Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

From Digressions to Intrusions: Authorial Commentary in the Novel

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

From Digressions to Intrusions: Authorial Commentary in the Novel

Article excerpt

"Be it known, then, that the human species are divided into two sorts of people, to wit, high people and low people." (146) --Henry Fielding, Joseph Andrews (1742)  "And so we need not trouble ourselves any more either about the insertions or about the exordiums. They both please me; the second class has pleased persons much better worth pleasing than I can pretend to be." (xx) --George Saintsbury, introduction to Joseph Andrews (1910) 

I would like to preface this article by asserting that there are two types of people in the world; those who like authorial intrusions, and those who don't. And just as these preferences tell us much about the people who hold them, the critical reception of authorial intrusions reveals much about our theories of the novel. Authorial intrusions are typically characterized, and criticized, as interruptions to a narrative that disrupt the illusion of fictional truth to varying degrees. In this way, intrusions highlight by contrast our sense of two formative elements of the genre: its narrative structure and its referential status.

Gerard Genette (1997) tells us that the authorial preface is a paratextual frame in the service of ensuring that the text is read properly: explaining to readers why and how they should read it. I think we can profitably approach authorial commentary as an intratextual continuation of this rhetorical enterprise, and this is one reason why intrusions have been condemned. As a result we can also approach them as barometers for historical shifts in concepts of the novel because of the various ways they both evoke and respond to critical reception. My aim is to investigate the reasons why authorial commentary is considered intrusive, and whether these reasons have been constant throughout the history of the novel. Central to this investigation will be tracing the significance of a broad terminological shift, from the eighteenth to the twentieth century, in which the common rhetorical practice of digression, or turning away from a narrative, came to be characterized as an intrusion into a narrative. Answering these questions will help address what Mary Jane Chilton Curry has called "the much disputed question of the relation between authorial intrusion and realism" (31), and I hope to demonstrate, in particular, the paradoxical role authorial commentary has played in both establishing and challenging the conventions of realist fiction in relation to eighteenth-century theories of probability, nineteenth-century theories of sympathy, and twentieth-century theories of impersonality.

Authorial Intrusions and the Realist Novel

When formalist theories of the novel took shape in the twentieth century, they enshrined all forms of intrusion, self-reflexive or otherwise, as an interference to the aesthetic ideal of the genre itself: the verisimilar effacement of the medium of narration, described by Percy Lubbock, in The Craft of Fiction (1921), as the practice of showing rather than telling. (1) This was also the central tenet of modernist novelists themselves, best expressed by Ford Madox Ford's assertion that it is "an obvious and unchanging fact that if an author intrudes his comments into the middle of his story he will endanger the illusion conveyed by that story" (148). The influence of this belief on historical scholarship can be found in Ian Watt's seminal work, The Rise of the Novel (1957), which defines "formal realism" as the narrative methods for providing an authentic report of individual experience that were developed in the eighteenth-century English novel. The prototype for authorial intrusions in this tradition is provided by Henry Fielding's essayistic musings in Tom Jones (1749), and according to Watt's theory of realism, "such authorial intrusions, of course, tend to diminish the authenticity of his narrative" and "break the spell of the imaginary world represented in the novel," preventing readers from being "fully immersed in the lives of the characters" (285). …

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