16 July 2006

Chapter two, "The Rise of the Novel," in Terry Lovell's Consuming Fiction, grounds the book in critical debate. This chapter addresses Ian Watt's book of the same name. By beginning with an assessment of what Lovell feels is the primary work in her field, Lovell establishes both her authority in the field and the basic assumptions from which she will work. Lovell sets forth, and tries to set right, what can be seen as flaws in Watt's book--attacks designed to expose and correct weaknesses which could otherwise tumble Watt's thesis, which she explains is that "the primary parenting of the novel. . . was performed by capitalism."(45)

Lovell begins by delineating the assumptions of Watt's thesis that the novel is a bourgeois form. These are, she says, that it was developed by, and for, the new middle class; that this development occurred simultaneously with the rise of a faceless audience; that it served the ideological needs of the bourgeoisie; and that the formal realism it displayed accurately reflected that general bourgeois outlook.

Lovell then defines Watt's central term, formal realism. This style developed from the philosophical belief that reality consists of particulars, rather than existing in abstract forms. This was demonstrated by characteristics which serve to define the new novel for Watt. First, plots were new--created by the author, rather than recycled from earlier literature, and they mirrored the lives of real people. Real "people" were the characters, too: novels didn't rely on stock characters, but tried to create three-dimensional persons, and gave them real names instead of simple type-names. Thirdly, the laws of cause and effect became the primary advancers of plot. Perhaps most noticeably, however, the action occurred in real places, and language was used to convey information about those places, so readers could be credible of the story. Lovell concludes from this that,(22)

Watt's thesis, then, proposed a tight interconnection between three phenomena, all themselves directly or indirectly a function of the development of capitalism: the conventions of formal realism which he found to be characteristic of the early novel; the values and mental attitudes of the rising bourgeoisie which he characterized in terms of Max Weber's spirit of capitalism; and the shift in literary production to the commodity form, produced for an anonymous middle-class readership.

She then proceeds to identify what she calls "Some Problems in the Thesis." The first of these is with the term "Formal Realism," and its use to define the novel as a genre. Using any term described by a set of conventions, she says, will necessarily constrict the criteria for inclusion within a genre. On the other hand, if the definition is not sufficiently narrow, it looses its value as a definition. The problem with Watt is most apparent one the shelf in a bookstore: Frankenstein is on the same rack as Moll Flanders; both are under "Literature." Both are thought of, in general usage, as novels. The conventions of formal realism, however, exclude Shelly's work because it is "gothic."

If Watt were simply drawing literary conclusions, his abiding by literary conventions in choosing formal realism to define the novel would not be out of order. Since, however, Watt is examining the novel's history in a sociological context, he should be compelled to consider what the people of the time actually read. Pulp fiction exists because a market exists; pulp fiction tells us what that market wants to read. That market has never felt constrained by the conventions of formal realism, and formal realism does not accurately describe everything the market of this time demanded. Watt, to demonstrate his thesis fully, would need to expand consideration of what the novel is, to include other types of well-developed prose fiction.

Lovell's next set of criticisms comes under the heading "Spirit of Capitalism." The first of these deals with social class and authorship, because the act of writing for unknown readers makes one the producer of a commodity. The author is, definitionally, a member of the petty bourgeoisie. Yet this economic status is not reflected by social status: authors, even at this time, came from all levels of society, from John Bunyan in a prison cell to Jane Austin, the daughter of a clergyman. In fact, Lovell points out, most of the long fiction published at this time was produced, not by the middle-class as exemplified by DeFoe, but by the remnants of the pre-capitalist aristocracy.

Also, by defining the novel in terms of formal realism, Watt ignores the fact that capitalism has two faces. The shining face capitalism shows the world extols the virtues of thrift, hard work, and persistence, but hidden behind it is the need for spending to feed the system. The tension this paradoxical situation creates is reflected in literature by the literary tension between the respectable art of formal realism and the exotic escapism of the gothic and other "romance"-type novels. Both are expressions of, and reactions to, the development of capitalism; to ignore one because it lacks respectability is foolish. It not only excludes from consideration a major portion of what the market demanded, but also categorically ignores the readers that market represents.

Lovell addresses this in her final section, "Women as Intellectuals." First, she asserts that women comprised a significant sector of the reading public. This became possible as the middle-class was, because of surplus earnings, increasingly able to divide life into public and private life, thus removing wives not only from the workplace as workers, but also moving their homes. Women were then delegated the task of consuming the surplus, while the men went on creating it. The novel provided an easy entertainment; it was not too expensive, and could be enjoyed in pieces which fit nicely around other duties and activities.

And women also had the leisure to write. Not only were most writers from the gentry, but, in a fact which Watt brushes aside, most were female: "daughters of the middle class, aristocracy, and professions"(90). These women had the education to write, but were excluded from other intellectual activities, such as politics, and unlike men, were not pressured for immediate financial success. These factors allowed much to be written; to categorically deny that this work has value is an injustice.

Yet Watt's thesis that capitalism and the novel are undeniably linked is of value. His greatest problem is inconsistency: while his criteria for selecting the works to be studied are literary, his explanations are sociological. Lovell simply hopes to point out that a conflict does exist between these two modes. "His literary criterion of value is certainly open to question for its sexist bias." Lovell says, "But his sociological criteria should have compelled him to pay attention to the women writers he ignores"(44-5).


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