The durability of The Rise of the Novel among works of literary scholarship is altogether remarkable. Before long, half a century will have elapsed since its initial publication and more time than that has already passed since Ian Watt completed his first draft in 1947. Disagreements with the perspective of the book on the novel began as early as its first reviews, the central one being that Watt's concentration on what he called "the realism of presentation" gave short shrift to other kinds of realism, or to trends in the novel not easily identifiable with realism. Nobody has summarized these objections more succinctly and more wittily than Watt himself. In an essay wryly entitled "Serious Reflections on The Rise of the Novel," published a decade after the appearance of the book, Watt explains that by cutting three concluding chapters on Fielding, Smollett, and Sterne, he ended up tipping the balance in his account of the genre more than he would have liked: "As a result I have had to grow accustomed to figuring in some minds as a permanent picketer for the Union Novel (International President H. James), carrying a sign which reads 'Cervantes Go Home' on one side and 'Fielding is a Fink' on the other."' Watt of course cannot avoid taking responsibility for the final form of his own book, in which the reader's "belief in the reality of report" is seen as the novelistic trait par excellence, and any "patent selectiveness of vision" by undermining that belief or deflecting "attention from the content of the report to the skill of the reporter," ultimately goes against the grain of the genre. The issues involved in this judgment are still worth debating, but it should be said that Watt is so finely intelligent, such a shrewdly informed reader of novels in their dense contexts of social and intellectual history, that his somewhat tilted perspective proves to be far less a detriment than one would have imagined. Despite its one-sidedness, The Rise of the Novel remains the most illuminating account we have of the emergence of the new genre in eighteenth-century England. After all these years, it still conveys a sense of the excitement of intellectual discovery.
Alter, Robert B.
"A Question of Beginnings,"
2, Article 6.
Available at: http://digitalcommons.mcmaster.ca/ecf/vol12/iss2/6