Novel anxieties

I’m almost finished with my novel history book, Licensing Entertainment, and I continue to be fascinated by the controversies over the early novel and its place in culture. Here’s a passage that compares plays to novels, showing some of the sources for this anxiety about fiction:

If plays could cause riots, novels could act at a distance. If plays put too much control in the hands of the playwrights, actors, and directors of the theater, novels put too much power in the hands of the reader, and of those who wrote and sold what they read. If plays offer an unseemly spectacle of vice, novels invite readers to produce this spectacle within their own head. While the play’s concentration of spectacle increased its danger, it opened it to state control. The very diffuseness of novelistic spectacle made its effects uncertain, and its control nearly impossible.


This reminds me of passages in Alberto Manguel’s book A History of Reading, where he discusses the subversive potential of reading. And this fear is a part of the novel’s early history — if you were invested in controlling the public, people’s morals or their actions or their politics, I would think novels would scare you. Once something is out in print, it is nearly impossible to gain control over it — both the book itself and the ideas it contains. Now I like plays a lot, but this comparison shows why, I think, I like novels even better.

People were particularly worried about women reading novels, which the increasing popularity of circulating libraries gave them easy access to. Warner points out that this worry came from two sources:

The first of these is that women’s leisure reading, as evidenced by circulating library use, upset those who wanted women doing useful domestic or commercial work. Second, circulating-library use might not just transmit romance delusions — it could also give women access to reading that could put in question traditional cultural authority.


Women’s relationship to publication and reading is fascinating; so many women in the eighteenth-century and later published anonymously or pseudonymously to avoid being accused of stepping into professional areas they “didn’t belong in” — areas that were designated “male.” And the sight of women reading could make people nervous because they had little control over the content of that reading and the thoughts it might produce. They were at best “wasting time,” and at worst, imbibing ideas that would lead them to having affairs or asking for power and independence.

Warner points out that evidence shows women probably weren’t reading novels in higher numbers than men, but the perception existed that they were, which indicates the extent of this fear.

All this is interesting to think about when we consider issues of gender and reading and publication today — I don’t see evidence that anybody worries too much about the amount of reading women do, but I do think women still often aren’t taken seriously as writers or readers. If you are interested, check out this article from the Guardian on why the Orange prize, a prize for women writing in English, is necessary. The article talks about how prize juries tend to see male writers as the “safe” choice for praise and recognition. And, of course, there’s that New York Times list of the best novels of the last 25 years that includes very few women. I think women readers are often considered as consumers of books — there as a potential market to be exploited, but not to be taken seriously as thinkers. And women writers are often not given the credit they deserve — sometimes because they write about domesticity or family or subjects that aren’t recognized as important.

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Filed under Books, Nonfiction

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