Into the Future

David Trotter

  • The Novel: Vol. I: History, Geography and Culture edited by Franco Moretti
    Princeton, 916 pp, £65.00, June 2006, ISBN 0 691 04947 5
  • The Novel: Vol. II: Forms and Themes edited by Franco Moretti
    Princeton, 950 pp, £65.00, June 2006, ISBN 0 691 04948 3

What counts as a novel? Any ‘fictitious prose work’ over fifty thousand words was E.M. Forster’s answer, in Aspects of the Novel. It’s a broad enough definition, in all conscience, though it has begun to do some useful work by excluding a wide variety of short fiction in prose, and some long poems, such as Eugene Onegin or Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate, which are not quite prepared to admit to being long poems. But it may be too broad.

Forster explicitly includes, alongside Emma and the rest of the Great Tradition, texts as unlike each other, and as unlike Emma, as Pilgrim’s Progress and W.H. Hudson’s Green Mansions. No one’s arguing about Emma. But Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegorical dream-vision; while Green Mansions (a story set in the forests of western Guyana featuring a female spirit-presence, a lost tribe, and enough spiders, centipedes and moths to stock a decent-sized natural history museum) is an adventure story of the kind Rider Haggard devised in King Solomon’s Mines and She, as an alternative to the English novel’s stuffy domestic preoccupations. Green Mansions is an eco-romance: She with added insect ecology (Haggard wouldn’t have got out of bed to describe anything smaller than a wildebeest). Well-understood generic convention organises Pilgrim’s Progress and Green Mansions in such a way as to distinguish them sharply from each other, and from whatever kind of book it is that Emma is.

That said, there is no list of formal narrative features that would enable us finally to confirm Emma’s credentials as a novel, and discard the other two altogether. Both Pilgrim’s Progress and Green Mansions have a plot, a protagonist, incidents which reveal character, incidents which don’t reveal character, character which reveals itself without incident, and so on. But they feel different, to a degree that makes Forster’s breezy inclusiveness untenable. For a start, both are high-minded in ways that even the most genteel of novels is not. They have palpable didactic designs on the reader. Both mean to sweep you off your feet: in one case, into godliness; in the other, into a vague feeling that ordinary experience leaves a lot to be desired.

Academic criticism has tended to deal with the problem of definition by proposing that the novel is not so much a genre (like epic, tragedy, comedy, pastoral, romance, satire, elegy, the short story) as an anti-genre. The novel absorbs other genres into itself by imitation, cloning, parody or critique. According to many accounts, it began by asset-stripping romance (the style of heroic prose and verse narrative current in Europe from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance). The novel kept romance’s perilous and exhausting quests and adulteries, but dumped the castles and most of the ogres and witches. Its business ever since has been literary salvage, recycling or make-over: the novel is made-over romance. It is an entirely customised genre (if it is a genre at all). To put it in historical terms, the novel is modern.

The most influential version of this argument was formulated by Ian Watt in The Rise of the Novel (1957), who found in the writing of Defoe, Richardson and Fielding a new and radical preoccupation with the here-and-now. The name Watt gave this preoccupation was ‘formal realism’:

the premise, or primary convention, that the novel is a full and authentic report of human experience, and is therefore under an obligation to satisfy its reader with such details of the story as the individuality of the actors concerned, the particulars of the times and places of their actions, details which are presented through a more largely referential use of language than is common in other literary forms.

Watt embedded his compelling account of the novel’s literary and philosophical co-ordinates in a sociology of readership. Britain, the story goes, developed an extensive middle-class readership earlier than other countries. These new consumers of print wanted to read about themselves, in intricate circumstantial detail, and to know that all over the nation others like them were doing the same. The novel thus became at once the instrument and the expression of middle-class cultural hegemony. Only since around 1740, we might say, has it been possible to live in a novelised society.

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