The True Story of the Novel

The True Story of the Novel

The True Story of the Novel

The True Story of the Novel


"One of the most successful literary lies", declares Margaret Anne Doody, "is the English claim to have invented the novel.... One of the best-kept literary secrets is the existence of novels in antiquity". In fact, as Doody goes on to demonstrate, the Novel of the Roman Empire is a joint product of Africa, Western Asia, and Europe. It is with this argument that The True Story of the Novel devastates and reconfigures the history of the novel as we know it. Twentieth-century historians and critics defending the novel have emphasized its role as superseding something else, as a sort of legitimate usurper that deposed the Epic, a replacement of myth, or religious narrative. To say that the Age of Early Christianity was really also the Age of the Novel rumples such historical tidiness - but so it was. From the outset of her discussion, Doody rejects the conventional Anglo-Saxon distinction between Romance and Novel. This eighteenth-century distinction, she maintains, served both to keep the foreign -dark-skinned peoples, strange speakers, Muslims, and others - largely out of literature and to obscure the diverse nature of the novel itself. This deeply informed and truly comparative work is staggering in its breadth. Doody treats not only recognized classics, but also works of usually unacknowledged subgenres - new readings of novels like The Pickwick Papers, Pudd'nhead Wilson, L'Assommoir, Death in Venice, and Beloved are accompanied by insights into Death on the Nile or The Wind in the Willows. Non-Western writers like Chinua Achebe and Witi Ihimaera are also included. In her last section, Doody goes on to show that Chinese and Japanese novels, early and late, bear a strong and notincidental affinity to their Western counterparts. Collectively, these readings offer the basis for a serious reassessment of the history and the nature of the novel.


After sailing for three days we arrived in Alexandria. My entrance was by the Sun Gate, as they call the portal, and immediately I was dazzled by the beauty of the city, and my eyes were filled with pleasure. . . . I set my eyes to looking into every street, but my vision was still unsated, and I could not succeed in seeing the whole beauty. While I was looking at some things, I was about to see some others; some things I wanted to see, others I wanted not to pass over. What I was seeing held my gaze, but so did what I was about to see. I wandered then through every street, and to my eyes still sick with desire I exclaimed, exhausted, "Eyes--we are conquered!"

--Achilles Tatius, Kleitophon and Leukippé

The Zeitgeist whispers now of a revival of interest in the classical novel, but I came upon my subject in an unusual way. Writing a sequel to my novel Aristotle Detective (1978)--a sequel that remains unpublished (alas!) to this day-- I decided to include in it some reference to or gesture towards every genre known in Aristotle's day. This brought me to the question of the Novel--where and when? it seemed to become visible around the time of Alexander the Great or just after--say, at the end of Aristotle's life or a little later. Reading Arthur Heiserman's The Novel before the Novel (197 1), 1 became fully aware of the plots, the substance, and the importance of the ancient novels; I was more excited than Heiserman (who was wedded to the concept of Romance) about the connections of ancient fiction with our own. I had long felt dissatisfied with the version of the history of the novel on which I had been bred in the 1950s and 1960s, though even when I wrote my book on Richardson (published in 1974) 1 had accepted that history, if with some modifications (the inclusion of seventeenth-century fiction and works by women writers). To change the "background" to the eighteenth-century novel, it would be necessary, I realized, to go very far back indeed.

This book is an attempt to trace connections rather than to assert division. Of course it is true that many exciting divisions can be described and explored, but it seems to me that we cannot deal properly with subsets until we know more of the whole set. Once we know more of the range of fiction, new groupings and subgroupings will be available to us, and we can invent new terms. Sets and sub- sets are not stable entities but fluid variables dependent on the conceptual interests of those who deal with them. I believe the concept of "Romance" as distinct from "Novel" has outworn its usefulness, and that at its most useful it created limitations and encouraged blind spots. If I assert the interconnectedness of a history, and boldly venture to treat an admittedly protean form as if constantly visible from century to century, I do not mean that that is the only way to treat the subject. It merely seems necessary that now somebody should do so, in order to help us to see the range of surviving forest and not merely the individual trees or, at best, small groves. I personally am not inimical to the idea of historical . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.