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Staging Readers Reading


The rise-of-the-novel narrative, as perfected by Ian Watt in 1957, and extended by many other literary histories in the yearn since, is not "wrong," hut it is biased and incomplete. Why is this so? First of all, Watt's classic account places the novel within a progressive narrative, which assumes that the modern era has discovered increasingly powerful writing technologies for representing reality: he calls this "formal realism" and links it to another focus of modernist triumphant narratives, the bourgeois invention of a complex and deep self. Second, the rise-of-the-novel narrative is vitiated by the fact that its essential aim is to legitimize the novel as a form of literature. Thus the rise-of-the-novel narrative demonstrates that the technology of realism enabled prose narratives about love and adventure, which, by the second half of the seventeenth century, large numbers of readers had begun to read for entertainment, to rise into a form of literature every bit as valuable and important as the established literary types of poetry, epic, and drama. Third, and this point follows from the first two, the use of the definite article in the phrase "rise of the novel" turns novelness into a fugitive essence every particular novel strives to realize. What has been the effect of this narrative? It has ratified the project of the novel's moral and aesthetic elevation undertaken by novelists from Richardson, Fielding, Prévost, and Rousseau to Flaubert, Henry James, Joyce, and Woolf. But it has also impoverished our sense of what the novel is, first by taking novel criticism into interminable and tendentious debates about what realism really is, and second by making it our business to be guardians of the boundary between the "truly" novelistic and the "merely" fictional. We need a more historically rigorous and culturally inclusive conception of what the novel is and has been. My recent book, Licensing Entertainment (l998), aims to contribute to such a project. There, I document the development of the rise-of-the-novel narrative within a long literary-historical tradition that begins with Clara Reeve (1785) and John Dunlop (1814) and extends through many of the literary histories before Watt (including Walter Scott, William Hazlitt, Hippolyte A. Taine, and George Saintsbury). At the same time I have articulated my critical differences from Watt and many more recent critics who have sought to update or revise that narrative.