ian watt outmoded?

Digging around in the online archives of the C18-L discussion list, I found this interesting thread on Ian Watt’s 1957 book, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. Still highly influential more than 45 years after its original publication — though not without its flaws, as the C18-L discussion makes clear — Watt’s book argued in part for the importance of considering the contextual circumstances (economic, philosophical, literary historical) of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when trying to understand the appearance and development of this new genre of writing. This book is all the more remarkable given that in 1957, most literary scholars were taking a New Critical approach that assumed the ahistorical formal autonomy of a text.

Clearly an emphasis on Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding obscures a great deal about the early history of the novel, but I’m still enjoying (re)reading this book. I particularly like these lines from the first page of the first chapter:

…Defoe, Richardson and Fielding do not in the usual sense constitute a literary school. Indeed their works show so little sign of mutual influence and are so different in nature that at first sight it appears that our curiosity about the rise of the novel is unlikely to find any satisfaction other than the meagre one afforded by the terms ‘genius’ and ‘accident,’ the twin faces on the Janus of the dead ends of literary history. We cannot, of course, do without them: on the other hand there is not much we can do with them. The present inquiry therefore takes another direction: assuming that the appearance of our first three novelists within a single generation was probably not sheer accident, and that their geniuses could not have created the new form unless the conditions of the time had also been favourable, it attempts to discover what these favourable conditions in the literary and social situation were, and in what ways Defoe, Richardson and Fielding were its beneficiaries.

“…the twin faces on the Janus of the dead ends of literary history.” Ah, I gotta write that one down.

Update: Some articles to store in my external memory cache.

  • Special issue of Eighteenth-Century Fiction (Winter 2000): “Reconsidering The Rise of the Novel”.
  • Richetti, John. “The Legacy of Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel.” In The Profession of Eighteenth-Century Literature: Reflections on an Institution. Ed. Leo Damrosch. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1992. 95-112.
  • Schwartz, Daniel R. “The Importance of Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel.” Journal of Narrative Technique 13 (1983).
  • Brown, Homer Obed. “Of the Title To Things Real: Conflicting Stories.” ELH 55 (1988).
  • McKeon, Michael. “Generic Transformation and Social Change: Rethinking the Rise of the Novel.” Cultural Critique 1 (1985): 159-181.
  • Richetti, John. “Popular Narrative in the Eighteenth Century: Formats and Formulas.” In The First English Novelists. Ed. J. M. Armistead. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1985.
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5 thoughts on “ian watt outmoded?

  1. Matt Kirschenbaum, ladies and gentlemen! He’ll be here all week, with shows at 8:00 and 10:00, so tell your friends and be sure to tip your servers!

  2. LOL.
    Seriously, I remember reading Watt in grad school and thinking it was one of those Books Where the Answers Are Kept–though Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis and Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel taught me the most. Michael McKeon’s Origins of then English Novel has been generally received as the successor to Watt, no?

  3. I think it’s accurate to say that McKeon’s book has been received that way. There are, of course, many interesting and influential books on the eighteenth-century novel that have been written since Watt. Study of this genre is a huge subfield, if not *the* subfield, of eighteenth-century studies.

  4. Ian Watt’s tome is one that I need to go back to over and over in order to spark new thought about writing and its process. It certainly causes me to go off in new directions when analyzing the writing styles of Defoe and Fielding. Some of what Watt writes is universally intuitive, however. In other words, the reader recognizes Watt’s premises because they are innate. What do you think?

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