probably the first thing to understand about the Rise of the Novel is simply how FEW novels were published in England during the 18th century.  According to Watt,  "The annual production of works of fiction, which had averaged only about seven in the years between 1700 and 1740, rose to an average of about twenty in the three decades following 1740, and this output was doubled in the period from 1770 to 1800."

     That's about 2100 works of fiction for the entire 18th century.  Now, if you got Amazon right now,  there are 1200 works of "genre fiction" "coming soon."  There are close to 4000 titles released in the last month, and 12000 in the  last ninety days. (AMAZON GENRE FICTION)

    So basically, every MONTH there are twice as many genre fiction titles released as there were works of fiction in the ENTIRE 18th CENTURY.  Say what you want about the relative literary merit of genre fiction, 4000 books a month shows that it has a HUGE audience.

   Watts main task is to explain where the novel came from, how the novel was different from older varieties of literature (particularly classic tragedy and comedy, Elizabethan drama and chivalric romances.)  His approach is technically that of a cultural Marxist- focusing on economic conditions creating additional leisure time for the maids and house servants of the upper classes, but along the way he provides a fine discussion of the "MAJOR" 18th century novelists.  For Watt they are Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding.  After a couple introductory chapters on the social and economic conditions at the beginning of the 18th century, Watt proceeds in the order that the major novels of these three authors were released.

    First, Watt tackles Robinson Crusoe, Defoe's break through with the reading public.  Crusoe was published in 1719 and it is the jumping off point for Watts discussion.  To Watt, Defoe was a genius for his ability to mold the emerging individualist ethos of Protestant theologians and English philosophers to a narrative informed by 17th and 18th century auto-biographical technique.  The audience, this early in the 18th century, consisted of people who were already reading religious tracts- and his theme of the individual reliant on his own strength appealed the nascent capitalist class that had come into it's own during the revolution of 1688.

   Watt's discussion of Defoe's novelistic technique is centered around Moll Flanders.  Moll Flanders was published in 1722.   In Moll Flanders, Defoe created a recipe that would be familiar to any Hollywood producer today: providing scandalous titillation in the form of a morality play.  Defoe's Flanders is a ruthlessly amoral hustler who would make an 80s era Ice-T proud, but she consistently espouses a vague Protestant morality.  It's a conflict that went largely unnoticed by the audience at the time.

    Defoe's style was informed by his circumstances: He was a working writer at a time when that profession hardly existed, and publishers paid for the page.  Defoe didn't see himself as a "novelist" just as a writer, but as a writer who had to sell his work to survive.

    Defoe serves as a precursor for Samuel Richardson, who for Watt is THE author responsible for the invention of the novel in form and content.  Richardson broke out in  1742 with his smash hit Pamela.  Unlike Defoe, Richardson had some competition.  Henry Fielding, the third major subject of this book, wrote Joseph Andrews in 1742 as well.  It's entirely possible that 1742 was the specific year in which the general public caught on to the novel as an existing phenomenon, in the same way that rock and roll broke out in 1956-7.  Richardson wrote in an epistolary format- letters- and that makes Pamela tough to bear for the modern reader, but in it's time, the letter was the text messaging of it's day- the technique du jour for young people with leisure who wanted to stay in touch.

    Richardson's main character was the epitome of the audience for novels themselves:  a lower class house maid who "married up": snaring a landed aristocrat while maintaining her virtue.  As Watt ably points out, there were multiple hypocrisies and paradoxes embedded in Pamela- conflicts that were the source of criticism almost as soon as the book was published.  But as I like to say here, the audience didn't give a shit, and Pamela proved to provide the template for the development of inner character in the novel for the rest of the century.

   Watt really goes for it in his chapter on 1749's Clarissa- also by Richardson.  Clarissa is over 1000 pages, and reputed to be the longest novel in history- so- I'm never going to read it. But Watt is ALL OVER THAT SHIT.  He lovvvesss Clarissa because it is the true emergence of the interiority of the novel.

  The Rise of the Novel is rounded out by a comparison of Richardson to Henry Fielding.  Here, Watt's main point is that Fielding was a remnant of the neo-classical literary mind set with a focus on external plot rather then internal character development.  Here, it is Richardson who embodies the true spirit of the Rise of the Novel, whereas Fielding's plotting is more along the lines of a narrow technical solution to a problem inherent in the epistolary novel model (i.e. super boring and nothing ever happens.)

   It would be left for Jane Austen to harmonize the two contrasting approaches and create the template for novelistic style that would carry the format into the 21st century: interior character development combined with dextrous plot and place development.  As Watt points out, novelistic style in the sense of  Flaubert was NOT something that was important in the rise of the novel itself, rather they were pounded out by these writers who got paid by the page and who didn't really have any faith in the existence of an audience for their work- much like independent musicians of today.

   The Rise of the Novel is one of my books in the year- well worth the time, but only if you've read the main works discussed: Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, Pamela, Clarissa & Tom Jones.  I would recommend Robinson Crusoe and Tom Jones to start, then Pamela then if you feel up to it Moll Flanders and skip Clarissa. A THOUSAND PAGES!!! WHO NEEDS THAT???

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