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.
Watt’s main thesis has been subjected to a great deal of refinement and revision. Some dismiss it out of hand as British chauvinism. Traces of novel DNA have after all been found in texts as ancient and as various as Heliodorus’ Aethiopika (third or fourth century), Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji (1004), Snorri Sturluson’s Egil’s Saga (1220-40), and the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, stories dating from the tenth century, but not collected until some time between the 14th and 16th centuries, and unknown in Europe before the 18th.
Franco Moretti, the editor of this vast two-volume anthology of essays, itself a redaction of an original five-volume work published in Italian under the title Il Romanzo, has his eye on something other than an island story. The novel, he declares, in suitably telegraphic prose, is the product of a ‘history that begins in the Hellenistic world and continues today. A geography that overlaps with the advent of world literature. A morphology that ranges euphorically from war stories, pornography and melodrama, to syntactic labyrinths, metaphoric prose and broken plot lines.’ The aim he and his 97 contributors have set themselves is to ‘make the literary field longer, larger and deeper’.
And yet the structure of the collection tells a different story. After some preliminary throat-clearing, the first volume moves swiftly to address the topic of the novel’s polygenesis (the ancient Greek novel, medieval French romance, fiction in pre-modern China), before launching successive sections entitled ‘The European Acceleration’ (mostly Britain and France), ‘The Circle Widens’ (America, Japan, India, Latin America, Africa) and ‘Towards World Literature’. This structure implies passage through the generic equivalent of a population bottleneck in Europe in the 18th century, during which the novel took decisive shape as a genre, while other varieties of long narrative fiction fell away; there then followed a migration to other continents, and exponential growth globally. The second volume opens with Thomas Pavel’s thoughtful and informative ‘historical morphology’ of the novel, from Heliodorus to Kafka, which describes a ‘confluence’ of different sub-genres (chivalric romance, elegy, pastoral, picaresque, novella) in 18th-century Britain (and to a lesser degree France), the result of which was a genre combining an ‘idealising vision’ with a ‘keen observation of human imperfection’.
The keynote essay in a collection that proposes such a trajectory has to be the one that establishes what it was that was new and different about this genre, which rose from occasional cultural eminence to durable cultural pre-eminence in Britain and France in the middle of the 18th century. Fortunately, Catherine Gallagher’s account of the emergence at that time of a ‘discourse’ of what she terms ‘fictionality’ is a model of its kind, lucid and challenging in equal measure. Watt’s emphasis was on the novel as realist fiction; Gallagher’s is on the novel as realist fiction. The novel was not just one kind of fictional narrative among several, she argues, but the kind ‘in which and through which fictionality became manifest, explicit, widely understood and accepted’. The novel, that is, distinguished itself at once from truth-telling and from deception. It found a new use for fiction as a ‘special way of shaping knowledge through the fabrication of particulars’. Modernity, Gallagher argues, has always been fiction-friendly because it encourages disbelief, speculation, credit. The novel offered a training in disbelief, in ‘affective speculation’. What better way for a woman to imagine what it would be like to be in love with a particular sort of man, without in any way committing herself, than to read a novel? Such ‘flexible mental states’ were, in business as in love, ‘the sine qua non of modern subjectivity’. ‘Indeed, almost all of the developments we associate with modernity – from greater religious toleration to scientific discovery – required the kind of cognitive provisionality one practises in reading fiction, a competence in investing contingent and temporary credit.’ Gallagher’s idea of the novel as ‘expedient fictionality’, developed through a penetrating analysis of the status and function of proper names in fiction, gives us, as Watt did fifty years ago, plenty to work with.
On the whole, it is those contributors who take up and investigate Gallagher’s hypothesis (no one addresses it directly) who shed most light on what it is that the novel does that other types of long narrative fiction don’t do. For example, Fredric Jameson writes instructively about the demand for ‘happy endings’ created by the credit the reader so eagerly advances, even to fictions which announce themselves as in every other respect monuments to lost illusion. Jameson worries that the novel has, if anything, not done enough to make happy endings possible. It has, in his view, committed itself far too readily to what he terms ‘ontological realism’: the deliberate confusion of that which is meaningful with that which exists. It hasn’t imagined adequately what is meaningful precisely because it does not yet exist. In particular, it has been unable to imagine ‘figures whose passion is political, who live for the possibilities of change and entertain only the flimsiest relationship with the solid ontology of what exists right now’. Jameson adduces Dickens’s failure, in Bleak House, to do justice to the philanthropic mission run by Mrs Jellyby (whom he persists in calling Mrs Jellabee, as though she were some sort of fruit-gum). The possibilities of change only ever enter Bleak House belatedly, and by apocalypse, in the ‘universal glee’ that greets the conclusion of the lawsuit. After some beating about the Hegelian bush, Jameson does define persuasively the shapes an idea of the ‘providential’ can give to fictions otherwise fully determined to remain secular and democratic.
Jameson certainly has it in for ontological realism. I’m not sure that novels haven’t found bold and compelling ways to imagine the possibilities of change without resorting to providence. For example, the most future-orientated moment in Bleak House is not the trial’s conclusion, but trooper George Rouncewell’s journey north to Sheffield, in Chapter 63, to seek out his brother, a self-made man and owner of a vast iron foundry. George’s first look at the foundry is a look straight through the solid ontology of what exists to the possibilities of economic and social change. Novels quite often time travel under the heading of movement from one place to another. They thereby give themselves a way to imagine ‘figures whose passion is political’. For example, when in Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness Stephen Gordon joins an ambulance unit on the Western Front, she travels into France, and into a future in which lesbianism has ceased to be a stigma. ‘Later on would come bitterness, disillusion, but never again would such women submit to being driven back to their holes and corners.’ Science fiction is all in the future; but not all the future is in science fiction.
These volumes include a wide range of essays which investigate the historical reasons and contexts for the hold the novel has taken on modern societies, from Nancy Armstrong’s lively and informative account of ‘bourgeois morality’ as the novel’s own brand of ‘magical thinking’, to Espen Aarseth’s review of the prospects for a renewal or transformation of the novel through digital storytelling (slim, thus far, would seem to be the upshot). By no means all the relevant reasons and contexts are Western. Andrew Plaks, for example, argues for the existence in China, from the early 16th to the late 19th century, of ‘works of extended prose fiction that, if not perfectly consonant with all of the aesthetic conventions that comprise the common denominators of the Western novel, are at least commensurate with them on some of the most fundamental points of literary analysis’. Plaks sees in China during this period a breadth and depth of cultural change in ‘striking accord’ with the historical shifts which Watt and others have taken to constitute the modern Western novel’s ‘material and intellectual substrate’. He suggests that the exploration through irony of the ‘labyrinth of autonomous identity’ may have been the most significant area of ‘literary convergence’ between the Chinese and the European novel. The convergence was, he admits, only ever partial. In several respects, the Chinese novel does not sound at all like Richardson, Sterne or Rousseau. For example, Chinese writers were reluctant to address contemporary life, and tended to favour narrative structures built on a numerical (or even numerological) logic, a ‘grid of emplotment’.
Further essays explore the theoretical rather than the historical dimension of the novel’s expedient fictionality. Franco Moretti and Mieke Bal both challenge the distinction theorists have drawn between narrative and description. Description usually features as the impediment to, or antithesis of, narrative. For Moretti and Bal, it is, rather, a mode of narration. Moretti’s topic is the ‘fillers’, or accounts of relatively insignificant events, with which novelists from Jane Austen onwards began to fill out the stretches between one memorable scene or turning-point in the story and another. Pride and Prejudice has three turning-points, Moretti reckons. In Chapter 3, Elizabeth Bennet meets Darcy, and takes a dislike to him; in Chapter 34, he proposes to her; in Chapter 58, she accepts him. By Moretti’s count, Austen has supplemented these memorable scenes with about 110 episodes in which a fair amount happens, but nothing that is likely to affect substantially the story’s progress or direction. What fillers have to offer, he concludes, is ‘people who talk, play cards, visit, take walks, read a letter, listen to music, drink a cup of tea’ (but Elizabeth’s reading of Darcy’s letter, in Chapter 36, surely constitutes a turning-point rather than a filler). Their proliferation in 19th-century fiction amounted to the development of a new kind of story, a ‘truly secular way of imagining the meaning of a life’.
Mieke Bal argues that description, far from interrupting the flow of narrative, in fact generates it. ‘I propose that by reading from description to description, the reader complies with, falls for, and perhaps incidentally, resists, the novel’s appeal to her to construct the imaginary but coherent-enough world in which the recounted events can happen.’ Bal is particularly keen on scenes described from the point of view of a protagonist – often a man looking at a woman, or women – whose desire (or anxiety) to see and to know builds a certain order into the process of description, and thus converts it into a basis for story. Bal’s style of argument is abstract and dense (all turning-point and no filler). But it does illuminate, brilliantly at times, the passages that concern her, from Flaubert, Zola, Proust and Djuna Barnes.
If there is a problem, here, it has to do with the generality of the claim that description in all its forms ‘inherently generates both the world in which events take place and subsequently the events themselves’. The claim comes unstuck, for example, when applied to the ‘famous opening’ of Le Père Goriot, an elaborate survey of Madame Vauquer’s rooming-house in Paris and its motley bunch of occupants. According to Bal, this survey, an ‘ordered and neatly hierarchised expansion’ of descriptive detail, ‘follows the steps’ of the protagonist, Eugène de Rastignac. ‘And, as Eugène enters the rooming-house, the sense of sight is complemented with the sense of smell.’ In fact, at no point during the famous opening does Rastignac, or indeed anyone else, ‘enter’ the rooming-house. Balzac begins with an account of the decrepit building as a sombre ‘frame’ to the story that will shortly unfold within its doors. He then describes Madame Vauquer, and each of her boarders, in turn. Narrative finally stirs towards the end of this process when we learn that Rastignac has begun to take an interest in Père Goriot. The transition from sight to smell occurs during the initial description of the building from no identifiable point of view which Balzac eventually abandons on the grounds that it would, if sustained for much longer, fatally impede the development of the story. There are different kinds of description: some generate narrative, some do not.
I can’t hope to do justice here to the scope of this gigantic survey of the novel in its many forms, or to the intricacy of some of the arguments developed concerning its history and theory. But it would be unfair to conclude without any mention of the short essays on individual texts which accompany each grouping of overviews and expositions. There is a great deal to relish here, from Massimo Fusillo’s account of the Aethiopika’s polyphony of narrative voices to Homi Bhabha’s elegant enquiry into ‘creative fetishism’ in Midnight’s Children; from Abdelfattah Kilito on Hamadhānī through Perry Anderson on Montesquieu and A.S. Byatt on Balzac to Simon Gikandi on Chinua Achebe. Moretti and his contributors have succeeded in making the study of the novel – if not the entire ‘literary field’ – ‘longer, larger and deeper’ than it was before, or than any single scholar could ever make it.