Nicholas D. Paige


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

Cover Interview of May 21, 2012

A close-up

No question, the best way to dip into Before Fiction is by skipping the short Preface and getting right to the Introduction.  That’s where I lay out and illustrate my big-picture narrative—those three regimes of literary invention I call the Aristotelian, the pseudofactual, and the fictional.

In some sense this introduction is really a separate study in its own right:  it doesn’t so much miniaturize the argument of the rest of the book as provide a prolegomenon for the individual studies.  In other words, the chapters don’t flesh out contentions I make schematically in the Introduction; rather, the Introduction provides the context against which the intricacies of the individual works make sense.  I’ll just assume that most people are interested in the big picture, especially since it ranges freely between England and France (and back to ancient Greece), whereas the works I treat in depth are all French.

The individual novelists I analyze don’t lead from one to the next, I’ve said; and so while there’s a certain (mostly chronological) logic to the ordering of the chapters, readers wanting more than the big picture can pick and choose from the case studies in accordance with their interests.

One of the most popular accounts of the modern novel sees it springing from Don Quixote, the book that (it is said) destroys primitive romance.  Readers wondering how my history deals with Cervantes can dig into the only chapter treating a forgotten novelist, a writer who tried to update the Quixote in 1670.

Others may recall a famous essay by the historian Robert Darnton that argued that readers of Rousseau’s Julie were so naïve as to believe that the epistolary novel was composed of real letters.  My chapter on Rousseau aims to lay this canard to rest and to show why positing fiction as a late development doesn’t at all commit us to seeing earlier readers as somehow congenitally daft or conceptually short-changed.

Fans of the supernatural may want to read the chapter on a short novel often advanced as the first example of the fantastic—a genre that tries to shake momentarily the reader’s confidence in reason and the laws of nature.  It’s also a genre that, on reflection, seems the perfect embodiment of fiction itself, since it’s bent on seeming real despite the reader’s knowledge that it can’t be.  And indeed, Cazotte’s The Devil in Love (1772) is fiction.  But I show that this fictional status is rather accidental, and doesn’t in any way hasten the coming of the fictional regime.

Such is the case with all the works I look at.  If we know—as we do—that fiction’s coming, it’s hard not to look at earlier works that play with their own truth status as harbingers.  But they’re not.  They buck the system.  They don’t change it.