The Novel

I’m working my way slowly through Franco Moretti’s collection of essays The Novel, Volume I: History, Geography, and Culture and am about halfway through it.  It’s the kind of book that’s best for browsing in rather than reading straight through, except that I’m the kind of person who prefers to read straight through if possible, and this book rewards it.  I decided when I picked the book up that I would give up on any essay that wasn’t interesting, but I’ve quit reading only one essay (because it was horribly written, full of the worst kind of academic jargon) and have skimmed my way through only a couple more.  Otherwise, I’ve read and enjoyed each one.

The essays generally take up a time period and a country and give you an overview of what was happening with the novel at that time, so, for example, there are essays on the novel in 19C Japan, premodern China, 19C Russia, ancient Greece, medieval France, and early modern Spain.  There are also essays that take up a particular type of writing that is related to the novel or to narrative more generally and explain that relationship, forms such as midrash, myth, monogatari (a Japanese form), romance, and qissa (an Arabic form).

I just finished a section with some of the most fascinating essays in the book so far.  The essays in the section take up the question of book production and consumption in various locations at various times.  So, for example, the first essay analyzes how many novels were published in Britain from 1750-1830, as well as how many novels were published anonymously, how many publishing companies were involved in producing new novels, how many of the new novels were epistolary in form, and how many translated novels were published and from what languages.  There are similar essays describing the situation in the United States, Italy, Spain, India, Japan, and Nigeria, covering periods from the 19C into the 20th.  Each of these essays has lots of tables and charts, and each one makes an argument about how looking at statistics on book production and consumption can alter the accepted wisdom about each place and time.  Literary critics and historians tend not to be number crunchers, but these essays make the case for looking at the publishing and marketing context within which writers write.

There is so much good information here!  I’ve been tempted to write posts on individual essays as I’ve gone along, but it was the kind of thing that got pushed aside when I had other books to write about.  But if all this sounds interesting to you, the book is worth a look.

It is written by various people, though, which means the quality of writing varies, as well as the level of difficulty and the use of jargon.  My biggest complaint about the quality of writing is that many of the essays seem to presume the reader is already familiar with the field.  This would be fine, as it seems to be marketed toward academics or at least toward very knowledgeable general readers, except that the book covers so many fields that even an expert can’t be an expert in all of it.  With my academic background I’m pretty well equipped to read this book, and yet I still found some of the essays disorienting and difficult to follow because I lack a background in, say, narrative forms in ancient Greece.  I sometimes wanted a little more explanation, a little more by way of introduction to each piece.

But not all essays have this problem, and some of the best have made me think about time periods I’m familiar with in new ways.  One of the best essays is by Franco Moretti himself, and it explores, among other things, the role of “fillers” in fiction — those sections of a narrative where no major plot events, no turning points in the narrative, occur.  One of the main innovations of the 19C novel is the way it draws on this filler more and more; whereas 18C novels often have one major plot event after another in quick succession (unless you’re Samuel Richardson, I suppose), Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice gives us three major plot events and the rest of the novel is made up of smaller moments:

Narration: but of the everyday.  This is the secret of fillers,  Narration, because these episodes always contain a certain dose of uncertainty (how will Elizabeth react to Darcy’s words?  will he accept to talk with the Gardiners?); but the uncertainty remains local, circumscribed, without long-term consequences “for the development of the story,” as Barthes would say.  In this respect, fillers function very much like the good manners so important in Austen: they are both mechanisms designed to keep the “narrativity” of life under control – to give a regularity, a “style” to existence.

He then goes on to talk about the role of the everyday in the 19C novel — why it all the sudden became so important and what this has to do with the social and economic conditions of the time.

I’m only about halfway through the book, so I’m looking forward to what’s coming up, although at the rate I’m reading, it might be another half a year before I finish.


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7 responses to “The Novel

  1. I think I’d like it just to read that stuff on publishing. I’m always wondering how the numbers have changed over the years. Contributed works like this can often be frustrating, with all that uneven writing, can’t they?


  2. Oh, fun! You haven’t mentioned this books in awhile and I wondered recently if you had finished and I had somehow missed it or if you had given up on it. But then I saw it still listed under currently reading in you sidebar, and I thought, yes, I know how that goes. The book sounds good even if occasionally uneven. Feel free to post about it more 🙂


  3. Wow, sounds interesting.

    I’m always rather embarrassed that I don’t know what a novel is. I mean, I’ve read Watt (old, I know!), but what he says doesn’t seem to have lots to do with things called novels nowadays. And there are early prose fiction works that seem like they could be “novels” but aren’t called so, usually.

    Does the book give a good definition?


  4. This sounds really interesting, but depending on the essay some might leave me feeling a little out of my depth. I think it would be great to refer to it when I happen to be reading a book from a particular era and one of the essays might shed more light on it. I’d also be interested in the essays on publishing–I like reading about how things have changed over time.


  5. Just curious if any essays talk about the current trends–ebooks and digitization of works, etc?


  6. Emily — yeah, they can be frustrating; if it were one author, he or she could build on what came before and the book would be more coherent. But on the other hand, having multiple authors means much more expertise in each field.

    Stefanie — I just might post on it more! I don’t pick the book up often, but I am making some progress. The essays can be intense, so I need a big chunk of time to digest one of them.

    Bardiac — you’re definitely not alone in not knowing what a novel is! (as illustrated by all those scholarly books arguing about what novels are and when they “arose.”) Moretti’s book doesn’t define the term, oddly enough; there is only a short introduction talking about the book’s structure, and then the essays plunge into novel history. It’s an interesting omission.

    Danielle — the essays do make me struggle sometimes, although I don’t think you’d be out of your depth with them (some of them just aren’t written very well). Yeah, the essays on publishing are great — relatively few novels were published in England back in the 18C, so few that people could plausibly read them all. How different, right? The book hasn’t covered current trends so far, and I’m guessing it won’t. It’s pretty much about history and that’s it.


  7. What an intriguing book! If you like this, you might like The Cambridge Companion to the Eighteenth Century novel, edited by John Richetti. There are other companions too, to the Victorian novel, I think and the Irish novel. It’s a very good series.


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