Ian Watt, THE RISE OF THE NOVEL

It occurred to me that my blog would be a very convenient place to stash many of my breadth exams notes. This post will basically consist of annotated bibliographic entries for several chapters from Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel.

Watt, Ian. “Realism and the Novel Form.” The Rise of the Novel. Berkeley: U California P, 1957. 9-34. Print. 

In this introductory chapter, Watt defines the characteristics of formal realism that allow us to differentiate the novel from prior fiction forms. Using concepts from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century philosophy, he argues that shifting understanding of realism (from something that depicts a “universal reality” to something that depicts particularized, individualized realities) informs the novel whether or not a direct causal link can be established. The novel is distinct from other prose forms–particularly in its early forms in the hands of Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding–in that is emphasizes a fidelity to individual experience over formal conventions, a character driven “plot” that does not ground itself in historical or mythological tales, and specificity or particularity in terms of characterization and background. Characters are generally given proper names that are not merely allegorical, indicative of type or quality, or historical/mythological. They are often given Christian names and surnames. Additionally, the time and place in which those individualized characters exist are also laid out with care to the particulars of chronology (things like backstory, order of events, pacing with reference to actual timeframes, etc.) and spatiality (real places, place descriptions, etc.). Finally, the prose style of the novel had to differentiate itself from other prose styles in order to convey a sense of particularity and authenticity; Watt argues that words became increasingly referential in the novel.

—. “The Reading Public and the Rise of the Novel.” The Rise of the Novel. Berkeley: U California P, 1957. 35-59. Print.

In this chapter, Watt provides an overview of shifting reading patterns in 18th century England, noting that while there was something of a “boom” in readership, it was a fairly small, contained boom. The biggest increase in readership was primarily confined to London. And, while there were plentiful opportunities to learn how to read, it remained primarily an activity pursued by the leisure classes–not only were the upper classes largely against teaching the poor to read (they were afraid literacy might make the poor less content with their lot and foster rebellion, they didn’t want to lose child employees to the schools), but the poor weren’t provided positive inducements to learn how to read, they didn’t want to become miserable with their lots in life, and books were REALLY DAMN EXPENSIVE. (That’s the precise scholarly term, people.) The novel started to address at least the economic issues surrounding literacy and reading-as-leisure: they were in the mid-range (not as cheap as some duodecimos and chapbooks, but not nearly as expensive as French romances bound as folios). Still, the cost of a novel could feed a family for a week. Circulating libraries, important for so many reasons, began to change this…

Watt uses this background to highlight the kinds of lower-class individuals who WOULD be reading and who would be important parts of the audience: apprentices and household servants. They, along with stereotypical bored upperclass housewives, formed the bulk of the novel’s reading public. This fairly diverse audience caused the novel to be a sort of egalitarian social space which “weakened the relative importance of those readers with enough education and leisure to take a professional or semi-professional interest in classical and modern letters; and in return it must have increased the relative importance of those who desired an easier form of literary entertainment, even if it had little prestige among the literati” (48).

Concurrent with the rise of the novel, the rise of magazines and booksellers cemented a publishing industry with unprecedented power. Although it is not entirely clear to what extent the booksellers determined the rise of the novel, Watt suggests that their preoccupations seemed to be with texts such as Johnson’s Dictionary and Chambers’s Cyclopedia.

The establishment of a literary industry free of /distinct from the system of patronage had important consequences for authors. According to Watt, “once the writer’s primary aim was no longer to satisfy the standards of patrons and the literary elite, other considerations took on a new importance. Two of them, at least, were likely to encourage the writer to prolixity: first, to write very explicitly and even tautologically might help his less educated readers to understand him easily; and secondly, since it was the bookseller, not the patron who rewarded him, speed and copiousness tended to become the supreme economic virtues” (56).

—. “Private Experience and the Novel.” The Rise of the Novel. Berkeley: U California P, 1957. 174-207. Print.

Focusing particularly on Richardson’s novels, Watt outlines the shifting social factors that allowed, or at least helped Richardson achieve such a level of interiority in his work. First, the increasingly informal, familiar mode of letter writing gained favor over an earlier, more formal and rhetorical mode of letter writing. Innovations in the delivery of the post allowed an epistolary culture not only to exist but to thrive. Second, increasingly individualized private life began to be reflected in the home: locks on doors, private sleeping and living chambers, all provided enough solitude to read and write with much more consistency. Third, the rise of individualism and urbanization–which Watt sees as connected, since the city was so large and multiplicitious that no two people shared all of the same spaces and experiences–fostered an interior life and also a need to share that interior life (Watt says through letters). He also argues that this environment, combined with a system of values that is mainly economic, combine to “provide the novel in general with two of its most characteristic themes: the individual seeking his fortune in the big city and perhaps only achieving tragic failure…and, the milieu studies of such writers as Balzac, Zola, and Dreiser, where we are taken behind the scenes, and shown what actually happens in places we know only by passing them in the street or reading about them in the newspapers” (180).

ASIDE: I see a connection to Nancy Armstrong’s How Novels Think: The Limits of Individualism from 1719-1900. In How Novels Think, Armstrong argues:

The history of the novel and the history of the modern subject are, quite literally, one and the same. The British novel provides the test case. It came into being…as writers sought to formulate a kind of subject that had not yet existed in writing. Once formulated in fiction, however, this subject proved uniquely capable of reproducing itself not only in authors but also in readers, in other novels, and across British culture in law, medicine, moral and political philosophy, biography, history, and other forms of writing that took the individual as their most basic unit. Simply put, this class- and culture-specific subject is what we mean by “the individual.” To produce and individual, novels had to think as if there already were one, that such an individual was not only the narrating subject and source of writing but also the object of narration and referent of writing…

Watt explores the city and the suburb in terms of the novel’s tendency toward interiority; contrasting them as the urbane and the suburban, he notes that the former “denotes the qualities of politeness and understanding which are the product of the wider social experience which city life makes possible” and the latter “denotes the sheltered complacence and provinciality of the sheltered middle-class home” (187). The suburbs, notably, required greater reliance on letter writing to stay in touch with one’s friends and relations.

Watt concludes the chapter by considering the ways in which this intense interiority–portrayed to the point of triviality, without selectivity–requires the audience to participate by selecting important details out of a mass of banal ones. According to Watt, “it makes us feel that we are in contact not with literature but with the raw materials of life itself as they are momentarily reflected in the minds of the protagonists” (193). That the novel does so in spite of (or perhaps because of) its impartial language, its authority (even modern readers tend to implicitly trust things that are printed) and the constant tension between the realistic representation of exteriority and the realistic representation of interiority is remarkable.

—. “Realism and the Later Tradition: a Note.” The Rise of the Novel. Berkeley: U California P, 1957. 290-302. Print.

In this concluding chapter, Watt gestures toward slightly later writers such as Laurence Sterne and Jane Austen, whose work can be said to build on the work of Richardson, Fielding, and Defoe. In fact, Watt argues that Sterne and Austen achieve mastery in their blending and balancing of the strengths of each of these writers, capably and nimbly negotiating between exteriority and interiority. He notes that this is particularly true in the case of Austen, whose narrators are neither as intrusive nor as didactic as those of her predecessors, blending almost invisibly into the social world she depicts with close third-person portrayals of her protagonists’ inner lives.

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