Thursday, July 19, 2018

Review: The Rise of the Novel, by Ian Watt

Berkeley, CA: The University of California Press, 1957, pp. 319.

It is a commonplace that the literary genre of the novel is distinguished by telling about the lives of everyday individuals in everyday circumstances, in a manner distinct in two ways--its plainness of style, and its attentiveness to inner life.

In his classic discussion of the matter in The Rise of the Novel Ian Watt does far, far more than present that view, instead getting to the root of the matter. As he makes clear the ancient-Medieval tendency had been to think of the "universal" and "timeless" as real, and particularities as ephemeral and meaningless. That earlier logic had authors striving to portray the universal above all, serving up characters who are "characteristic" types down to their names, and time and place often conceived imprecisely, with the authors' ornamentation of the portrayal the principal object and measure of their skill.

By contrast, this era saw writers aspiring to tell the stories of particular individuals, in particular places and times--and indeed, the unfolding of the events of their lives through cause and effect sequences, over time. That shift, in turn, was the reason for the plainness of style--the prioritization of a denotative, descriptive usage of language, with the lavishness in detailing taking the place of the old lavishness of ornament. He stresses, too, how this came together in a genre of private accounts, read privately, permitting an "intimacy" unattainable in other, publicly performed and publicly enjoyed styles of work (plays, poems) that both extended the bounds of what seemed permissible in art, and allowed a new intensity of audience identification with protagonists.

All of these features--the strong sense of particularity, time and cause and effect; the use of language as description rather than ornament; the private, "intimate" novel-reading experience--seem implausible outside the rise of a rationalistic, individualistic, science-touched Modernity that afforded individuals a meaningful range of choice in their economic choices (capitalism), and sanctioned them ideologically (Puritan ideas about salvation, secular Enlightenment thought). And indeed, Watt's classic is best remembered for its stress on the historical context in which the novel emerged, which reflects a good deal of what Mills was to call "the sociological imagination."

Appropriately the book begins with a good deal of historical background, specifically two chapters regarding the philosophical developments underlying the rise of what we think of as "realism," and a reconstruction of the eighteenth century reading public from the concrete facts of the era. In these the territory ranges from the epistemology of John Locke to the nitty-gritty of how many and who would have had the time and money to buy this kind of reading material and a place in which to read it in that private way he described (delving into prices and incomes and the rest). Afterward, when turning to the founding authors and works themselves--Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, Samuel Richardson's Pamela and Clarissa, Henry Fielding's Tom Jones--he continued to draw on historian's understanding of aspects of the period ranging from the rise of Grub Street to the rise of suburbia as the map of London, and made effective use of these authors' backgrounds to make sense of what they created. (Skeptical as I tend to be of the biographical approach, I found it impossible to come away from this thinking it accidental that Richardson, a retiring, low-born, Low Church suburbanite earnest about "middle class morality" wrote epistolary novels about domestic themes, and Fielding, a robust Tory squire who was at Eton with William Pitt, served up Jones' picaresque adventure.)

Watt is all the more effective and interesting for his attentiveness to the finer points of form so much more difficult to discuss than content, and the ways in which form, too, was remade by practical imperatives of the writers' business. (That exhaustive descriptiveness, and combined with the need to of the writer to make themselves understood to readers of a less certain educational level, and per-word pay rates--both phenomena connected with their selling to a wide public rather than catering to an elite patron--to put a premium on prolixity.)

All this is considerably enriched by a good many observations of wider literary significance. Not the least of these concerned the tendency of writers to essentially write themselves when presenting a protagonist, especially in a first-person narrative. ("Defoe's identification with Moll Flanders was so complete that, despite a few feminine traits, he created a personality that was in essence his own" (115).) Interesting, too, is his quip about an aspect of the style of fiction Pamela helped pioneer far less likely to be acknowledged by a reputable critic in our day. ("[T]he direction of the plot . . . outrageously flatters the imagination of the readers of one sex and severely disciplines that of the other" (153-154).)

Indeed, some of his more interesting remarks have nothing to do with eighteenth century fiction at all. (As Watt observes Shakespeare, the "inventor of the human," is less a modern than a Medieval--lacking a historical sense as we think of it, while the passage of time and causality more generally comes across as loosely handled, and the propensity for the purple prevails in his poetry, some of the reasons why he is less accessible and compelling to most of us than he is "supposed to be.") Watt is attentive, too, to the trade-offs that writers have to make when they actually create something--like that between plot and character (the one in "inverse proportion" to the other (279), and many of the pitfalls of literary criticism in his time, and our own. ("Coleridge's enthusiasm may . . . serve to remind us of the danger . . . of seeing too much" (120).)

As the cited passages indicate, Watt, for all his richness in insight, is also extraordinarily accessible, partly because in comparison with our pretentiously and trivially theoretical, jargon-laden contemporary work he is clearly focused on his subject and straightforward in his communication, while also exceptionally gifted as a wordsmith himself. Altogether this makes the book not just a key work for anyone trying to understand eighteenth century literature, or the novel that remains the central fictional form of today, but literature in general.

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