Before Fiction: The Ancien Régime of the Novel

Before Fiction: The Ancien Régime of the Novel

Before Fiction: The Ancien Régime of the Novel

Before Fiction: The Ancien Régime of the Novel

Synopsis

Fiction has become nearly synonymous with literature itself, as if Homer and Dante and Pynchon were all engaged in the same basic activity. But one difficulty with this view is simply that a literature trafficking in openly invented characters is a quite recent development. Novelists before the nineteenth century ceaselessly asserted that their novels were true stories, and before that, poets routinely took their basic plots and heroes from the past. We have grown accustomed to thinking of the history of literature and the novel as a progression from the ideal to the real. Yet paradoxically, the modern triumph of realism is also the triumph of a literature that has shed all pretense to literalness.

Before Fiction: The Ancien Régime of the Novel offers a new understanding of the early history of the genre in England and France, one in which writers were not slowly discovering a type of fictionality we now take for granted but rather following a distinct set of practices and rationales. Nicholas D. Paige reinterprets Lafayette's La Princesse de Clèves, Rousseau's Julie, ou la Nouvelle Héloïse, Diderot's La Religieuse, and other French texts of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in light of the period's preoccupation with literal truth. Paige argues that novels like these occupied a place before fiction, a pseudofactual realm that in no way leads to modern realism. The book provides an alternate way of looking at a familiar history, and in its very idiom and methodology charts a new course for how we should study the novel and think about the evolution of cultural forms.

Excerpt

This book proposes a new history of the novel in France and England in which fiction itself is the primary variable; my account then provides the ground for understanding the fictional status of a series of (mostly) canonical novels from the early French tradition—or, more to the point, for understanding why they may not in fact be fictional. Both the larger narrative and the individual readings are subtended by an approach to the evolution of literary forms that parts company with most work on the novel’s history, and this, as much as fiction, is my subject as well.

First, the big picture: I sketch out here a history of fiction. Elaborating and substantially modifying the arguments of a number of specialists of the English novel, I argue that fiction is not at all coterminous with “literature” or what used to be called “poetry,” but is a rather recent phenomenon. Saying this, I am not following common modern usage and taking fiction as a synonym for the novel; though the present study is restricted to novels, it is not about their birth. By fiction, I mean something better though more awkwardly captured by the substantive “fictionality,” which is to say the peculiar yet for us intuitive way that novels refer to the world: via invented characters and plots, they purport to tell us how people and institutions and abstractions like money or power work. This is peculiar logically: how can writers possibly persuade readers of their view of the world if they are just making up their evidence? More important, it is historically peculiar. For one thing, the type of invention commonly practiced by novelists starting in the nineteenth century has few analogues in earlier times, which accorded little respect to writers dabbling in subject matter entirely of their own creation, and which largely understood the term fiction to designate a form of lying as deplorable as any other. Moreover, openly invented characters were a rarity for a good chunk of the novel’s development in France and England: in the late seventeenth century and for almost all the eighteenth, novelists presented themselves as mere editors, and their inventions as real documents or reports. Modern readers . . .

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