The Novel

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 …


Filed under Books, Fiction, Nonfiction

11 responses to “The Novel

  1. This sounds interesting. You find so many good books about books and reading and novels. I’ve accumulated a few and really need to get around to reading them. I sometimes think some people do look down on fiction (of course the people I am thinking of are purely NF readers). I’m not a good judge either as I almost always prefer a novel over NF.


  2. verbivore

    This definitely looks like a book that I might enjoy. I’ll be interested to see how you get on with it. Glad Muttboy is feeling better!


  3. I want this book so bad and your post is making me want it even more. I’m glad you don’t know what some of those words meant because I suddenly wondered, should I know what xiaoshuo is? Goody’s argument is interesting because Bernard Knox uses a similar one in his introduction to Fagles’ The Iliad to prove that Homer wrote his epics and that they were not oral. It’s very convincing.

    Glad Muttboy is feeling better!


  4. Hmm! So how does Goody deal with those cultures that don’t have an instructional/procedural discourse, but use narrative not only to tell story but also to tell you how to do something? I would have thought it hard to argue that narrative wasn’t important there? I must get hold of a copy of this, if only to have a good theoretical argument with it.


  5. So many books about books! This one sounds interesting though, I mean Goody’s book, not to sure about Franco Moretti’s though – as you say, too many difficult words! 🙂 By the way, I’ve added you to my blogroll as I like these reviews. And thanks for passing by on my site.


  6. Glad Muttboy is better! I was astonished reading this, because I know Jack Goody – he’s at the same college as me. He’s a rather delightful elderly man with wild white hair, who is disconcertingly deaf at moments, but then looks pained if you speak really loudly at him. I knew he was an anthropologist but didn’t know much more than that. Now I know what to talk about with him if I end up sitting next to him at lunch, so thank you!


  7. I’m glad you’re doing posts about this as I was intrigued by the TLS review but figured I’d never find any time soon to read it. Funny what he says about fictional tales being seen as mostly for children in the past when there’s another claim circling that folktales and such weren’t always seen as only for kids, at least in Europe? Perhaps that’s a misconception…


  8. Danielle — I’ve heard some comments about novels being a waste of time, but I also know so many novel readers, that I don’t have any perspective on the issue. Anyway, books about books and reading are among my favorites!

    Verbivore — I bet you would like it; I’m sure I’ll be posting on it regularly as I make my way through the thing (it’s something like 900 pages — just Volume 1).

    Stefanie — interesting about Homer; I wasn’t sure if that was a consensus view or something Goody is believes on his own. It’s something that would be fun to look into more deeply.

    Ann — I wondered if people would question Goody’s conclusions! I think he’s focusing on narrative for narrative’s sake, mainly; he talks about stories that have a more utilitarian purpose and recognizes that they existed, but the heart of the argument is about long narratives told for pleasure’s sake.

    Seachanges — there are many authors in the Moretti book so there will probably be lots of different writing styles — the writing is academic in nature, but I’m hoping it stays clear and accessible.

    Litlove — oh, how funny! He sounds like … well, like a stereotype of a professor. I did like what he had to say very much.

    Imani — I’ll probably have a bunch of posts on this over time, as it surely has all kinds of interesting information and arguments. I hadn’t heard the argument about folktales you mention; I suppose it’s something that could change over time and vary by culture — Goody’s argument is so sweeping without much space for comparisons.


  9. They had an exhibit last year at the Boston Public Library about the history of the novel. It’s actually a subject that I had never thought about before. Haven’t novels just always existed? Little did I know


  10. Well, that’s one exhibit I would have liked to see! The history of the novel is fascinating, and I love studying it.


  11. Pingback: Essays on the novel « Of Books and Bicycles

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