I was thinking recently upon the popularity of Nanowrimo, and I asked someone why a month was set aside for writing novels, and not other forms of literature. They replied (aproximately) that the novel was the freest and best way for a writer to express themselves. I responded that that must mean that William Shakespeare and William Blake were never proper writers.

This got me to thinking why The Novel is considered to be the standard form of writing in English speaking cultures today. While poetry and drama (as well as comic books, screenplays, technical writing and erotica) certainly have their fans, it would be hard to make the case that anything but the novel was the Queen of the Literary Arts.

This has not always been true. Literature had been going on for thousands of years before the novel appeared (thus its name). In the West, theology and rhetoric were considered much more literary than novels; and in China, history and poetry had the title.

Why is this? Novels appeared in the West sometime between The Renaissance and The Enlightenment, and appeared in China sometime in what could be described as its modern period. The novel is a reflection of a modern way of thinking. What is a novel, and how does this reflect to "modern thought".

The shortest definition of novel is a long work of prose fiction. On top of this, novels typically have some other characteristics. They generally have episodes that meaningfully build to a conclusion. They usually focus on a single character or a small group of characters, and their interior growth. Their are plenty of novels that are epic in scope, but novels as a form are not about relating fantastic or earth-shaking events, they are about a realistic psychological story.

Let us, then, examine some of these properties. Novels are long because they need to relate a involved yet coherent narrative of a person's life. A short story, while it can carry a very strong image, has a hard time commuicating growth and transformation. Novels are prose because that is the most easy and straightforward way to transmit information. Poetic epics such as the Iliad developed out of the need for a bard to entertain people in a spoken voice. Short, lyrical poetry is good at transmitting sharp images, but not at communicating narrative. Although there are plenty of works in the magical realist tradition, on the whole, prose poetry is also better at communicating single episodes of intense experience, but is perhaps not as well suited at explaining the development of narrative identity. A novel focuses on a single character because the modern, post-modern and contemporary periods all focus on the individual and their psychological development as the basic unit of understanding, instead of the destiny of the tribal group or religious narrative.

The case for novels not being about history is a little shakier. Many novels, such as War and Peace, are about wide, sweeping historical events. However, even when novels involve sweeping events, they are about people, or more accuratly, persons. The nations and trends are not themselves the focus, but how the individual deals with them.

As for why novels are more prestigious than plays, it could do with a nominalist bent in Anglo-American philosophy. A script or play is a causative use of language, in a way, in that language is used to cause other things to happen. Typically, in English and American culture, language is seen as a reflective tool, it is meant to describe things that have already happened, even if they only happened in the imagination.

So all of these are just a brief guess at why you will very rarely see an epic poem or movie script on the New York Times bestseller list.

The first novel was written 999 years ago. This was a long time before the term novel was even applied to literature. This was also a long time before Cervantes penned his masterwork, Don Quixote, which is commonly considered to be the first true novel. It isn’t. Perhaps it is the first modern novel. We’ll come to that later. The first edition of Cervantes’ book appeared in 1605. Some people believe that Don Quixote was actually written by one of Cervantes’ Spanish contemporaries, similar to the way in which Christopher Marlowe may have written Othello. But this is all beside the point.

In case you were wondering, the name of the real, actual, definite, first novel ever is Genji-monogatari, or, The Tale of Genji. The author was a woman. Her name was Murasaki Shikibu, and it was in 1007 that her opus was first published. Well, published isn’t exactly the right word. It was primarily spoken aloud, from memory, although there were definitely copies of the original manuscript floating around somewhere. These were lost, though, and the version that is available today has been taken from some 12th century manuscript scrolls and-

Hang on. Let me start again.

The first modern novel was written in 1605. This was a long time before the term modern novel had even been invented. This was also a long time after Lady Murasaki Shikibu wrote The Tale of Genji, which was immediately popular and was initially read aloud. Almost 600 years later, Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote was released. It is considered a modern novel because, well-

It is possible that the first novel ever written was actually The Golden Ass by Apuleius, a 2nd century Roman author from North Africa. If this book were indeed written in the 2nd century, then is was also written a long time before The Tale of Genji. However, The Golden Ass can’t be considered the world’s first modern novel because it isn’t miserable enough. Just kidding. Almost. Modernism arose from a dramatic shift in cultural awareness in the late 1800s. Wait, that isn’t right either. Modernism means realism means pessimism.

No. Yes.

Descartes and Locke, two 17th century philosophers who insisted upon the importance of the individual experience, proved to be of great influence to Cervantes. Don Quixote, the protagonist of the book, comes to realise that his notions of chivalric romanticism are the misguided fever dreams of an old, dying fool. Don Quixote, the novel itself, mirrors this realisation by, thematically, rendering archaic the novels that preceded it. Yet Don Quixote isn’t a realistic novel in the slightest. It is tragic, yes, but also fanciful, poetic and surreal. Which means, I suppose, that modern novels don’t have to be completely realistic after all. Except that they do, because otherwise they seem to become postmodern novels. These don’t have to be realistic either. And just what do we mean by realistic anyway? And what does Daniel Defoe have to do with any of this?

Scratch that last bit.

The first modern, English-language novel was also the first work of realistic fiction. The novel was Robinson Crusoe, written by Daniel Defoe in 1719. This was considered a realistic work because the motivations of the central character, and the descriptions of the world he inhabits, are entirely credible. So is this what we mean by realistic? Does realistic actually mean convincing? And, if so, convincing to whom? I was of the impression that realism was something characterised by a lack of dilution of its imaginary aspects. And how exactly does this apply to the postmodern novel anyway? Do we simply throw terms like magic realism around in the hope that they might stick in a have-cake-eat-too sort of way? And just what is a postmodern novel anyway? And why were any of these works referred to as novels in the first place? Where did the word novel even come from? From the Italian novella, obviously, which, when translated, means new. How did this term come to be applied to The Tale of Genji? I have no idea.

I’m not giving up yet.

A postmodern novel reintroduces traditional elements of style that were lost when the modern novel emerged. But what, exactly, is so new about that? Almost 1000 years have passed and we have decided that regression - the reincorporation of the very things that were excised in order for the modern novel to exist in the first place - should be accepted as some kind of sparkling literary innovation.

Disregard everything I have just written.

The Education of Cyrus was written, 400 years before Christ was born, by Xenophon.

It is Greek. It is a fictional account of the education of King Cyrus the Great of Persia.

And it is a strong candidate for the absolute, unequivocal, indisputable first novel ever.

Hang on.

Nov"el (?), a. [OF. novel, nuvel, F. nouvel, nouveau, L. novellus, dim. of novus new. See New.]

Of recent origin or introduction; not ancient; new; hence, out of the ordinary course; unusual; strange; surprising.

⇒ In civil law, the novel or new constitutions are those which are supplemental to the code, and posterior in time to the other books. These contained new decrees of successive emperors.

Novel assignment Law, a new assignment or specification of a suit.

Syn. -- New; recent; modern; fresh; strange; uncommon; rare; unusual. -- Novel, New . Everything at its first occurrence is new; that is novel which is so much out of the ordinary course as to strike us with surprise. That is a new sight which is beheld for the first time; that is a novel sight which either was never seen before or is seen but seldom. We have daily new inventions, but a novel one supposes some very peculiar means of attaining its end. Novel theories are regarded with distrust, as likely to prove more ingenious than sound.

 

© Webster 1913.


Nov"el, n. [F. nouvelle. See Novel, a.]

1.

That which is new or unusual; a novelty.

2. pl.

News; fresh tidings.

[Obs.]

Some came of curiosity to hear some novels. Latimer.

3.

A fictitious tale or narrative, professing to be conformed to real life; esp., one intended to exhibit the operation of the passions, and particularly of love.

Dryden.

4. [L. novellae (sc. constitutiones): cf. F. novelles.] Law

A new or supplemental constitution. See the Note under Novel, a.

 

© Webster 1913.

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