Nation and Novel: The English Novel from Its Origins to the Present Day

By Patrick Parrinder | Go to book overview

1
The Novel and the Nation

NOVELS are stories of ordinary people, not kings and princes. They are written in prose not verse, and are intended for silent reading, not recitation in public. A few novelists such as Dickens have given public readings of their work, but the fact that novels are not written for performance has profound implications for their relationship to the state and civic authority. Novels can be and are subject to censorship, but the reading of prose fiction is a private act. There are no court novelists or prose writers laureate, and patronage has played very little part in the history of fiction. Famous novelists are rewarded by their popularity, not by any kind of official status, and they have often depicted the apparatus of government from a satirical or subversive standpoint. They may speak to the nation but rarely, if ever, do they see it as their task to 'speak for the nation'. Novels exert a powerful influence on our perceptions of society and of our individual selves precisely because they lack any official sanction. Their authority comes from their readers and not from the cultural apparatus of the state.

The novel is a latecomer among literary forms. Unlike epic poetry, myths, drama, folk tales, and ballads it was not present at the origins of recorded history or the birth of the idea of nationhood. While there is a dispute over when the novel began—since some scholars extend the term to include all forms of prose narrative including romances and written folk tales1—it is clear that it could only come to prominence in an age of widespread literacy. The novel superseded both epic verse narrative and popular oral or semi-oral forms such as the ballad, but, unlike them, it was a medium of individual and not of communal expression—the product of a single author or narrator addressed not to an audience but to separate and isolated readers.

The distinction between the novel and forms of verbal expression which depend on performance for their full effect is a fundamental distinction in literary history and genre theory. The long-standing but never uncontroversial distinction between the novel and the romance is a secondary distinction, resting on the authority of individual writers and critics and

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