The Novel

Defoe's place in the development of a new genre. the novel, has recently brought his writings back into critical vogue. Depending on the critic, Defoe, Richardson or even Bunyan is described as the first novelist. The argument is largely futile and the approach of seeing the writers and their lesser known contemporaries such as Eliza Haywood, Penelope Aubin and Aphra Behn (see Themes: "Fiction" and Appendix 2 for further details) as steps in a transition to a new genre is infinitely more profitable. Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel (London, 1957) is still one of the best texts available on the subject. Michael McKeon's less readable Origins of the English Novel (London, 1988) is also worth a look).

When studying Defoe, 'novel' is a loaded term. His preface to Moll Flanders, distancing his work from the genre, "The World is so taken up of late with Novels and Romances, that it will be hard for a private History to be taken seriously," should be warning enough that the contemporary novel was not something to be taken seriously; a reading of the genre will quickly bring an understanding of the reasons why. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, 'novel' would have been considered a rather derogatory term, along the same lines as a 'romance', a fiction written with the intention of thrilling its reader. Only by the time of Richardson is a 'light novel' distinguished from a, presumably, more serious and dignified novel.

Therefore, it is not worth the student of Defoe spending too long worrying over precisely what constitutes a novel. Peter Conrad (Everyman History of English Literature, London 1985) said that the novel was, "a genre outside of genre, a ruleless work," thus showing the danger of endlessly arguing the novel question and the endless possibilities of the genre. What should be considered in a reading of Defoe's fictions are the differences between his writings and the works of his predecessors and contemporaries; how he uses his factual and satirical works and how he forms what is then a unique style of writing, are the questions which will produce the most fruitful answers.

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