2.2 “The Novel” : Thing / Word / Discourse? What do we define?


On Definitions (2)

And, Andrew, I can almost point at the hiatus in which the reflex you spoke of is triggered. This is a picture of that moment taken from Paul J. Hunter’s preface to his book Before Novels, published in 1992. The preface had, so it seems, not quite made it clear what the book should promise. It should at least be able to define its object, so Hunter in a sudden move. Once one had the definition of the novel one could do a number of other things.

Maybe two or three postings about the novel as a particularly intriguing object of definition. The problems seem to be problems of words and of concepts they are connected with rather than of the object. The English “novel” is the German “Roman” if we ask the dictionary or go into a library and let native speakers collect titles. I wrote both Wikipedia articles, the one on the English Noveland the one on the German Roman and faced different problems and different reactions of the audiences on both platforms. They came with questions of the definition; they came with the histories of these definitions to be more precise.

One Thing (?) — Two Words (?) — different definitions

One can usually use the words novel and Roman as equivalents in both languages. The entire terminological pattern for gernres of prose fiction is presently made of equivalents thanks to the work of scholars who provided equally useful and translatable termonologies in both languages. Here the equivalents.

German English
Roman novel
Novelle novella
Kurzgeschichte short story
Märchen fairy tale
Fabel fable
Erzählung narrative

And yet, I could not hope to open the two Wikipedia articles with parallel definitions. My readers on the English Wikipedia would read their article with two questions German readers would not immediatedly share. A special tradition of term papers raises these Anglophone questions: How long exactly does a work have to be in order to count as a novel? What was the first novel (in English) (and as it turns out in the modern sense of the word)? If the article fails to answer these questions it will be revised. I can be more precise here: I must by no means give an easy answer to these questions, I must raise a problem here — the problem that Robinson Crusoe (1719) could be considered to be that first novel. Even if I should dismiss the option I should raise the question and say under what conditions one could read Robinson Crusoe as that first novel. The awareness of the problem to be solved here in a debate of definitions does not exist in German, though we will eventually speak about the same works in both languages and in both articles.

The English problem horizon was and still is reflected by its own article in Wikipedia, an article that should not exist here since it defies all requirements of a decent Wikipedia lemma. Yet ask Google Which is the first Novel? and this Wikipedia article will welcome you with the problem you are looking for and some prospective answers: First novel in English (version link as 20 Feb 2013).

The reader receives three lists, two of novels (why two?) and one of statements about the ensuing problems infividual choices will raise — in your term paper to be more precise. The first list begins in 1470 and goes into the year 1740:

  • Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur, (written c. 1470, published 1485)
  • William Baldwin, Beware the Cat, (written 1553, published 1570, 1584)
  • John Lyly, Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit (1578) and Euphues and his England (1580)
  • Philip Sidney, The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia (1581)
  • Margaret Cavendish, The Blazing World (1666)
  • John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678)
  • George Ashwell (translator), Philosophus Autodidactus (1686)
  • Aphra Behn, Oroonoko (1688)
  • Simon Ockley (translator), The Improvement of Human Reason: Exhibited in the Life of Hai Ebn Yokdhan (1708)
  • Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (1719)
  • Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders (1722)
  • Samuel Richardson, Pamela (1740)

Why a list of first novels stretching from 1470 to 1740? Would declare all competitors of the 100 m race at the next Olympic games to winners who crossed the line, though at different times?

And why do we get the 12th century Arabian Hayy ibn Yaqdhan among “first English novels”? Why Le Morte d’Arthur (1470) and not Beowulf (c.850?) or Sir Gawayn and the Green Night (c.1375)?

A second list follows and we get no information why its titles were not intergrated into the first — it is introduced with the words: “The following are some other early long works of prose fiction in English”, and that was exactly what one could have said about the first list.

  • William Caxton’s 1483 translation of Geoffroy de la Tour Landry, The Book of the Knight of the Tower (originally in French)
  • Thomas Nashe, The Unfortunate Traveller, or The Life of Jack Wilton (1594)
  • Jonathan Swift, A Tale of a Tub (1704)
  • Daniel Defoe, The Consolidator (1705)
  • Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (1726)

List three begins with a reflection of the mess:

There are multiple candidates for first novel in English partly because of ignorance of earlier works, but largely because the term novel can be defined so as to exclude earlier candidates:

  • Some critics require a novel to be wholly original and so exclude retellings like Le Morte d’Arthur.
  • Most critics distinguish between an anthology of stories with different protagonists, even if joined by common themes and milieus, and the novel (which forms a connected narrative), and so also exclude Le Morte d’Arthur.
  • Some critics distinguish between the romance (which has fantastic elements) and the novel (which is wholly realistic) and so yet again exclude Le Morte d’Arthur.
  • Some critics distinguish between the allegory (in which characters and events have political, religious or other meanings) and the novel (in which characters and events stand only for themselves) and so exclude The Pilgrim’s Progress and A Tale of a Tub.
  • Some critics require a novel to have a certain length, and so exclude Oroonoko, defining it instead as a novella.
  • Some critics distinguish between the picaresque (which has a loosely connected sequence of episodes) and the novel (which has unity of structure) and so exclude The Unfortunate Traveller.

Due to the influence of Ian Watt’s seminal study in literary sociology, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (1957), Watt’s candidate, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), gained wide acceptance.

The two preceding lists begin to make sense with that last passage in mind. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) is widely accepted as the first novel in English and as the first novel in a global perspective, and that is a problem, since one can point at earlier novels. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe remains, so the reassuring paradox the “first novel in English” if you defend it under Watt’s definition, and that is the reader’s task, the essay task that prompted him or her to undertake this Google search and that led to the peculiar article (if we really want to call it an article).

A typical essay topic could be: Discuss Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur as the first (English) novel! Gist of the decent answer: “Yes, it has prose and fiction in it, but it does not offer a hero who could be a hero of our world…” Discuss John Bunyan,’s The Pilgrim’s Progress as the first novel! — well: “it definitely precedes Robinson Crusoe and it is, like Robinson Crusoe, allegorical, but Crusoe as a hero is far more than allegorical, he is also realistic…” A topic for University students: Read the 12th century Arabian Hayy ibn Yaqdhan (in translation) and understand that this too is a story of a sole survivor on an island. Address the differences. Answer: “Hayy ibn Yaqdhan is not a modern novel but rather a philosophical allegory — yet one might discuss to what extent Robinson Crusoe is nothing less and explore whether Defoe was not actually inspired by the precursor that was available on the English market (so the hidden logic that brought the Arabian text into the list and on this peculiar position) in 1719.

The Problem: The special history of the novel in English

1959 Ian Watt, Rise of the Novel -1957If you risk writing the English Wikipedia’s article on the novel you will face users who will constantly call for the discussion game of Robinson Crusoe as the first and surely not the first, though in some way still the first novel.

This is the article as it still stood on 31 July 2005. It began with a definition: Novels are of more than 40.000 words. Things shorter are “novellas” or “short stories”. Four lists followed: one of qualities and three of novels before the real novel. The real article began after these lists with a link to read more about “romances” if one should be interested in the pre-history. The real novel only began in the 18th century after the history of the romance — and here again it is Watt’s definition that can set the course and define the problem to be solved:

The 18th century is considered, by most scholars of the English novel, to have been the century of the novel’s invention or rise, a phrase popularised in Ian Watt’s pioneer study in literary sociology, The Rise of the Novel (1957). It is generally agreed that, at the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth centuries, the novel arose from a host of genres in France and England.
Novelists drew upon the new “journalistic” tradition (less reliable than contemporary journalism)—criminal biographies and autobiographies (sensational stories of high-profile criminal exploits, often ending with the criminal’s contrived repentance), spiritual autobiographies, conduct books (contemporaneous etiquette books ranging from proper titles for the nobility to appropriate topics of conversation for women), travel narratives (often fantastic and rarely accurate accounts of distant places written by explorers, and others, retelling tales told them), religious allegories, and histories—to construct their novels. For example, in Robinson Crusoe (1719), Daniel Defoe fuses news (reports of the castaway Alexander Selkirk), the Puritan spiritual autobiography, the religious allegory, and the travelogue into a tale now considered a representative early novel.

It will be difficult to translate this opening declaration into German, not because the German language does not allow it but because the prevailing discourse wouldn’t explain it. Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel is well respected in Germany. One can with Watt assume that something new began in 1719 — the modern bourgeois novel that led to Zola. One can claim it ended the era of romances, German: French “Barock-Romane”. But then all this will not mean more than that a specific genre was formed in 1719, a genre that never claimed the entire market and no genre that could claim to be the ancestor of all modern genres of the novel.

For Germans Robinson Crusoe will be a specific novel in a wide stream of traditions. The English view is, that this particular novel ended one era and began a new, and that all modern novels are basically the offspring of this one English “novel”.

This is how Ian Watt began his study — the passage of the “reflex” of definition:

For this investigation our first need is a working definition of the characteristics of the novel — a definition sufficiently narrow to exclude previous types of narrative and yet broad enough to apply to whatever is usually put in the novel category. The novelists do not help us very much here. It is true that both Richardson and Fielding saw themselves as founders of a new kind of writing, and that both viewed their work involving a break with the oldfashioned romances; but neither they nor their contemporaries provide us with the kind of characterisation of the new genre that we need; indeed they did not even canonise the changed nature of their fiction by a change in nomenclature — our usage of the term ‘novel’ was not fully established until the end of the eighteenth century. [Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel. Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding (London, 1957), p.9-10.]

Watt did not speak about a specific novel he would define. He spoke about the novel he would define as such and about defining it in a way that it would be from now onwards possible to say where exactly it began: with a first novel that followed exactly this definition and that became the father of all modern novels in the event.

“Before Novels”

10Paul J. Hunter’s Before Novels (1992) is a book one can hardly translate into German. It is a tour of the era and of the literary field immediately before Robinson Crusoe and a plea to read the novel against the backdrop of all non-literary genres as they then existed and have influenced this text.

It was sometime in May 1994 that I realised I was sitting right next to Paul J. Hunter in the British Library, its dark green North Reading Room of early modern studies. I was reading novels written before Robinson Crusoe — titles that had the very word on their title pages. And here I sat next to the man who had declared that there were no “novels” before Robinson Crusoe. But I was not only reading “novels”. I was reading history in the broadest scope — including “romances” and titles that were not really labeled.

Eventually I dared to ask Hunter for his company on a coffee break. I confessed that I had read his book just before I went on this research trip. “You know that there were ‘novels’ before Robinson Crusoe?” I asked.

He knew. “But they were not novels in our sense. They were rather short stories.”

The assumption was problematic, as I had realised that some of these “novels” were indeed short while others were pretty long… He saw me hesitating with my reply and added: “…and when we try to understand what is today read as a novel, then all these pre-1719 novels won’t help us very much, will they?”

Hunter was reading 1719 and 1720 editons of Robinson Crusoe. I showed him the newspaper edition on my table. What I did not articulate was my experience with early 18th-century “romances” and my awareness that Robinson Crusoe was actually seen as a new “romance” on the market of “novels”.


(1) It is almost a reflex that scientific explorations begin with definitions of their objects and the terminologies we want to use. Helumt Arntzen opened his book Der Literaturbegriff: Geschichte, Komplementärbegriffe, Intention [The concept of Literture: History, alternative concepts, Intentions] (1984) by asking what kind of science literary studies could claim to be, if they failed to agree on what they read as literature. We seem to be lost without a definition. But are we and why?

(2) The reflex has its problematic side effects: We take a look at objects we can agree on as being central and typical in a category. A definition that does not come to terms with the qualities the most central objects of a category show, is worthless. The definition creates, however, blind spots and consequential questions. If we define the novel in a certain way, we might indeed be able to say that Robinson Crusoe was the first novel. We will be able to defend this — utterly scientific — conclusion with a look at qualities we see, even if the object in question was not called a “novel” by its contempraries. Why should it? We identify diseases with our present medical knowledge and do not assume that anyone died of a perturbance of his physical spirits in 1710.

Blind spots are, however, the result of the manoeuvre: Our definition will discredit earlier definitions and create whole fields which fall beyond the pale and negate a sensitivity to these earlier definitions and usages. Novels that were called “novels” in 1719 are deconceptualised once we appear with our allegedly superior knowledge about this “thing” one should have called a “novel” at the time. Shall we decide that these “novels” “before the novel” were rather “romances” on the basis of our prior determinatioon that the novel defeated the “romance”? How would we then deal with contemporary statements that diagnosed a tremendous gap between what was then considered to be a “novel” or “romance”?

(3) What exactly are we talking about when we speak of defining the “novel”? Are we defining a thing or things? Probably not. We are speaking of a concept that allows us to assign things to a category. The concepts seem to be the same when we see that we can offer 1:1 equivalents in two languages. The definition, however, follows different rules — rules of a cultural establishment. The peculiar Wikipedia article First novel in English taught these rules implicitly and practically: Agree that most English speaking experts accept Ian Watts definition as the basis and show to what extent you can then discuss the positions of other books in a history of literature you would propose.

The definition problem is different in the ensemble of German debates. Conclusion 3 is then: The definition problem istelf is a construct of its own right which you have to learn in a manner akin to learning the rules of chess. If you wish to write the novel articles on the German and the English Wikipedias, you should be disabused of any naivities and to know full well: your articles will be read within different games.

This article calls for a second thought about what Robinson Crusoe actually was.

  • The English Wikipedia article novel 10 Apr 2013
  • The English Wikipedia article First novel in English 20 Feb 2013
  • The German Wikipedia article Roman (i.e. novel) 3 Apr 2013
  • Paul J Hunter, Before Novels: Cultural Contexts of Eighteenth Century English Fiction Amazon
  • Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel. Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding (London, 1957) Google Books

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