The Rise of The Novel by Ian Watt (1957)

The novel appears as leisure time spreads among the middle classes (and their servants), particularly women.

Ease of consumption

It is easy; the novel is the easiest literary form to digest: what it shares with the other new textual forms of the 18th century – the newspaper and the magazine – is ease of consumption. Encouraging a swift, transient, impressionistic form of reading, solely for the pleasure of the moment; forgotten within hours if not minutes.

The opposite of every other literary genre in history which required

a) expert literary knowledge
b) time spent assessing its merit

Realism

Defoe, Richardson, Fielding – the 18th century novelists – what distinguishes their book-length prose works is their attempt at realism. But Watt cleverly defines realism not in treatment or style – which vary hugely. What they all have in common is, they don’t appeal to any literary forebears, they don’t ask us to judge the works by any literary tradition or formulae – they ask us to judge them according to our own experience of reality, of the world.

[Defoe’s books were all published as ‘true historical accounts’, not dissimilar to the autobiographies of highwaymen and other felons being hanged which were knocked out overnight to sell to the watching crowds. Richardson’s books were published anonymously, again as a collection of real correspondence of which he is the modest editor. Fielding appeals to us because he ironises this convention, and makes himself a comically self-conscious author of his ‘history’, which he knows we know isn’t ‘true’ – except that the sentiments it raises in our breasts are true to our experience of reality.]

When Defoe wrote his biographical fictions he – as a non-aristocratic, non-conformist outside the world of the Augustan elite – ignored the complex critical theories of an Alexander Pope or a Jonathan Swift – and instead created stories according to what was plausible. This rejection of literary tradition in favour of individual validation is as momentous as Descartes rejecting the whole world and beginning again from his Cogito. As Descartes founded modern philosophy, Defoe founded modern fiction.

The General versus The Particular

Many Augustans wrote that Literature had to deal with the generality – with all those tedious Abstract Nouns which make 18th century literature so boring (and which the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds does in his painting: trying to manoeuvre the particular portrait sitter towards more heroic Ideals.)

Defoe’s highly detailed descriptions (of the 1720s) break with this entirely. Their reward is their immediacy. Yet by the 1740s, Joseph Andrews is still awash with Abstract Nouns, and very very light on details (do we get a description of any of the inns? Descriptions of the countryside? Is a single species of plant, flower or tree mentioned in a book whose plot takes place entirely in the countryside? No) and all the more boring for it.

Characteristics of the novel

  • appeal of plot & character to verisimilitude
  • appeal to Individualism – individual experience over general ‘types’
  • new plot (2 senses of ‘novel’ intertwined) ie not a classical story retold or allegorised – a completely new story
  • realistic i.e. plausible Names
  • realistic i.e. plausible Timeframe
  • realistic i.e. plausible depiction of Space

On all these fronts Fielding comes off worse of the big three, Defoe, Richardson, Fielding – the most still-rooted in Augustan silly names, absurd coincidences, ancient plotlines (concealed identitie and all). Defoe has no plots; Fielding has fairy tale romances. Richardson chooses one of the oldest plots in the world – the wooing – but goes into it in mind-boggling detail.

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