Kyfi's Blog


Posted on: Februari 25, 2011

A novel is a book of long narrative in literary prose. The genre has historical roots both in the fields of the medieval and early modern romance and in the tradition of the novella. The latter supplied the present generic term in the late 18th century.

Further definition of the genre is historically difficult. The construction of the narrative, the plot, the way reality is created in the works of fiction, the fascination of the character study, and the use of language are usually discussed to show a novel’s artistic merits. Most of these requirements were introduced in the 16th and 17th centuries in order to give fiction a justification outside the field of factual history. The individualism of the presentation makes the personal memoir and the autobiography the two closest relatives among the genres of modern histories.


The fictional narrative, the novel’s distinct “literary” prose, specific media requirements (the use of paper and print), a characteristic subject matter that creates both intimacy and a typical epic depth can be seen as features that developed with the Western (and modern) market of fiction. The separation of a field of histories from a field of literary fiction fueled the evolution of these features in the last 400 years.

A fictional narrative

Fictionality and the presentation in a narrative are the two features most commonly invoked to distinguish novels from histories. In a historical perspective they are problematic criteria. Histories were supposed to be narrative projects throughout the early modern period. Their authors could include inventions as long as they were rooted in traditional knowledge or in order to orchestrate a certain passage. Historians would thus invent and compose speeches for didactic purposes. Novels can, on the other hand, depict the social, political, and personal realities of a place and period with a clarity and detail historians would not dare to explore.

The line between history and novel is eventually drawn between the debates novelists and historians are supposed to address in the West and wherever the Western pattern of debates has been introduced: Novels are supposed to show qualities of literature and art. Histories are by contrast supposed to be written in order to fuel a public debate over historical responsibilities. A novel can hence deal with history. It will be analyzed, however, with a look at the almost timeless value it is supposed to show in the hands of private readers as a work of art.

The critical demand is a source of constant argument: Does the specific novel have these “eternal qualities” of art, this “deeper meaning” an interpretation tries to reveal? The debate itself had positive effects. It allowed critics to cherish fictions that are clearly marked as such. The novel is not a historical forgery, it does not hide the fact that it was made with a certain design. The word novel can appear on book covers and title pages; the artistic effort or the sheer suspense created can find a remark in a preface or on the blurb. Once it is stated that this is a text whose craftsmanship we should acknowledge literary critics will be responsible for the further discussion. The new responsibility (historians were the only qualified critics up into the 1750s) made it possible to publicly disqualify much of the previous fictional production: Both the early 18th-century roman à clef and its fashionable counterpart, the nouvelle historique, had offered narratives with – by and large scandalous – historical implications. Historians had discussed them with a look at facts they had related. The modern literary critic who became responsible for fictions in the 1750s offered a less scandalous debate: A work is “literature”, art, if it has a personal narrative, heroes to identify with, fictional inventions, style and suspense – in short anything that might be handled with the rather personal ventures of creativity and artistic freedom. It may relate facts with scandalous accuracy, or distort them; yet one can ignore any such work as worthless if it does not try to be an achievement in the new field of literary works[1] – it has to compete with works of art and invention, not with true histories. The new scandal is if it fails to offer literary merits.

Historians reacted and left much of their own previous “medieval” and “early modern” production to the evaluation of literary critics. New histories discussed public perceptions of the past – the decision that turned them into the perfect platform on which one can question historical liabilities in the West. Fictions, allegedly an essentially personal subject matter, became, on the other hand, a field of materials that call for a public interpretation: they became a field of cultural significance to be explored with a critical and (in the school system) didactic interest in the subjective perceptions both of artists and their readers.

Distinct literary prose

The first so called “romances” had been verse epics in the Romance language of southern France. Novel(la)s as those Geoffrey Chaucer presented in his The Canterbury Tales appeared in verse much later. A number of famous 19th-century fictional narratives such as Lord Byron’s Don Juan (1824) and Alexander Pushkin‘s Yevgeniy Onegin (1833) competed with the moderne prose novels of their time and employed verse. It is hence problematic to call prose a dicisive criterion.[2] Prose did, however, become the standard of the modern novel – thanks to a number of advantages it had over verse once the question of the carrier medium was solved.

Prose is easy to translate and unlike verse pleasant to read in private silence. As rather initimate and informal language prose won the market of European fiction in the 15th century, a time at which books first became widely available, and immediately developed a special style with models both in Greek and Roman histories and the traditions of verse narratives wherever an elevated style was needed. The development of a distinct fictional language was crucial for the genre that did not aim at forging history but at works readers would actually identify and appreciate as fictions.

This is for the early modern period closely connected to the development of elegance in the belles lettres. With the beginning of the 16th century the printed market had created a special demand for books that were neither simply published for the non academic audience nor explicitly scientific literature – but. The belles lettres became this field as a compound of genres including modern history and science in the vernaculars, personal memoirs, present political scandal, fiction and poetry. Prose fiction was in this wider spectrum soon the driving force creating the distinct style as it allowed the artistic experiment and the personal touch of the author who could market his or her style as a fashion. Verse, rhetoric and science were by contrast highly restricted areas. Fictional prose remained close to everyday language, to the private letter, to the art of “gallant” conversation, to the personal memoir and travelogue.[3]

18th-century authors eventually criticized the French ideals of elegance the belles lettres had promoted. A less aristocratic style of English reformed novels became the ideal in the 1740s. The requirements of style changed again in the 1760s when prose fiction became part of the newly formed literary production. The more normal it became to open novels with a simple statement of their fictionality (for example by labelling them as “a novel”), the less interesting it became to imitate true histories with an additional touch of style. Novels of the 1760s such as Sterne‘s Tristram Shandy began to explore prose fiction as an experimental field. Novels of the ensuing romantic period played with the fragment and open-endedness. Modern late 19th century and early 20th century fiction continued the deconstruction attacking the clear author-reader communication and developing models of texts to be evaluated as such. Modern literary criticism acted in the experimental field as a constant provider of historical models. Authors who write fiction gain critical attention as soon as they search a position in future histories of literature, whether as innovators or traditionalists. The situation is – in a historical perspective – new: An awareness of traditions has only grown after the publication of Huet’s Treatise on the Origin of Romances (1670). It has reached the public only with greater impact since the 1830s.

Media requirements: Paper and print

The evolution of prose fiction required cheap carrier media. Unlike verse, prose can hardly be remembered with precision. Oral traditions had helped prose narrators with stock narrative patterns as employed in fairy tales[4] and with complex plot structures, whose point they could only reach if they told the story correctly (the novels of Boccaccio and Chaucer share this mode of construction with modern jokes, the shortest form of prose narratives still circulating in oral traditions).

Extended prose fictions needed paper to preserve their complex compositions. Parchment had been available before the 1450s, but remained too expensive to be used for histories one would read as a private diversion. Parchment was used for prestigious and presentable volumes of verse epics their owners would have recited on festive occasions (see the Troilus and Criseyde illustration below). Prose was otherwise the language of scientific books. Parchments would in their case be bought by libraries. The situation changed in the course of the 14th and 15th centuries when prose legends became fashionable among the female urban elite. The fact that the new audience would read these books again and again for inspirational purposes legitimated the use of parchment in the private context.

The availability of paper as a carrier medium changed the situation for prose fiction. Paper allowed the production of cheap books one would not necessarily read twice, books one would buy exclusively for one’s private diversion. The modern novel developed with the new carrier medium in Europe in the course of the 15th and 16th centuries. The arrival of the printed book pushed the generic development as it created a special tension between the privacy of the reading act and the publicity of the reading material that was sold in larger editions. The formats duodecimo and octavo (or small quarto in the case of chapbooks) immediately created books one could read privately at home or in public without the support of a table. To read novels in coffee houses or on journeys became part of the early modern reading culture.[5] The reader who immerses him- or herself in the novel with the wish to stay undisturbed (or to be disturbed only with a look at his or her present reading) is here an early modern precursor of the modern commuter reading a novel or putting on head phones with the intention to stay private in the public. A special content matter immediately explored the new reading situations.

[edit] Special content: The novel’s intricate intimacy

Whether in 11th-century Japan or 15th-century Europe, prose fiction tended to develop intimate reading situations. Verse epics had been recited to selected audiences (see the Troilus and Criseyde illustration below), a reception that had already allowed a greater intimacy than the performance of plays in theatres. The late medieval commercial manuscript production created a market of private books, yet it still required the customer to contact the professional copyist with the book he or she wanted to have copied (see the Melusine illustration below) – a situation that again restricted the development of more private reading experiences. The invention of the printing press anonymised the bookseller-text-reader constellation – the situation was especially interesting for prose fiction, a subject matter that remained publicly undiscussed almost throughout the early modern period. Booksellers and readers could pretend far into the 18th century not to know more about the particular title the new market of printed books provided. If one wanted to know what others read in novels one had to read them oneself. Prose fiction became in this situation the medium of open secrets, rumours, private and public gossip, a private, unscientific and irrelevant reading matter, yet one of public relevance as one could openly see that the book one was reading had reached the public as part of a larger edition.

Individualistic fashions, personal views, intimate feelings, secret anxieties, “conduct” and “gallantry” spread with novels. Love became the typical field of experience romances and novels would focus on, as Huet noted in his early definition: “I call them Fictions, to discriminate them from True Histories; and I add, of Love Adventures, because Love ought to be the Principal Subject of Romance”[6] Satirical fictions widened the range of subject matter in the 17th and 18th centuries. The reader is invited to personally identify with the novel’s characters (while historians are supposed to aim at neutrality and a public view on whatever they discuss).

The reviewing of fiction changed the situation for the fictional work in the course of the 18th century. It created a public discussion about what people were actually reading in novels. It had at the same moment the potential to divide the market into a sphere to be discussed and a low production critics would only hint at. The subcultures of trivial fiction and of genres to be sold under the counter with pornography as its most influential field followed the arrival of literary criticism in the 1740s and 1750s.

Length and the epic depiction of life

Main article: Length of a novel

The requirement of length is contested – in English with greater ferocity than in other languages. It rests on the consensus that the novel is today the longest genre of narrative prose, followed by the novella and the short story. The sequence has been unstable: 17th-century critics had handled the romance as the epic length performance and privileged the novel as its short rival.

The question how long a novel has to be – in order to be more than a novella – is of practical importance as most of the literary awards have developed a ranking system in which length is also a criterion of importance.[7] The Booker Prize has thus aroused a serious debate with its 2007 listing of Ian McEwan‘s On Chesil Beach. Critics immediately stated that McEwan had at best written a novella.[8]

The requirement of length has been traditionally connected with the notion that epic length performances try to cope with the “totality of life”.[9] The novella is by contrast focused on a point, the short story on a situation whose full dimensions the reader has to grasp in a complex process of interpretation.



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