Nicholas D. Paige


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

Cover Interview of May 20, 2012


Failed hypotheses are a normal part of scientific research—you test a hypothesis, it doesn’t work, you come up with something better.  But literary scholars don’t usually design their projects like that.  I certainly didn’t:  I borrowed a narrative (the rise of the fictional novel), lined up some cases I thought would support it, and hoped for some new insights along the way.  In the end, however, I couldn’t make my texts fit the narrative, and so I came up with something that seemed much more plausible—the idea of the three regimes.  Unfortunately, this new narrative, by its very nature, was no longer of a sort that could be supported by the very texts that had suggested it.  I had spent many years writing about works that no longer added up to anything.  The book’s chapters are really orphans.

But I’m not sad about that, because I think that the book points forward, toward new ways of studying the evolution of the novel.

I very much second the initiative of Franco Moretti, who has been arguing tirelessly that close reading of a few classics will never tell us anything about larger generic systems that come and go.  And he points out how much of the literary record is terra incognita:  “All literary scholars analyze stylistic structures—free indirect style, the stream of consciousness, melodramatic excess, whatever.  But it’s striking how little we actually know about the genesis of these forms.  Once they’re there, we know what to do; but how did they get there in the first place?  Concretely:  what are the steps?  No one really knows.”

When he says that we know what to do, he means that we’re ready to rush in with interpretations.  If you want to know why Austen or Flaubert used free indirect style, you have your pick of clever explanations.  But if you want to know how free indirect style might have arisen or spread outside or between such figures, you’re pretty much out of luck.

According to my narrative, pseudofactual pretense gave way around 1800 to fictionality.  But how do I know this, given my refusal to read such a shift in individual works?  I don’t:  it’s a hypothesis derived from a number of different coordinates.  The real testing remains to be done, and it lies in a serious historical inventory of novelistic forms and devices.  We have good figures on the rise and fall of the epistolary novel, for example; but we know rather less about, say, the frequency with which the form is presented as true.  Likewise, we don’t know much about the spread of third-person forms of narration that dominate the nineteenth century—forms that don’t have the pretence of truth built into them, as it were.  Think of such forms and devices as technologies:  people invent and perfect them to do things, later dropping or supplementing them with alternate technologies.  That’s what I think we need:  a history of the novel’s many succeeding and competing technologies.