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When Novels Were Books


Jordan Alexander Stein


Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020

Hardcover. 253 pages. ISBN 978-0674987043. $39.95 / £31.95 / €36


Reviewed by Guyonne Leduc

Université de Lille






Divided into four chapters, this erudite and challenging “synthesis” [18], presented as a “work of revision” [6], offers a renewed perspective on “the rise of the novel” (to borrow from the title of Ian Watt’s famous essay published in 1957 and subtitled Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding). It “’refram[es] ‘the rise of the novel’” [19], as is asserted by Stein, in the wake of the essays he mentions on material texts written by book historians Lara Langer Cohen (The Fabrication of American Literature : Fraudulence and Antebellum Print Culture [2012]), Trish Loughran (The Republic in Print : Print Culture in the Age of U.S. Nation Building, 1770-1870 [2007]) and Ben Kafka (The Demon of Writing : Powers and Failures of Paperwork [2012]) who resort to “archival and empirical evidence” [19] concerning transatlantic literature. Influenced by Roger Chartier’s works [70], Stein is interested in books as “physical object(s)” [3] characterized in particular by a size, and a binding. He stresses that, in the seventeenth century and during more than a hundred years, a book format “indicates something about the work’s genre” [2]; the “genre” of a book was not then defined as today (theme, “plot, narration, point of view...”), but was linked to “material practices” (“including editing, circulation and reprinting”) [4]. 

The title of the Introduction, “Form and Format” [1-20], encapsulates Stein’s argument about the “relationship between format and genre” [3]: one should stop considering the “features of format as largely irrelevant to our understanding of genre” [5], here the novel. He defends the idea that “the novel as a genre shares a mutually informing history with the development of the book as a media platform” [7-8], or, in other words, that “the force of the material history of the book […] bears on the generic history of the novel, rather than the other way round” [12]. To prove his point, Stein advances three theses concerning respectively, first, literary form with a focus on “character, or the figural representation of persons” [8], second, reading (both “continuous reading” – instead of discontinuous – and “reading for identification” [9]), and, third, secularization – the pairing of “Protestant writings” and novels by the 1790s had “more to do with changes in religious publishing than in novel publishing” [9]. Those three theses are delved into in successive chapters.  

The first one, “Paper Selves” [21-52], examines the confessional narratives written by Reformed Protestants in New England (in the 1630s), then in England (after 1649) where “speakers figure themselves negatively” [10], that is as “vulnerable before God’s judgements” [10] as in Augustine’s fourth-century Confessions (Books 6 and 8 in particular) representing his own conversion. Hence, public confessional narratives with negative self-representations circulated in manuscript books (to be read “for application and [for] coherence” [77]) about a hundred years before the rise of the Anglophone novel, which means that the figurations of novelistic characters were indirectly influenced by pious ones (conversion narratives, spiritual biographies, confession of penitent sinners).

Therefore, both Chapter 2, “The Character of the Steady Sellers” [53-91], and Chapter 4, “Printers, Libraries, and Lyrics” [125-164], “position novels […] in relation to the books of piety” [12] as was often the case in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Steady sellers were “Protestant devotional books” [10] to be read discontinuously (as the Bible); they were mainly non-narrative, “not character-driven” [10], and they dramatized vulnerable characters. Yet, by the later seventeenth century, they began to take a “narrative shape” [10]. Stein chooses the examples of The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) and of Robinson Crusoe (1719), narratives which are often considered as early novels [10], in order to show the formal and material influence of steady sellers on them.   

Chapters 1 and 2 pave the way to the central one, “The Rise of the Text-Network” [92-124], where Stein relies on Richardson’s fiction, Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (printed in 1740 in London) and on the nonfictional missionary diaries of David Brained (published in 1746 in Philadelphia and as The Life of David Brainerd edited by Jonathan Edwards in 1749 in Boston) to bring into relief similarities between the two (beyond to make an example, to be guides), that is “negative means of figuring characters” together with “materiel processes of dissemination” such as “abridgement, anthologization, translation, reprinting, serialization, and illustration” [125] which always influence the “experience of reading” [20]. Besides, “the ‘religious’ and the ‘literary’” markets for books were relatively unified during the mid-eighteenth century, in London as well as in the North American colonies” [121].   

Such material common points disappeared at the end of the eighteenth century for causes accurately detailed in Chapter 4, “Printers, Libraries, and Lyrics” [125-164]. Protestant narratives (autobiographies) and literary writings such as novels gradually differentiated less for a matter of content and success of the novel than for economic changes in the London print market as “books of piety” [126] were increasingly printed thanks to religious philanthropy [132], by voluntary religious associations [134] and/or thanks to subscriptions lists [132], in partnership with single printers [135]. Those books of piety and tracts circulated for free and were thus subtracted from “broader commercial production and consumption patterns” [137]. Moreover, evolutions in production and circulation led to changes not only in access but also in social and moral value and authority [151-55].

In the “Conclusion: The Retroactive Rise of the Novel” [165-178], Stein reasserts that his study is “revisionist” [166]. He quotes Eric Hobsbawm on “Inventing Traditions” (1983) in the nineteenth century [172] to emphasize that novel criticism invented a history of the novel [172] with “the rise of the novel” as a retroactive critical position” [172]. His work belongs more to media history, to book history (interested in “the physicality of books” [177]), than to genre history, his argument being that the formal features of texts (“what and how they figure” [166]) – here “secular entertainment and religious instruction” [167) – are “mediated” (166] by material conditions, not the other way round.

This scholarly study, roughly following chronology to reconstruct the history of “the rise of the novel,” closes on extremely rich Notes [181-233], Acknowledgements [235-41], and an Index nominum et rerum [243-253]. Yet, a “Selected bibliography” or, at least, a list of “Works cited” is unfortunately missing. It could have been the finishing touch for a very useful reading of this original and didactic (sometimes a little repetitive) book which is thought-provoking as early as its epigraph drawn (without a precise reference) from Roland Barthes: “Tout ceci doit être considéré comme dit par un personnage de roman”.



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