What is fiction? The modern novel in historical context
is generally prose narrativeit tells a story in prose: for the purposes
of this course, non-prose writings do not qualify as fiction.
Fiction presents lies, but it presents itself as truth: even if the characters and events are historically "real," fiction relates made up stories.
Fiction involves the reader's sympathetic identification with a specific primary character or charactersfiction depends upon the reader's caring about or being interested in the main characters and what happens to them.
The novel as a specific genre distinct from other types of fiction (the short story and the novella, e.g.) is usually of broad enough scope to allow more developed and complex plots and subplots and more in-depth and sustained exploration of character psychology than in shorter works (Abrams 117).
According to Ian Watt's seminal The Rise of the Novel (1957), the novel operates through "formal realism":
"the premise, or primary convention, that the novel is a full and authentic report of human experience, and is therefore under an obligation to satisfy its readers with such details of the story as the individuality of the actors concerned, the particulars of the times and places of their actions, details which are presented through a more largely referential use of language than is common in other literary forms. . . . The lowest common denominator of the novel genre as a whole [is] its formal realism" (32-34).
And according to J. Paul Hunter's Before Novels: The Cultural Contexts of Eighteenth-Century English Fiction (1990), here are ten leading characteristics of novelistic fiction:
1. Contemporaneity: Stories
relate a significant "now"that
is, whether set in past, present, or future, novels present a sequence of moments
related as if actually occurring at specific moments in time re-enacted each
time the novel is read.
2. Credibility and probability: Characters have recognizably human traits, even if they are rabbits, hobbits, or barnyard animals; and characters and events are governed by laws like those of the real worldin other words, even in the wildest science fiction and fantasy fiction, fiction presents itself as being "real."
3. Familiarity: Fiction generally presents everyday existence and common peopleas opposed to many older forms of literature which typically deal with the uncommon: kings, princesses, knights, gods and goddesses, etc. The subject of fiction is often the "common person" (which is not to say protagonists and other characters may not be uncommonly smart, witty, attractive, strong, brave, etc., or gifted in a variety of other ways).
4. Rejection of traditional plots: less stereotypical, less predictable, more fluid, more universalmoves away from recognizable formulas of national heroes (epic), knightly quests (romances), unraveling of mistaken identities resolved in marriage (Shakespearean comedy, e.g.); more towards original plots/themes that readers can relate to personally
5. Tradition-free language: consciously unliterary in language and stylein common, everyday language, not self-consciously "poetic" language and high style of many older literary forms.
6. Individualism and subjectivity: intensified consciousness of what selfhood meansthe novel concentrates attention on the specific psychology and/or life experiences of individual personsas opposed to the generic representation of the epic's national hero in Beowulf, for instance.
7. Empathy and vicariousness: readers relate to characters and their situations/plights subjectivelythat is, readers sympathize and identify with specific characters (primarily the protagonist[s]). To an extent, when we read novels we experience the protagonists' lives as if we are living them.
8. Coherence and unity of design: novels present one continuous stream of thematically related action(s), they are more ideologically or thematically coherent than many pre-novelistic forms (think Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, e.g.).
9. Inclusivity, digressiveness, fragmentation, the ability to parenthesize: digressions may relate to narrative centers (plots and subplots) with more indirection and complexity than the predictable digressions in older genres (epic similes, e.g.)novels often include a wide variety of apparent digressions away from the central plotlines (the frequent "cetology" chapters [on whales, in particular] in Moby Dick, for example).
10. Self-consciousness about innovation and novelty: Novels are often pointedly self-conscious about innovation (on what a novel is in the 1740s in Henry Fielding, e.g., or even more in Tristram Shandy [1759-1767]): whereas older literary forms are often pointedly "fixed" in terms of content and structure (the national epic, the 14-line love sonnet, the elegiac pastoral, tragedy [drama], etc.), the novel is more pointedly fluid and experimental, continually subject to new possibilities.
Some pre-novel forms of published writing
Prose romances/chivalric romances:
adventures of knights, quests, damsels in distress, etc.for example,
the King Arthur legends.
Poetry, including narrative, story-based forms such as epics, metrical romances, "chansons de geste."
religious/philosophical/political/scientific tracts: pamphlets offering information or instruction on a great variety of subjects, including especially "good moral behavior."
Travel booksdescriptions of adventures and places and/or cultures (Defoe's Robinson Crusoe is a fictional "travelogue" of sorts, e.g.).
Character sketchesprose works, often fictional, presenting typical personalities or ways of life, not sustained with narrative plots.
Biographies: especially the lives of criminals and lives of saints. Also occasionally diaries, journals, memoirs.
Tales: fables, fairy tales, and folk talesChaucer's Canterbury Tales, e.g.; tales differ from the modern short story in that individual characterization is generally not emphasized, and tales do not especially present themselves as credibly "real."
Picaresque narrativesdescribing the episodic adventures of a picaro, a rogue-figure on the margins of society who survives by relying on his or her wits: a criminal, a beggar, an orphaned child, etc. A picaresque novel generally relates a series of discrete, separate episodes that may not combine into the cohesive unity that we expect of the novel proper. Picaresques are united not through a sustained plot, but primarily through continuing focus on the central character, who typically undergoes little change in character over the course of the narrative. Picaresque novels, concentrating our sympathy on the outlaw margins of society as they do, often serve as potent vehicles for pointed criticism of mainstream society. (The most famous and earliest existing example is Lazarillo de Tormes .)
Satires: loosely constructed stories that mock or ridicule specific behaviors or institutionsJonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels or Alexander Pope's Rape of the Lock, e.g.
Selected major early novels in the European tradition
The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes, His Fortunes and Misfortunes, Author unknown (1553).
Comic picaresque "biography" of a young Spanish rogue who lies, cheats and steals to survive: pointed criticism of the hypocritical society that spawns such vagabonds as Lazarillo.
Don Quixote de la Mancha, Miguel de Cervantes, 1605, 1615.
Episodic adventures of a madman who fancies himself the hero of a typical chivalric romance: Don Quixote valorously attacks windmills and herds of sheep in misguided attempts to distinguish himself as a "knight-errant" spreading the glory of his chosen maiden (a rude farm-wench). Don Quixote is a rollicking mockery of the types of romance that passed as popular entertainment before there were novels.
Oroonoko, Aphra Behn, 1688.
Tragic adventures of a noble African prince who is kidnapped and put into slavery in an English colony. Often considered the first English novel.
Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe, 1719.
Ostensibly the real-life story of a man shipwrecked on an uninhabited island. Noted for its detailed descriptions.
Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe, 1722.
Fictive autobiography of a highly adaptable and intelligent woman who survives by her wits through a long criminal career as a pickpocket, prostitute, con-artist, and more.
Pamela, or, Virtue Rewarded, Samuel Richardson, 1740-1741.
Epistolary novel describing a female servant's resistance to seduction by a gentleman, Mr. B__. Noted for its ostensible "psychological realism," probably the first English novel all critics agree is a full-blown "novel" (Harmon and Holman 343).
Tom Jones, the History of a Foundling, Henry Fielding, 1749.
"Serio-comi-epic" adventures of a young man who learns "prudence" through a series of comic misfortunes. Notable for its self-conscious acknowledgment of fiction as art. Pretty funny reading, too.
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne, 1759-67.
Parodic mockery/interrogation of the still-maturing novel form. Surprisingly "post-modern" in deconstructing standard novelistic techniques and conventions of the time.