Lennard J. Davis throws down the gauntlet

I’ve mentioned how irritating I find the condescending attitude of many early studies on the rise of the novel towards the reading population of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, as I do the insistence that anything not written by Daniel Defoe was not at all important. I’m pleased to find that I’m not alone in that respect. Midway through Lennard Davis’s Factual Fictions, he begins to consider the many professional writers of that time, and takes exception to the dismissive tone of certain of his fellow analysts. Strong exception.

    …even Ian Watt, whose Rise Of The Novel had done much to place novels in their proper class perspective, begins his book with Robinson Crusoe and dismisses the earlier forms of popular fiction as irrelevant. Watt glides over serialized fiction, which, as we will see, was the predominant reading material for a good deal of the literate public, saying that, “The poorer public is not very important*; the novelists with whom we are concerned did not have this form of publication in mind.” Watt is wrong on this score, and his decision to begin at the moment when novels began to be more widely accepted by the middle-class reader creates the impression that before Defoe there was not much in the way of prose fiction. Watt barely mentions the novels of Aphra Behn, Mrs Manley, Mary Davys, Ned Ward, Eliza Haywood, and others.
    While it may be true that many of these works are inferior to those of Defoe, Richardson, or Fielding, there is much in them that is essential to understanding the history of the novel. Certainly, Defoe at his worst is not as good as Manley at her best, and the History Of Rivella is as inventive and creative of two-thirds of Defoe’s hack exercises…

You go, Lennard!


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