First of all, Muttboy is feeling much better and wants to thank those of you who offered your good wishes. He was out running around by this afternoon and behaving in such a way as to make his owners wonder whether his yelps last night weren’t the tiniest bit theatrical in nature. But no, he just heals quickly.
So, on to books. I have begun looking into The Novel: History, Geography, and Culture, edited by Franco Moretti; I’m not sure to what extent I’ll read this straight through or pick and choose — the book seems made for picking and choosing, but I really don’t like to read that way, and all of the essays do look interesting. The first one offered a good start, at any rate.
The book is divided into sections on various aspects of the novel, although the section titles aren’t always crystal clear, so it’s hard to say what they are about; I’m not sure why the first section is entitled “The Struggle for Space,” for example, although maybe when I read further into it, it will become clearer. A short introduction by Moretti helpfully explains that there are three types of pieces in the book. First there are “Essays,” which are:
… works of abstraction, synthesis, and comparative research: they establish the great periodizations that segment the flow of time, and the conceptual architecture that reveals its unity.
“Readings,” the second type, “are shorter pieces, unified by a common question, and devoted to the close analysis of individual texts.” Finally, there are sections called “Critical Apparatus,” which:
… study the novel’s wider ecosystem, focusing, for instance, on how the semantic field of “narrative” took shape around keywords such as midrash, monogatari, xiaoshuo, qissa — and, why not, romance.
Hmmm … I’m not sure what some of those words mean … I’ll look forward to learning about them.
The first essay, “From Oral to Written: An Anthropological Breakthrough in Storytelling” by Jack Goody, begins by discussing the extent to which storytelling was as important to oral cultures as people generally believe it was. Goody argues that it was not:
Indeed, I want to argue that, contrary to much received opinion, narrative … is not so much a universal feature of the human situation as one that is promoted by literacy and subsequently by printing.
Images that we might have of people in purely oral cultures quenching their thirst for narrative by listening to a bard recite long stories of heroes and war might not be realistic — rather, epic and other forms of narrative seem to require the development of reading and writing:
…the societies of the Heroic Age during which the epic flourished were ones where early literacy was present. By contrast, in the purely oral cultures of Africa, the epic is a rarity, except on the southern fringes of the Sahara, which have been much influenced by Islam and by its literary forms.
The reasons for this scarcity of narrative — particularly long narrative — include the difficulty of listening to long recitations — the attention they demand. But also narrative, in the sense of fictional storytelling, was mistrusted because of its complicated relationship to truth; fiction is, after all, lies, even though it may have a particular kind of truth to tell. But fiction was, if anything, associated with childishness and so existed most commonly in the form of folklore meant for children.
After this opening section, Goody turns to the development of writing and the novel. It’s writing that makes longer narratives more likely to arise; in writing, it’s much easier to understand and digest a long complicated story and the writer doesn’t have to deal with interruptions from listeners. But the problem of fiction and lies remains, and this is why, Goody argues, the novel developed fairly late and unevenly across cultures. Early novels tried to get around this problem by claiming that they were truthful, even though they weren’t; Robinson Crusoe, for example, is presented as an autobiography featuring real events that Daniel Defoe is merely presenting to us, not writing himself. Slowly, over time, fiction became more acceptable, although even so it tended to be relegated to “frivolous” women readers, while the men focused on serious nonfiction.
And the uncertainty about fiction remains today; we still get upset when lines between fiction and nonfiction are blurred, as the James Frey debacle will attest. Goody believes that even today nonfiction is taken much more seriously than fiction; this may be true, although it’s hard for me to see, novel-lover that I am.
So, after this interesting start, we’ll see where the rest of the book leads …