What is the Story of the Novel?

No one has written an account of the art form's evolution

During my freshman and sophomore years in college I watched all 400 films nominated to be on AFI's 100 Years, 100 Movies list. I figured if they were good enough to be nominated, they were probably pretty good, and that these 400 movies represented the canon of American film. Watching the AFI list was an incredible journey through film, and recently, I watched Mark Cousins' 15-part, 900-minute documentary The Story of Film, itself an incredible journey through time and around the globe.


According to Cousins, his epic project began after he blogged that someone should write a book about film in the vein of Ernst Gombrich's The Story of Art, a history of art from ancient times to the modern era focusing on innovation. Eventually, Cousins realized he would have to be that person, which led to a book and film of the same name. 


What Cousins liked about The Story of Art, which I like about The Story of Film, is its focus on innovation rather than a film's subject matter. In other words, Cousins avoids becoming a cultural critic (most of the time) and instead focuses of the techniques of filmmakers. In this way, his documentary walks you through the development of film as an expressive art form.


I would love to read a book about the novel as an art form, similarly focused on innovation, but I'm not sure one exists.


My gripe about all literature classes everywhere is that the professor focuses not on what makes the novels under consideration works of art, but on the explicit or implicit politics of race, gender, and class within the novel. Despite the end of the Theory Wars and the embrace of New Historicism, lit classes are still heavily steeped in post-colonial, feminist, Marxist and other critical theories. What do students learn in these classes? That low and behold, if we look at old novels, they aren't as politically progressive as we are.


Students register for literature classes because they love reading and love the artistic qualities of language and storytelling, not because they are political. If they were political, they'd be poly-sci majors. I'm not surprised enrollment in literature classes has been declining for years while enrollment in creative writing classes has skyrocketed.


So in all my many years sitting in lit classes, I never learned about the development of prose fiction as an art, from its beginnings until now. After watching The Story of Film, I went hunting for similar books about the novel. Here is what is out there:


  1)  The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding  by Ian Watt

  2)  The Origins of the English Novel, 1600-1740 by Michael McKeon

  3)  The Theory of the Novel  by Georg Lukacs

  4)  The True Story of the Novel by Margaret Anne Doody

  5)  The Novel: An Alternative History: Beginnings to 1600 by Steven Moore

  6)  The Novel: An Alternative History, 1600-1800  by Steven Moore



  1)  Theory of the Novel: A Historical Approach  ed. by Michael McKeon

  2)  Essentials of the Theory of Fiction ed. by Michael J. Hoffman & Patrick D. Murphy

  3)  The Novel: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory 1900-2000 

        ed. by Dorothy J. Hale

  4)  Novel Definitions: An Anthology of Commentary on the Novel, 1688-1815 

        ed. by Cheryl L. Nixon


Many of these books are college staples. However, most of them are theory heavy and not written for the lay person. Cousin's and Gombrich's works are meant to be accessible to anyone, and are extremely popular for it.


A thumbnail sketch of the novel's development is available here, and Wikipedia's article on the novel is surprisingly thorough. As written now, the story of the novel goes like this: for a long time their were epics, romances, and plays, until 18th century England when either Daniel Defoe or Samuel Richardson invented the novel, which is marked by its realism. In the 19th century, authors used omniscient narrators until Henry James invented the limited third person point-of-view. In the twentieth century authors experimented with stream of consciousness, and then later the realist novel fragmented into many genres. The end. 


There are a few dissenters out there. Margaret Anne Doody and Steven Moore argue that the novel existed long before the 18th century, but have been criticized for labeling something a novel simply because of its length, rather than considering its formal characteristics or techniques.


I'm disappointed by this story of the novel and by the way we talk about novels. Publishers, readers, and critic tend to classify novels in terms of genre, geographic region, or time period -- categories that focus on subject matter rather than stylistic technique.


Artists and filmmakers can use terms like expressionism or impressionism while novelists have no equivalent vocabulary. While novelists have been incredibly innovative over the last few decades, academia has ignored artistic technique in favor of cultural criticism.


Someone needs to write The Story of the Novel  for a general readership, focusing on innovation and the development of various artistic techniques over time. Our literary vocabulary also needs to expand so that we have a language with which to speak about these innovations. Any takers?

-- May 2014