Consider This An Invitation To My Hulu Nation
by Molly Lambert
The invention of printing subjected both novels and romances to a first wave of trivialization and commercialization. Printed books were expensive, yet something people would buy, just as people still buy expensive things they can barely afford.
Alphabetization, or the rise of literacy, was a slow process when it came to writing skills, but was faster as far as reading skills were concerned. The Protestant Reformation created new readers of religious pamphlets, newspapers and broadsheets.
The urban population learned to read, but did not aspire to participation in the world of letters. The market of chapbooks developing with the printing press comprised both romances and short histories, tales and fables.
it’s like they took a snapshot of exactly what’s inside my brain
Romancers and novelists responded to the argument that they spread lies with hints at Aristotle’s Poetics according to which prose fiction might be just a special sort of poetry comprising productions of a high and a low genre. The modern novel could under these circumstances be called a genus medium.
Romances taught through heroes and anti-heroes, novels through the very plots, the “intrigues”, they related. The production of fictions remained embedded in the field of histories as the poetic principles could easily recycled and utilized in on the special market of unreliable and scandalous histories.
The moment for novels and romances to leave the market of potentially scandalous histories and to become “literature” came in the second half of the 18th century. The development had been prepared by Pierre Daniel Huet’s Traitté de l’origine des romans (1670), the short history of prose fiction which had first formulated the future canon of “literature”.
The French theologian had dared to praise fictions: One could interpret novels and romances and analyze them as works which uniquely reflected the cultures and times which had first produced and consumed them.
The second half of the 18th century was not only marked by a reevaluation of fiction which turned the novel from lie and libel into a culturally significant production. The new evaluation hand in hand with the search for national debates capable of involving the wider public.
The discussion of “literature” hosted the new debate. The spectrum of “literary” genres supplanted the old spectrum of “poetic” genres in a move designed to exclude the opera and to include prose fiction.
The legitimation of fiction as part of the “belles lettres” or “literature” in the new sense of the word led to reformation of the whole market. The old divide between chapbooks and elegant books of the “belles lettres” collapsed.
The new market divide created “literature proper” (“Literature with a capital L”) with works discussed in literary journals, in school classes and university seminars, and it created a new low market with fiction “unworthy to be discussed”.
The market for novels in the nineteenth century was clearly separated into “high” and “low” production. The new high production can best be viewed in terms of national traditions. The low production was organized rather by genres in a pattern deriving from the spectrum of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century genres.
The novel proved to be a medium for a communication both intimate (novels can be read privately whereas plays are always a public event) and public (novels are published and thus become a matter touching the public, if not the nation, and its vital interests), a medium of a personal point of view which can get the world into its view.
New modes of interaction between authors and the public reflected these developments: authors giving public readings, receiving prestigious prizes, giving interviews in the media and acting as their nations’ consciences. This concept of the novelist as public figure arose in the course of the nineteenth century.
In the mid-nineteenth century magazines publishing short stories and serials began to be popular. Some of them were more respectable, while others were referred to by the derogatory name of penny dreadfuls. In 1844 Alexandre Dumas published a novel The Three Musketeers and wrote The Count of Monte Cristo which was published in installments over the next two years. William Makepeace Thackeray published The Luck of Barry Lyndon.
Charles Dickens published Our Mutual Friend in installments from 1864 to 1865. Literature by this time was becoming increasingly popular. The European and North American middle-classes were better educated than ever before and more reading was done. At the same time the styles of writing were tending more and more toward plainer language and more broadly understood themes.
In America a version of the penny dreadful became popularly known as a dime novel. In the dime novels the reputations of gunfighters and other wild west heroes or villains were created or exaggerated. The western genre came into existence. James Fenimore Cooper began a series of stories featuring the characters Hawkeye and Chingachgook.
Molly Lambert is the managing editor of This Recording
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