The Rise of the Novel and the Agency of Change

Alphonse de Lamartine stated, “France was bored” and with these words he perfectly encapsulated the impact of the novel. The printing press had created the ability to transmit text at a rate not possible before, however the novel took this ability and created new worlds to explore. These worlds can best be seen in the rising belief that things were better else where, whether it be the past, colourful foreign lands, or in a society that was a little more just; however they can also be seen in the new ways of thinking, new markets, and new laws that resulted, at least in part, due to the creation of the novel. In this way the novel was like the printing press in that it did not create change itself, but instead was an agent of it.

There is much debate over what should be considered the first novel, however as a literary technology the novel really became fully realized during the 18th and 19th century in Western Europe. The novel does many things but the aspect of writing that it raises most sharply is the distinction between words and reality. (Watt, 1957) The novel and its creators began to reject formal conventions and traditional plots. Prior to the rise of the novel traditional plots were repeated in new ways to represent the way to be a virtuous and moral individual. Typically these plots came from history, legend, mythology or previous literature, in comparison the innovators of the novel created plots or based their plots on contemporary events (Watt, 1957). In conjunction with new plots came a focus on characterization. Ian Watts (1957) notes that one of the hallmarks of the novel is description, especially description concerning the character and their background. In this way the novel is distinct from previous literary technology in devoting attention to the individualization of characters and the environment around them. To fully individualize characters, innovations were made in the way a character spoke and specifically in their diction. Writers before the novel tended to focus on the style and eloquence of language to illustrate their skill. The early innovators of the novel tried instead to use language to further individualize their characters and bring the reader closer to the text (Watt, 1957). Similarly settings became much more important. Previously stories were situated in vague or generalized setting, however in novels these settings became fully realized in an attempt to situate the characters and give them more authenticity (Watt, 1957). In general the novel did many things to change the way stories were told but at the heart of these changes was a movement from the universal to the individual. They sought to provide authentic accounts of actual experiences, in a sense to provide a look into humanity as it was, not as it was dreamed to be.

This concept of realism was not unique to the novel, and during the emergence of this new literary form, the setting of its development, Western Europe, was ripe with realism. Philosophical discourse at the time, specifically the work of Rene Descartes and John Locke, was focused on finding truth independent of tradition. In a similar fashion science, closely tied to philosophy was also trying to find indisputable truth (Watt, 1957). This new way of thinking was accompanied by social change and new ideas on the meaning of virtue and truth. As such at this point the novel cannot be seen as an innovator of these ideas but instead as a technology that helped facilitate the spread of these ideas. In many ways the novel was taking the ideas that were being generated in Western Europe and helping individuals situate themselves in these ideas through the lens of imaginary worlds.

Though the novel clearly did not invent realism it did allow for realism and other ideas to be digested in a much easier and standardized way. Novels however did not initially become a common item in the typical household. They were prohibitively expensive and due to a general lack of literacy there was a limited market for them. The cost of a novel was overcome in many ways, for example novels became serialized or split up into multiple volumes. Perhaps most significantly novels played a significant role in the creation of libraries and further development of libraries (Watt, 1957). Libraries had existed prior to the widespread development of the novel, and they stocked all types of writing but as the novel became more common, they quickly became the most borrowed literary text (Watt, 1957). The growth of libraries coincided with the birth of the novel, and both played a significant role in changing the reason people read.

Prior to the novel, and still very much during the early period of the novel, most people were reading for religious or didactic purposes. Religious writing composed the biggest portion of published works in the early eighteenth century, but slowly secular texts were becoming more popular. Periodicals began paving the way for secular literature but it was the novel that provided a text that was informative, entertaining and easy to read. Where once reading was the province of educated professionals, with the novel the middle class and in particular women slowly began to enter the reading public (Watt, 1957). For many individuals it was difficult to find the time to read, they worked long hours and when they were done working there was not enough light for them to read. Middle class women, who had recently been freed from traditional household jobs by mechanization, were restricted in the activities they could participate in, however pleasure reading was open to women and quickly became an activity that they could, and did fill their free time with. Similarly apprentices and household servants also began to read more frequently. Typically these groups had the opportunity to read, as they tended to work irregular hours throughout the day, and the means to read, by either having books in their masters’ houses or through spending their own money on reading material. In this way a new audience was created, an audience that did not want to read traditional texts but instead wanted entertaining material situated in a reality that they were familiar with (Watt, 1957). Again the novel did not necessarily make this possible but it did fill the growing desire for something different and it did allow for readers to slip into their own private worlds and explore.

Reading a novel is ultimately an individual experience and as more and more people began exploring these private worlds a shift in social patterns started to occur. A shift had already been going on in domestic privacy as more delineation was occurring between master and servant. This shift can be illustrated by the greater emphasis that was being put on each individual having his or her private bedroom. It was becoming more acceptable for individuals, both young and old, master and servant, to desire spend time alone away from the family. The novel did not cause this emphasis on privacy, as the shift had started prior to its widespread deployment but it did compliment and reinforce the idea of privacy (Watt, 1957). The novel through its unique characterizations and especially its emphasis on the psychological depth of its characters encouraged readers to look inwards. In this way we see reading move away from the public sphere and become internalized and silent (Ong, 1982). Internalization of thought was a mark of Puritan belief and Christian ascetic in general, however the novel intensified the practice and extended it to those outside the sphere of religious influence. The novel was not irreligious and many of the early writers and novels carried serious religious undertones, however as the novel became more a commodity it began to operate outside the traditional boundaries of religion and religious texts.

The printing press did many things, but perhaps the most radical change it made was turning literacy into a commodity. The initial creation of the printing press is laced with the struggle to control the emerging business. It was a tool that meant many things to many different people, but the thing it meant the most was the potential for profit. The early history of the printing press is rife with bribery and theft as individuals tried to get a foothold in this new lucrative market (Eisenstein, 1980). From 1600 to 1756 over eight hundred authors, printers, booksellers and print dealers had been imprisoned. These prisoners are a symbol of the ruling class attempts to control the spread of ideas, but they are also a symbol of the business potential of the printing press (Eisenstein, 1980). Just as the printing press provided a great opportunity for change, it also provided a great opportunity for profit, and individuals were willing to take significant risk to achieve both ends. Booksellers were agents of change while also being entrepreneurs.

As more individuals began to read booksellers began to gain more power over what people read and to a more limited extent what people wrote. The rise of the novel is marked by the commercialization of literature and many early authors complained that market motives were hurting the sincerity of art form. There is little evidence that booksellers actually influenced authors through patronage, however there is ample evidence that by giving the general public what they wanted, they did create a market place for the novel to survive (Watt, 1957). Before novels had become commonplace in bookstores, authors were commissioned by patrons to create their works of art. As the market for novels grew, and as they became common fixtures in bookstores, authors were free to write what they wanted, when they wanted. The success of a novel was now in the hands of the author and their audience.

Isaiah Thomas was arguably the first great publisher and bookseller in America. He strongly represents the new world of business that the novel helped create. Primarily a printer and publisher Thomas expanded into bookstores and by the 1790s he operated over eleven stores across New England. The exact contents of his stores is difficult to discern but it is clear that they had over 100 books for children on sale, as well as a wide array of popular novels (Emblidge, 2012). Thomas is an example of the impact of the novel on business practices and the potential for commercialization of the literary technology. His stores sold many different types of literature, however the backbone of the stores, and the thing that ultimately allowed for his widespread success was the novel. Printing presses had created a new business but the novel expanded this business and created the opportunity for individuals to create large-scale organizations (Emblidge, 2012).

The rise of the printing press as noted previously was marked by dispute and dishonest practices. Bookstores and bookselling similarly were not the most virtuous professions and the stealing or printing of an authors work was common. Novels differed from the previous material that printers and booksellers had traditionally sold in that they were unique and their contents were eternal (Stern, 2012). For example Bibles did not belong to a single author, their translations might, but the ideas inside them came from an ineffable place. Penny papers and similar news publications were temporal and new product had to be created on a regular schedule. Novels however could be attributed to a single author and could be printed ad infinitum. Classic words could be compared to novels in this way, however their authors were long since deceased and had no monetary considerations in their printing. In this way the novel created the need for away for both authors and publishers to protect their intellectual property and it is out of this need that the world of copyright law developed.

The metaphor of literary works as real estate had existed before the eighteenth century however during this time as booksellers tried to control their “property” it gained in appeal (Stern, 2012). The marketplace at this time was in its infancy and as booksellers struggled determine their place within it, they needed to define what literary ownership meant. Copyright had existed prior to the novel and the idea of intellectual property was already established. For example the Stationer’s Company, the London guild of printers and booksellers, had a royal patent for law books. This patent was complicated and lead to numerous challenges based on the language of the claim (Stern, 2012). With the birth of the novel original authorship and textual property became common and mutual terms. The need for copyright law stemmed from the belief that bookselling was ultimately a zero-sum economy; an increased demand for one book would result in a commensurate decline for another book. This was juxtaposed by the idea that writing was based on a reinvigorating of ideas. Plots, characters and techniques could be repurposed without fear that they would disappear. Authors were not afraid that their techniques or the features of their books would be used up, and instead focused on originality. The two groups were ultimately at opposing views on how copyright laws should look and operate but they shared the basic premise that the laws should protect originality so that the owners of the text could profit (Stern, 2012). Again the novel was not the instigator of copyright laws but it did bring the debate to a head and played an important role in framing the discussion. Novels had become a commodity and though it was unclear how they should be protected and which party, bookseller or author, need the most protection, it was clear that some sort of protection was needed.

The novel as a literary technology is somewhat unique in that it did not cause change in and of itself. As it developed and expanded it became the most common literary text. Institutions were built to spread the word and laws were developed to protect its contents. Though there are many examples of novels causing political and social change, the technology in and of itself was not the source of this change. Literacy rates did not steadily climb because of the invention and popularization of the novel nor did it directly impact educational practices; however it would be difficult to argue that the novel did not play some part in the changes to the world that would eventually occur.

The novel was built on the ideas of an era and it was facilitated by the technology and marketplace of the time. What makes the novel unique is not the way it changed the world but the way that the world changed the novel. It was, like the printing press before it, an agent of change, but whereas the printing press remained ultimately unaffected from its agency, the novel became imbued by the change it was delivering. As it spread ideas of realism and individualism it became more inwardly focused, as it entered the marketplace it became more market driven, and as it became a legal entity it became shaped by the laws that defined it. “France was bored” and the novel provided new worlds for it to explore.

Works Cited

Emblidge, David (2012) Isaiah Thomas Invents the Bookstore Chain, Publishing Research Quarterly, 28 (1), 53 – 64

Eisenstein, E. L. (1980). The printing press as an agent of change (Vol. 1). Cambridge University Press.

Ong, Walter. (1982.) Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.

Stern, Simon (2012) “Room for One More”: The Metaphorics of Physical Space in the Eighteenth-Century Law and Literature, 24(2), 113-150
Watt, I. P. (1957). The rise of the novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. University of California Pr.

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