Nicholas D. Paige


On his book Before Fiction: The Ancien Regime of the Novel

Cover Interview of May 21, 2012

In a nutshell

On the face of it, my title is silly: there is no “before fiction” for humans, for we are, from the start of recorded history and from the start of our individual lives, fiction-loving animals.  Homer, say, on the one hand; and pretty much any toddler on the other.  It’s for good reason that “fiction” has become the de facto, lowest-common-denominator way of referring to vastly different products of human storytelling.  Besides: long ago Aristotle cleanly separated history from poetry—“what happened” from “what would happen.”  Whether we are talking about human history or literary history, surely fiction runs through the lot of it.

But there are other ways of looking at the matter, depending on what you want to explain.  I want to explain a predominant feature of the early novel in France and England—“early” meaning the period of what is usually known as the genre’s rise, from the late seventeenth to the late eighteenth centuries.  Readers of the period’s classics—Robinson Crusoe, Clarissa, Dangerous Liaisons—will recognize the feature:  it’s the way these novels pretended to be real documents.  They usually didn’t pretend very hard: bona-fide hoaxes were rare.  But they didn’t advertise their fictionality, in contradistinction to most novels of the following century.  Emma Woodhouse, Emma Bovary:  their creators never for one moment assert their stories as literally true.  Looking back, the early novel’s insistence on its own literal reality is hard to comprehend.  Why even bother, especially when that insistence was so often ironic and half-hearted?  Why didn’t these writers just invent as matter-of-factly as we do?

Good questions, though I can well imagine the ghosts of Richardson and Laclos asking today’s writers: How can it possibly be of no concern to you that your characters never existed?  Because if we look at Western literary history, it’s the modern position that stands out.  Even Aristotle’s Poetics argues pretty clearly that the best subject of literature is historically attested people engaged in historically attested events.  And for many centuries, historical subject matter remained at the core of most literature of any ambition.  Writers took attested heroes and events and crafted good plots, using what was known and inventing whatever was necessary.

Should we count as fiction this particular configuration of the relation between invention and history?  Are novels that ironically pretend to be real collections of letters, or memoirs, fiction, too?  It obviously depends on how one defines the term.  I’ve chosen—partially for reasons of maximum clarity, partially for polemical thrust—to talk about three distinct regimes of literary invention.  The first I call Aristotelian:  in order to make a good plot the poet adds what he needs to what’s known about this-or-that hero.  The second, for which I’ve borrowed the term “pseudofactual,” describes the eighteenth-century novel: writers pretend to offer readers real documents about otherwise unknown people.  The third regime is fiction, and it allows writers to propose novels as models of reality without advancing their protagonists as historically real.