More musings on categories and the novel and your comments

Thanks to everyone who commented on my post about novels and literary periods; you all wrote great stuff, and I’d like to quote you liberally.

One of the things that amuses me about eighteenth-century studies is that academics like to call the period the “long eighteenth century,” which usually means something like 1660-1830, although people will quibble about the dates. So the eighteenth “century” becomes 170 years long. 1660 makes a lot of sense to me as a beginning date, since that year saw the restoration of the monarchy after Cromwell and the Civil War in Britain, and that year the theaters opened again. You can pinpoint some significant changes in literature and culture that happened rapidly, which makes literary categorization easier. But, of course, seventeenth-century scholars will work in the years after 1660, and I’m sure some people don’t like eighteenth-century scholars’ way of taking over those decades before the actual eighteenth century starts.

And the problem with ending the “long eighteenth century” at 1830 or thereabouts is the whole Romantic period – where does that go? I’ve heard the Romantic period defined as beginning in either 1789 (French Revolution) or 1798 (publication of Lyrical Ballads) and ending somewhere in the 1830s. I think what happens is that more traditionally-minded scholars work on writers we think of as Romantic – Wordsworth, Coleridge, etc. – and eighteenth-century scholars work on those who don’t seem to fit the Romantic paradigm – Austen, Burney, Godwin, Wollstonecraft, although these people have characteristics that might mark them as “Romantic” as well. And then there are a lot of scholars who label themselves as Romanticists or eighteenth-century scholars but end up writing on a lot of the same people. In terms of what specialization they affiliate themselves with, it could have gone either way. So people sort it out and make do with a little bit of confusion.

Here’s what litlove has to say about her experience with literary categories:

… at my university (which is considered very old fashioned) we teach literature in centuries. It’s always a messy distinction because inevitably they blur together at the edges, and when we decided to split the C20th into two halves it took us a series of five meetings to agree where the borderline should fall!

To which I say, five meetings? Were there any fistfights?

But that’s all stuff that concerns academics. How scholars think about literary periods makes some interesting stories (i.e. the confusion over the Romantic period has a lot to do with opening up the canon so that scholars write on novelists and playwrights from the period in addition to the poets, who fit the definition of Romantic [if there is such a thing as an agreed-upon definition of “Romantic”] better [because, after all, the definition was made for them]), but I’m also interested in how these categories can help (or not) the general reader who doesn’t need to stake any claim on a time period or take on a label of specialist in such-and-such, and who doesn’t need to divide up the curriculum in centuries or some other time marker.

You all had some great stuff to say about this:

As far as designating literary periods goes, I personally find them useful to a degree. As long as they are used to describe the predominating mode of writing at the time it is beneficial, but as soon as they are turned into something less permeable or used to purposely exclude, then I think it does a disservice to authors and readers. [Stefanie]

I know things are not always easily and neatly categorized, but I sort of like to do so–it is interesting for someone like me not familiar with these periods to see how the novel evolved. [Danielle]

I find the idea of quantifiable differences between 18th and 19th century novels an interesting one. But, thinking about it further, I don’t think distinctions can be made easily. Literary tropes are so amorphous, and literary influence so widespread that I can only begin to speak about it in terms of changed and changing social environments and mores. [Victoria]

But each and every book exists as the still centre of a small tornado of influences and intentions, and I guess it’s good practice to remain to true to those rather than the overarching themes of the century. [litlove]

And I agree with it all. Litlove’s metaphor of the tornado is particularly pleasing and apt, and Victoria’s word “quantifiable,” used to think about differences in time periods, raises interesting questions about the type and degree of difference. I’d love to know about quantifiable differences. Danielle points out the usefulness of categories, while Stefanie rightly argues that categories should be permeable. The categories are useful, and they are deceptive. Establishing categories and understanding the ones that scholars and readers have worked with in the past seems most useful for someone just starting to study literature as a student or someone who is a general reader (not aiming to make a living out of it in some way) and who wants to understand what he or she is reading a bit better. Understanding the eighteenth-century helps tremendously when trying to understand Jane Austen, for example. And I think knowing something about modernism can help a reader understand Virginia Woolf. I take great pleasure in this kind of thing because I like order, and I like lists (for example, when the teacher says, “these are the main characteristics of Romanticism. First …”), and I like being able to explain things to people and categories help with this tremendously.

But I also get a kick out of breaking down the traditional categories. They are arbitrary. Why end a literary period just because a century ends? In this respect, having a “long eighteenth century” that overlaps with and completely subsumes Romanticism, although Romanticism continues to exist alongside it, makes a lot of sense. If the literature isn’t neatly divided itself, then why should the categories be? Why can’t we have eighteenth-century scholars who specialize in Jane Austen and Romanticists who specialize in Jane Austen? (Well, okay, the problem is they go to different academic conferences.) And I’m only talking about dates here. There’s also the question of nations. I’ve been writing about the eighteenth century, specifically the eighteenth century in Britain. But what about the period in America? In France? Studying literature from only one country can lead to a pretty narrow and inaccurate view. To understand the Enlightenment period in Britain, it helps a lot to know what is happening in France. To get early American literature, you have to know something about writing in England.

For the general reader, while the categories are useful, I think it’s best to learn about categories while keeping in mind that they are flawed – to learn about them but not to believe in them fully or trust them. So if you want to study postmodernism, please do, and have fun, but remember that Tristram Shandy is one of the best examples of postmodernism there is.

And I haven’t even gotten to the question of the differences between 18C and 19C novels. That’ll be for another day.

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