Literary archeology


The Boston Review on Steve Moore’s must-read history of the novel.

We tend to think of the novel as a more-or-less modern invention; the expression “Ancient Egyptian novel,” for example, seems a contradiction in terms. For this, we have etymology to thank. The word “novel” is a transliteration of the Italian novella (piece of news, chit-chat, tale), meaning a structured, realistic story, along the lines of Boccaccio’s Decameron. Although the use of novella in Italian dates back to the Middle Ages, the English word “novel” is little attested in its current sense until the eighteenth century, and this has led many critics and readers to believe that the thing itself only dates from then, too. Pamela (1740), a 600-page romance by Samuel Richardson, is usually considered the first fully realized English novel, with Richardson following in the footsteps of the seventeenth-century Spaniard Miguel de Cervantes, who gets the palm as the first real novelist and Don Quixote full honors as the first real novel. (Supposedly Richardson worried that the novel would turn out to be a fad.)

Enter Steven Moore. He believes the novel is as old as human civilization and devoted the more-than 700 pages of his 2010 survey The Novel: An Alternative History (Beginnings to 1600) and the thousand-plus pages of its sequel, The Novel: An Alternative History 1600–1800, to telling us why. His passion for his case is evident. In an interview, he says of the book, “It is essentially a defense of contemporary avant-garde fiction, which is my specialty. I wanted to show that such fiction is not an aberration that started with Ulysses in 1922, as some conservative critics complain, but has always existed.” And he means always: Volume 1 begins with the Ancient Egyptians, in the second millennium BCE.

Moore is the opposite of the “conservative critics” he deplores. He holds no brief for theory, or literary criticism in general. He is more of an archeologist who, in his massive dig, unearths evidence that “experimental” fiction has been around as long as storytelling itself. He dismisses conventional wisdom. For instance, the venerable Cervantes-as-first-novelist theory, he says bluntly, is “Wrong. The novel has been around since at least the fourth century BCE (Xenophon’s Cyropaedia