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Related subjects: Literature types

Background Information

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Novels displayed in a German bookshop in February 2009.

A novel is a long prose narrative that describes fictional characters and events in the form of a sequential story, usually. The genre has historical roots in the fields of medieval and early modern romance and in the tradition of the novella. The latter, an Italian word used to describe short stories, supplied the present generic English term in the 18th century.

Further definition of the genre is historically difficult. The construction of the narrative, the plot, the relation to reality, the characterization, and the use of language are usually discussed to show a novel's artistic merits. Most of these requirements were introduced to literary prose in the 16th and 17th centuries, in order to give fiction a justification outside the field of factual history.


Gerard ter Borch, young man reading a book c.1680, the format is that of a French period novel.
Madame de Pompadour spending her afternoon with a book, 1756 – religious and scientific reading has a different iconography.

The fictional narrative, the novel's distinct "literary" prose, specific media requirements (the use of paper and print), a characteristic subject matter that creates intimacy, and length can be seen as features that developed with the Western (and modern) market of fiction. The separation of the field of literary fiction from the field of historical narrative fueled the evolution of these features in the last 400 years.

A fictional narrative

Fictionality is the feature most commonly invoked to distinguish novels from histories. From a historical perspective it can be a problematic criterion. Authors of histories in narrative form throughout the early modern period would often include inventions that were rooted in traditional beliefs or that would embellish a passage or add credibility to an opinion. Historians would thus invent and compose speeches for didactic purposes. Novels can, on the other hand, depict the social, political, and personal realities of a place and period with a clarity and detail historians would not dare to explore.

The line between history and novel can be defined in aesthetic terms: Novels are supposed to show qualities of literature and art. Histories are by contrast supposed to be written in order to fuel a public debate over historical responsibilities. A novel can hence deal with history. It will be analyzed, however, with a look at the almost timeless value it is supposed to show in the hands of private readers as a work of art.

Literary value is a source of constant argument: Does the specific novel possess the "eternal qualities" of art, the "deeper meaning" revealed by critical interpretation? The debate itself has allowed critics to develop the investigation and meaning of texts marked as 'fiction'. The novel differentiated itself from the historical category of forgery by announcing in its form the design of the author. The word novel can appear on book covers and title pages; the artistic effort or suspense is prefigured for the reader in a preface or blurb. Once it is stated that this is a text whose craftsmanship we should acknowledge literary critics will be responsible for the further discussion. At its beginnings, this new responsibility (historians were the only qualified critics up to the 1750s) made it possible to publicly disqualify much of the previous fictional production: Both the early-18th-century roman à clef and its fashionable counterpart, the nouvelle historique, had offered narratives with – by and large scandalous – historical implications. Historians had discussed them with a look at facts they had related. The modern literary critic who became responsible for fictions in the 1750s offered a less scandalous debate: A work is "literature", art, if it has a personal narrative, heroes to identify with, fictional inventions, style and suspense – in short anything that might be handled with the rather personal ventures of creativity and artistic freedom. It may relate facts with scandalous accuracy, or distort them; yet one can ignore any such work as worthless if it does not try to be an achievement in the new field of literary works – it has to compete with works of art and invention, not with true histories.

Historians reacted and left much of their own previous "medieval" and "early modern" production to the evaluation of literary critics. New histories discussed public perceptions of the past – the decision that turned them into the perfect platform on which one can question historical liabilities in the West. Fictions, allegedly an essentially personal subject matter, became, on the other hand, a field of materials that call for a public interpretation: they became a field of cultural significance to be explored with a critical and (in the school system) didactic interest in the subjective perceptions both of artists and their readers.

Distinct literary prose

The first "romances" had been verse epics in the Romance language of southern France. Novel(la)s as those Geoffrey Chaucer presented in his The Canterbury Tales appeared in verse much later. A number of famous 19th-century fictional narratives such as Lord Byron's Don Juan (1824) and Alexander Pushkin's Yevgeniy Onegin (1833) competed with the moderne prose novels of their time and employed verse. It is hence problematic to call prose a decisive criterion. Prose did, however, become the standard of the modern novel – thanks to a number of advantages it had over verse once the question of the carrier medium was solved.

Prose is easier to translate. As rather intimate and informal language prose won the market of European fiction in the 15th century, a time at which books first became widely available, and immediately developed a special style with models both in Greek and Roman histories and the traditions of verse narratives wherever an elevated style was needed. The development of a distinct fictional language was crucial for the genre that didn't aim at forging history but at works readers would actually identify and appreciate as fictions.

This is for the early modern period closely connected to the development of elegance in the belles lettres. With the beginning of the 16th century the printed market had created a special demand for books that were neither simply published for the non academic audience nor explicitly scientific literature – but. The belles lettres became this field as a compound of genres including modern history and science in the vernaculars, personal memoirs, present political scandal, fiction and poetry. Prose fiction was in this wider spectrum soon the driving force creating the distinct style as it allowed the artistic experiment and the personal touch of the author who could market his or her style as a fashion. Verse, rhetoric and science were by contrast highly restricted areas. Fictional prose remained close to everyday language, to the private letter, to the art of "gallant" conversation, to the personal memoir and travelogue.

18th-century authors eventually criticized the France ideals of elegance the belles lettres had promoted. A less aristocratic style of English reformed novels became the ideal in the 1740s. The requirements of style changed again in the 1760s when prose fiction became part of the newly formed literary production. The more normal it became to open novels with a simple statement of their fictionality (for example by labelling them as "a novel"), the less interesting it became to imitate true histories with an additional touch of style. Novels of the 1760s such as Sterne's Tristram Shandy began to explore prose fiction as an experimental field. Novels of the ensuing romantic period played with the fragment and open-endedness. Modern late-19th-century and early-20th-century fiction continued the deconstruction attacking the clear author-reader communication and developing models of texts to be evaluated as such. Modern literary criticism acted in the experimental field as a constant provider of historical models. Authors who write fiction gain critical attention as soon as they search a position in future histories of literature, whether as innovators or traditionalists. The situation is – in a historical perspective – new: An awareness of traditions has only grown after the publication of Huet's Treatise on the Origin of Romances (1670). It has reached the public only with greater impact since the 1830s.

Special content: The novel's intricate intimacy

Whether in 11th-century Japan or 15th-century Europe, prose fiction tended to develop intimate reading situations. Verse epics had been recited to selected audiences (see the Troilus and Criseyde illustration below), a reception that had already allowed a greater intimacy than the performance of plays in theatres. The late medieval commercial manuscript production created a market of private books, yet it still required the customer to contact the professional copyist with the book he or she wanted to have copied (see the Melusine illustration below) – a situation that again restricted the development of more private reading experiences. The invention of the printing press anonymised the bookseller-text-reader constellation – the situation was especially interesting for prose fiction, a subject matter that remained publicly undiscussed almost throughout the early modern period. Booksellers and readers could pretend far into the 18th century not to know more about the particular title the new market of printed books provided. If one wanted to know what others read in novels one had to read them oneself. Prose fiction became in this situation the medium of open secrets, rumours, private and public gossip, a private, unscientific and irrelevant reading matter, yet one of public relevance as one could openly see that the book one was reading had reached the public as part of a larger edition.

Individualistic fashions, personal views, intimate feelings, secret anxieties, "conduct" and "gallantry" spread with novels. Love became the typical field of experience romances and novels would focus on, as Huet noted in his early definition: "I call them Fictions, to discriminate them from True Histories; and I add, of Love Adventures, because Love ought to be the Principal Subject of Romance". Satirical fictions widened the range of subject matter in the 17th and 18th centuries. The reader is invited to personally identify with the novel's characters (while historians are supposed to aim at neutrality and a public view on whatever they discuss).

The reviewing of fiction changed the situation for the fictional work in the course of the 18th century. It created a public discussion about what people were actually reading in novels. It had at the same moment the potential to divide the market into a sphere to be discussed and a low production critics would only hint at. The subcultures of trivial fiction and of genres to be sold under the counter with pornography as its most influential field followed the arrival of literary criticism in the 1740s and 1750s.

Length and the epic depiction of life

The requirement of length is contested – in English with greater ferocity than in other languages. It rests on the consensus that the novel is today the longest genre of narrative prose (followed by the novella, novelette and short story and so on). The sequence has been unstable: 17th-century critics had handled the romance as the epic length performance and privileged the novel as its short rival.

The question how long a novel has to be – in order to be more than a novella – is of practical importance as most of the literary awards have developed a ranking system in which length is also a criterion of importance. The Booker Prize has thus aroused a serious debate with its 2007 listing of Ian McEwan's 166-page work On Chesil Beach. Critics immediately stated that McEwan had at best written a novella.

The requirement of length has been traditionally connected with the notion that epic length performances try to cope with the "totality of life". The novella is by contrast focused on a point, the short story on a situation whose full dimensions the reader has to grasp in a complex process of interpretation.



The present English (and Spanish) word derives from the Italian novella for "new", "news", or "short story of something new", itself from the Latin novella, a singular noun use of the neuter plural of novellus, diminutive of novus, meaning "new". Most European languages have preserved the term "romance" (as in French, Russian, Croatian, Romanian, Swedish and Norwegian "roman"; German "Roman"; Portuguese "romance" and Italian "romanzo") for extended narratives.

The English and Spanish decisions came with the 17th-century fashion of shorter exemplary histories. See the chapters "Petites histoires" or "novels", 1600–1740 and The words "novel" and "romance" in the following.

The novel in other cultures

Paper as the essential carrier: Murasaki Shikibu writing her The Tale of Genji in the early 11th century, 17th-century depiction

A significant number of extended fictional prose works predate the novel, and have been cited as its antecedents, but this is inaccurate. While these works match the European novel form and, often, substance, they and the European genre developed independently. The early European novelists were unaware of most of these works; instead they were influenced by novellas and verse epics.

Early works of extended fictional prose include the 6th/7th-century Daśakumāracarita by Daṇḍin, the 7th-century Kadambari by Banabhatta, the 11th-century Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, the 12th-century Hayy ibn Yaqdhan (or Philosophus Autodidactus, the 17th-century Latin title) by Ibn Tufail, the 13th-century Theologus Autodidactus by Ibn al-Nafis, and the 14th-century Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong.

Murasaki Shikibu's Tale of Genji (1010) shows essentially all the qualities for which works such as Marie de La Fayette's La Princesse de Clèves (1678) have been praised: individuality of perception, an interest in character development and psychological observation. Urbanization and the spread of printed books in Song Dynasty China led to the evolution of oral storytelling into consciously fictional novels by the Ming dynasty. Parallel European developments did not occur for centuries, and awaited the time when the availability of paper allowed similar opportunities for composition and reception, allowing explorations of individualistic subject matter.

By contrast, Ibn Tufail's Hayy ibn Yaqdhan and Ibn al-Nafis' Theologus Autodidactus are works of didactic philosophy and theology. In this sense, Hayy ibn Yaqdhan would be considered an early example of a philosophical novel, while Theologus Autodidactus would be considered an early theological novel. Hayy ibn Yaqdhan is also likely to have influenced Daniel Defoe with its story of a human outcast surviving on an island (the work was available in a new edition shortly before Defoe began his composition).

Antecedents of the European Novel

Western traditions of the modern novel reach back into the field of verse epics, though again not in an unbroken tradition. The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh (1300–1000 BC), Indian epics such as the Ramayana (400 BCE and 200 CE) and Mahabharata (4th century BC) were as unknown in early modern Europe as the Anglo-Saxon epic of Beowulf (c. 750–1000 rediscovered in the late 18th century and early 19th century).

Homer's Iliad and Odyssey (9th or 8th century BC), Virgil's Aeneid (29–19 BC) were read by Western scholars since the Middle Ages. At the beginning of the 18th century, modern French prose translations brought Homer to a wider public, who accepted them as forerunners of the modern novel. Ancient prose narratives included a didactic strand with Plato's dialogs, a satirical with Petronius' Satyricon, the incredible stories of Lucian of Samosata, and Lucius Apuleius' proto- picaresque The Golden Ass and a heroic production with the romances of Heliodorus and Longus.

It is less easy to define the traditions of short fictions that led to the medieval novella. Jokes would fall into the broad history of the "exemplary story" that gave rise to the more complex forms of novelistic story telling. The Bible is filled with similes and stories to be interpreted. Fiction is, as Pierre Daniel Huet noted in his Traitté de l'origine des romans in 1670, a rather universal phenomenon, and at the same moment one that lacks a single cause.

The medieval romance and its shorter rivals

Romances, 1000–1500

Chaucer reciting Troilus and Criseyde: early-15th-century manuscript of the work at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

The European tradition of the novel as the genre of extended prose fiction is rooted in the tradition of medieval "romances". Even today, most European languages make that clear by using the word roman roughly the way that English uses the word novel, which claims roots in the Italian novella. Yet, epic length or the focus on a central hero giving the work its name (as in Robinson Crusoe or Oliver Twist) are features derived from the tradition of "romances". The early modern novel had preferred titles that focused on curious examples of modern life, not on heroes.

The word roman or romance had become a stable generic term by the beginning of the 13th century, as in the Roman de la Rose (c. 1230), famous today in English through Geoffrey Chaucer's late-14th-century translation. The term linked fictions back to the histories that had appeared in the Romance language of 11th and 12th-century southern France. The central subject matter was initially derived from Roman and Greek historians. Works of the Chanson de geste tradition revived the memory of ancient Thebes, Dido and Aeneas, and Alexander the Great. German and Dutch adaptations of the famous histories appeared in the late 12th century and early 13th century. Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde (1380–87) is a late example of this European fashion.

The subject matter which was to become the central theme of the genre in the 16th and 17th centuries was initially a branch of a broader genre. Arthurian histories became a fashion in the late 12th century, thanks to their ability to glorify the northern European feudal system as an independent cultural achievement. The works of Chrétien de Troyes set an example, in that his plot construction subjected the northern European epic traditions to ancient Greek aesthetics. The typical Arthurian romance would focus on a single hero and lead him into a double course of episodes in which he would prove both his prowess as an independent knight and his readiness to function as a perfect courtier under King Arthur. The model invited religious redefinitions with the quest and the adventure as basic plot elements: the quest was a mission the knight would accept as his personal task and problem. Adventures (from Latin advenire "coming towards you") were tests sent by God to the knight on the journey, whose course he (the knight) would no longer try to control. The plot framework survived into the world of modern Hollywood movies which still unite, separate and reunite lovers in the course of adventures designed to prove their love and value. Variations kept the genre alive: unexpected and peculiar adventures surprised the audience in romances like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (c. 1380). Satirical parodies of knight errantry (and contemporary politics) appeared with works such as Heinrich Wittenwiler's Ring (c. 1410).

The shift from verse to prose dates from the early 13th century. The Prose Lancelot or Vulgate Cycle includes passages of that period. The collection indirectly lead to Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur compilation of the early 1470s.

Several factors made prose increasingly attractive: this "low" style was less prone to potentially annoying exaggerations; it linked the popular plots to the field of serious histories traditionally composed in prose (compilations such as Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur claimed to collect historical sources for the sole purpose of instruction and national edification). Prose had an additional advantage for translators, who could go directly for meaning, where verse had to be translated by people skilled as poets in the target language. And prose survived language changes: developments such as the Great vowel shift changed almost all the European languages during the 14th and 15th centuries. Copyists of prose had an easy job to deal with these shifts while those who copied verses saw that rhymes had broken and syllables got lost in almost every second line.

Prose became the medium of the urban commercial book market in the 15th century. Monasteries sold edifying collections of saints' and virgins' lives composed in prose. The customers were mostly women (the interiors of many of the 14th- and 15th-century paintings of the annunciation show how far books had spread into the urban households that painters usually depicted as the blessed virgin's bourgeois environment.) Prose became in this environment the medium of silent and private reading. It spread with the commercial book market that began to provide such reading materials even before the arrival of the first commercial printed histories in the 1470s.

The tradition of the novella, 1200–1600

The Pilgrims diverting each other with tales; woodcut from Caxton's 1486 edition of Canterbury Tales.

The term novel refers back to the production of short stories that remained part of a European oral culture of storytelling into the late 19th century. Fairy tales, jokes, little funny stories designed to make a point in a conversation, the exemplum a priest would insert in a sermon belong into this tradition. Written collections of such stories circulated in a wide range of products from practical compilations of examples designed for the use of clerics to such poetic cycles as Boccaccio's Decameron (1354) and Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (1386–1400).

The early modern genre conflict between "novels" and "romances" can be traced back to the 14th-century cycles. The standard scheme of stories the author claimed to have heard in a round of narrators promised variety of subject matter and it led to clashes of genres. Short romances appeared within the frame tales side by side with stories of the rivalling lower genres such as the fabliaux. Individual story tellers would openly defend their tastes in a debate that grew into a metafictional consideration.

The cycles themselves showed advantages over the production of rival extended epic-length romances. Romances presupposed a consensus in questions of style and heroism. The cycles shifted the problem of how fictions were to be justified onto the level of the individual storytellers: onto a level the author, Chaucer or Boccaccio, would see as out of his control. The narrators had, so Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales, offered these stories to make certain points in a lively conversation he had only chronicled. They attacked each other if they felt the stories of their opponents had missed their points. A competition among the genres developed. If one believes the medieval collections, differing tastes of people with different social statuses were decisive; the different professions fought a battle over precedent with satirical plots designed to ridicule individuals of the opposing trades. A cycle bound rival stories together and it offered the easiest way to keep a critical distance. The pluralistic discourse created here eventually developed into the 17th- and 18th-century debate of fiction and its genres.

Much of this original conception of the genre is still alive whenever a short joke is told to make a certain humorous point in everyday conversation. The longer exploits left the sphere of oral traditions with the arrival of the printing press. The book eventually replaced the story teller and introduced the preface and the dedication as the paratexts in which the authors would continue the metafictional debate over the advantages of genres and the reasons why one published and read fictional stories.

Before literature: The early market of printed books, 1470–1720

1474: The customer in the copyist's shop with a book he wants to have copied. This illustration of the first printed German Melusine looked back to the market of manuscripts.

Looking back to the scope of early modern histories, mentalities seem to differ. The Enlightenment seems to separate the 21st-century observer from early modern authors and readers of histories and fictions. The grossest improbabilities pervade many historical accounts found in the early modern print market. William Caxton's 1485 edition of Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (1471) was sold as a true history, though the story unfolded in a series of magical incidents and historical improbabilities. Witchcraft pervaded the medieval romance, which no one read as "romance" as long as it claimed to be a central text of Great Britain's national memory. Sir John Mandeville's Voyages, written in the 14th century, circulated in printed editions throughout the 18th century, and was filled with natural wonders like the one-footed Ethiopians who use their extremity as an umbrella against the desert sun – again without becoming the subject of critical historical debates. Both works eventually came to be viewed as works of literature, fiction. The realm of history grew around 1700 into a field of comparatively sober argumentative rather than narrative projects.

One can interpret this development as a sign of gradual enlightenment. It stands at the same moment for a new arrangement of discourses the Western nations established beginning with the 1660s. History became in the Western world a secular platform on which all parties, religions, and institutions agree to settle questions of unresolved responsibilities. Debates of state and religion had a comparable importance until the beginning of the 18th century. A new positioning of the sciences and a general interest of the 19th-century nation states in controllable and pluralistic secular debates stand behind the process that found its breakthrough with the American and the French revolutions and the 19th-century unification of Germany.

The transformation of history from a narrative project designed to instruct and to delight into a platform of open controversies is the one larger process which redefined the place of prose fiction since the Middle Ages. The creation of "literature" as a compound of poetry and fiction is the other. The modern nations won with literature a second field of essentially pluralistic controversies in which the interpretation and collective appreciation of texts gained a new and wider importance.

Two major incidents fuelled the separation of historical and fictional literature in the 16th and 17th centuries. The invention of printing immediately created a new market of comparatively cheap entertainment and knowledge – the market of chapbooks. The more elegant production 17th- and 18th-century authors would propagate as the belles lettres – a market that would be neither low nor academic – defined its ideals of style in the course of the 17th century. It became the wider sphere in which the modern ensemble of "literary genres" of poetry and fiction gained greater cohesion in late 18th century. The second major development is fixed to a single title: The Spanish Amadis de Gaula, by García Montalvo became the first best-seller of modern fiction – a title one would soon be reluctant to accept as part of the elegant belles lettres. The Amadis eventually became the archetypical "romance" against which the modern novel unfolded its successful wider pattern of genres in the 17th century.

Trivializations: Chapbooks, 1470–1800

The invention of printing subjected the existing field of histories – whether allegedly true, romantic or novel – to a process of trivialization and commercialization. Romances had circulated in lavishly ornamented manuscripts to be read out to audiences. The printed book allowed a comparatively inexpensive alternative for the special purpose of silent reading. Abridgements of ancient historians, popular medieval histories of knights, stories of comical heroes, religious legends and collections of jests and fables were the principal historical subject matter. Offering suspense and stories the audience could accept as allegedly true, even if they were fantastic and unlikely, the new books reached the households of urban citizens and of country merchants who visited the cities as traders.

Deteriorated design: early-18th-century chapbook edition of The Honour of Chivalry, first published in 1598.

Literacy spread among the urban populations of Europe due to a number of factors: Women of wealthier households had learned to read in the 14th and 15th centuries and had become customers of religious devotion. The Protestant Reformation enkindled propaganda and press wars that lasted into the 18th century. Broadsheets and newspapers became the new media of public information. The early modern customers would not necessarily be able to write, yet even writing skills spread among apprentices and women of the middle classes. Business owners were forced to adopt methods of written book-keeping and accounting. The personal letter became a favourite medium of communication among 17th-century men and women as many Dutch period paintings show. The prefaces, the escapist subject matter, and a number of satires on the early consumption of fiction show that cheap histories were especially popular among apprentices and younger urban readers of both sexes. Norris' and Bettesworth's 1719 edition of The Seven Famous Champions of Christendom – itself a mixture of legend and romance – ended with a look on the entire spectrum of books the publishers would provide in their shops on London Bridge, a famous location where those who left the city provided themselves with reading materials:

At the afore-mentioned Place, all Country Chapmen may be furnished with all Sorts of Bibles, Commonprayers, Testaments, Psalters, Primers and Horn-books; Likewise all Sorts of three Sheets Histories, Penny Histories, and Sermons; and Choice of new and old Ballads, at reasonable Rates.

François Rabelais Gargantua (1537).

The new market was disregarded by scholars. The texts were offered with promises of great erudition – to an audience that would not know to distinguish between erudition and the misleading advertisement. The subject matter was extremely conservative. The bestsellers of this market – books like Till Eulenspiegel, The Seven Wise Masters, Don Belianis of Greece, Dr. Faustus, The London Prentice, or Sir John Mandeville's Voyages – went through innumerable editions between 1500 and 1800. People bought these books because though they were everything but modern and fashionable; one wanted to have them, because they were the books everyone had heard of, books of an eternal value to be chosen if one was not too sure about one's abilities to judge. The prefaces exploited these insecurities praising the solid value of the old and well known titles.

The design of these books deteriorated. The texts were copied without much editorship. Standard woodcut illustrations were repeated, often even within a single book, wherever the plot allowed such repetition. The illustrations began to show peculiar style mixes as the printer's stocks grew: Early-18th-century editions of 16th-century titles would mix woodcuts of 16th-century knights in armor with equally crude depictions 18th-century courtiers wearing wigs.

The early modern market divide that created a field of low chapbooks and an alternative market segment of expensive fashionable, elegant belles lettres can be traced back into the 1530s and 1540s. The Amadis and Rablais' Gargantua and Pantagruel were the most important publications that lead into this divide – both books that specifically addressed the new customers of popular histories. The Amadis was a multi volume fictional history of style, so the advertisements, and aroused a debate of style and elegance as it fanned the first reading craze on the market of printed fiction. Gargantua and Pantagruel had the design of the modern popular history only to satirize its stylistic achievements. The ensuing debate created a gap between "truly elegant" fictions and the conservative bulk of chapbooks. The market divide became especially visible with books that appeared on both markets in the course of the 17th and 18th centuries: The low market eventually included abridgments of classy books from Miguel Cervantes' Don Quixote (1605/1615) to the mutilations of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719), which infuriated the author with their claim to offer the entire plot without the tedious reflections for but half the price.

The cheap abridgments openly addressed an audience that neither had the money nor the courage to buy books with engravings and fine print. The prefaces of the abridgements promised shorter sentences, more action and less reflection, and the title for half the money. The gradual differentiation between fact and fiction that affected the market of the belles lettres in the 17th and 18th centuries barely touched the low market. One could wonder whether the apprentices and peasants who read such books cared about the status King Arthur, St. George or Julius Caesar had in the historian's eye. William Caxton's preface to Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (1485) set the tone that would allow Sir John Mandeville's Voyages of the 1360s to continue to be published as a true account of Eastern wonders until the end of the 18th century.

Heroic romances of style and fashion, 1530–1720

The Amadis, Spanish edition of 1533

By the 1550s there existed a section of literature (scientific books) addressing the academic audience and a second market of books for the wider audience. The popular second market developed its own differentiation of class and style. While the lowest strata of chapbooks created an extremely conservative market its antagonist the elegant " belles lettres" showed a particular design aiming at educated readers of both sexes, though not necessarily at academics. The very term "belles lettres" spoke of the ambition to leave the field of low books and to reach the realm of the sciences, "literature", "les lettres". Polite literature, galante Wissenschaften (that is sciences addressing both sexes and all readers of taste) were the English and German terminological equivalents. The use of a French loan word belles lettres marked the international aspect of the development. The new market segment comprised poetry, memoirs, modern politics, books of fashion, journals, and such. Autobiographical memoirs, personal journals and prose fiction set the trend in the modern field as the genres that authors could most freely use for experiments of style and personal expression.

Madeleine de Scudéry, Artamene (1654)

The evolution of prose fiction needed the elegant market, a market of changing styles and fashions, and it found its central critical debate with the publication of the Amadis de Gaula in the 1530s. Two questions moved into the centre of the debate as Spanish, French and German translations and imitations flooded the European market. The first was a question of style and fashion: the Amadis had moved back into the Arthurian Middle Ages, into a world of quests, knights and adventures, though it had turned its princes and princesses into paragons of style and elegance. Was this what one had to expect of modern prose fiction? The second problem was connected with the unprecedented public reaction: the Amadis became the object of a widespread reading craze. Could a market of style and distinguished taste allow such a development?

By 1600 the Amadis had become the detested epitome of the modern romance. A search for alternative subject matters had begun. The biographies of Greek and Roman historians became the most important source here. Heliodorus' romances were to be followed in matters of style and composition, while the heroes turned from knights to princes and princesses acting now in ancient courts. The standard plot of adventures gave way to a new plot of love facing intrigues, attacks, rivalry and adversity. A new art of character observation unfolded.

The works that gained the greatest fame – Honouré d'Urfé's L'Astrée (1607–27), John Barclay's Argenis (1625–26), Madeleine de Scudéry's Clelie, or Anton Ulrich von Braunschweig's Römischer Octavia (Octavia the Roman, 1679–1714) – were esteemed both as explorations of the ancient world and as works one would read with an interest in modern life. They encapsulated present histories clad in ancient costumes and dove into the realm of the roman à clef, the novel readers would decipher with a key that betrayed who was who within this fictional world. The present fashions of courtly conduct could in the event be found nowhere in such perfection as in these seemingly historical romances. Readers used them as models for their own elegant compliments, letters, and speeches.

The genre had much in common with the production of French and Italian operas in the same period. It found trivializations with a special brand of escapist "Asian" Romances which led into the ancient empires of Assyria, Persia, India. The latter were particularly fashionable among urban female French and German readers of the younger generation, who would dream of sharing the escapes of princesses from all sorts of adversities. The individual European markets reacted differently on these fashions. The craving had a particularly short life in England where it began in the 1650s only to end in the 1670s, as these romantic plots fell out of fashion.

Satirical romances, 1500–1780

Richard Head, The English Rogue (1665)

Stories of witty cheats were an integral part of the European novella with its tradition of fabliaux. Several collections knitted such stories to individual heroes who developed personal and national features. Germany's Till Eulenspiegel (1510) was the hero of chapbooks in and outside Germany. The Spanish Lazarillo de Tormes (1554) represented a transition from a collection of episodes towards the story of the life of a central character, the hero of the work. Grimmelshausen's Simplicissimus Teutsch (1666–1668) took a further step along this path, as its hero experienced recent world history, in this case the history of the Thirty Years' War that had devastated Germany. Richard Head's The English Rogue (1665) is rooted in this tradition (the English preface mentions the precedents; the German translation that appeared in 1672 sold the book as an English equivalent of the German Simplicissimus). The tradition that developed with these titles focused on a hero and his life. The adventures led to satirical encounters with the real world with the hero either becoming the pitiable victim or the rogue who exploited the vices of those he met.

A second tradition of satirical romances can be traced back to Heinrich Wittenwiler's Ring (c. 1410) and to François Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532–1564). It was rather designed to parody and satirize heroic romances, and did this mostly by dragging them into the low realm of the burlesque. Cervantes' Don Quixote (1606/1615) modified the satire of romances: its hero lost contact with reality by reading too many romances in the Amadisian tradition.

Both branches of satirical production seem to have addressed a predominantly male audience (women are despicable victims in titles like Head's The English Rogue). They found the appreciation of critics as long as they revealed the weaknesses of the Amadis. The critics otherwise deplored that the satires could not offer alternatives. Other important works of the tradition are Paul Scarron's Roman Comique (1651–57) with its explicit discussions of the market of fictions, the anonymous French Rozelli with its satire on Europe's religions, Alain-René Lesage's Gil Blas (1715–1735), Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews (1742) and Tom Jones (1749), and Denis Diderot's Jacques the Fatalist (1773, printed posthumously in 1796).

"Petites histoires" or "novels", 1600–1740

Miguel de Cervantes, Novelas Exemplares (1613)
William Congreve, Incognita (1692)

The term novel – today in a twisted history (see below) connected with the appearance of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719) – has been present on the market since the 16th century. William Painter's Palace of Pleasure well furnished with pleasaunt Histories and excellent Novelles (1566) was the first English title to use it. Compared with "romances", "novelles", "novellas" or "novels" (all these words meant the same, "novel" became the standard term in the 1650s) had to be short. They had to give up all aspirations on grandeur, heroism and the style romantic heroes and their actions required. "Romances" focused on lonely heroes and their adventures, "novels" on revealing incidents that could serve as examples for moral maxims. The titles of "romances" put their respective heroes' and heroines' names front and centre: "Artamene", "Clelie" were the heroes of "heroic romances". "Satirical romances" did the same with their lower class protagonists. The additional "Adventures of" would later emphasize the focus on acts of heroism. The titles of "novels" preferred a two part formula "[...] or [...]" in order to state the value of the incident related. William Congreve's Incognita or Love and Duty Reconcil'd (1692) was typical in this respect. The protagonists of "novels" were actors in a plot, in an intrigue, and it was the plot that gave the example and taught the vital lessons. These protagonists could be average human beings without any special signs of grandeur, neither comical nor imitable but of the same nature as their readers; they would by and large show problematic character traits. Unlike romances, the protagonists were not role models: instead, the surprising results of their actions taught the lessons.

The rise of the "novel" as the major alternative to the antiquated "romance" began with the publication of Cervantes Novelas Exemplares (1613). It unfolded with Scarron's Roman Comique, whose heroes noted a rivalry of French "romances" and the new Spanish genre. France had to find, Scarron wrote at the time, its own brand of short stories.

Late-17th-century critics looked back onto the history of prose fiction proud of the generic shift towards the modern novel/novella. A wave of "petites histoires" or "nouvelles historiques" had replaced the old romances. The first perfect works in French were those of Scarron and Madame de La Fayette's "Spanish history" Zayde (1670). The development finally led to her Princesse de Clèves (1678), the first novel with what would become characteristic French subject matter (Marie de LaFayette's authorship remained a secret, though, over the next decades).

Europe witnessed the generic shift with the titles Dutch francophone publishers supplied on the international market. English publishers exploited the novel/romance controversy in the 1670s & 1680s. The word "novel" began to replace the word "romance" on title pages in the 1680s. Contemporary critics listed the advantages of the new genre: brevity, a lack of ambition to produce epic poetry in prose. The style was fresh and plain; the focus was on modern life and on heroes who were neither good nor bad. One learned through their actions, not by imitating them. The novel's potential to become the medium of urban gossip and scandal fuelled the rise of the novel/novella. The authors of modern journalistic gossip spiced their works with short anonymous histories. The stories were offered as allegedly true recent histories, not for the sake of scandal but strictly for the moral lessons they gave. To prove this, one would read fictionalized names (and read the true names in separate keys). The Mercure Gallant set the fashion in the 1670s. Collections of letters and memoirs appeared, and were filled with the intriguing new subject matter. The epistolary novel grew on this market and found its first full blown example of scandalous fiction with Aphra Behn's Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister (1684/ 1685/ 1687).

The development did not lead to Robinson Crusoe – a work that was almost provocatively (both in 1719 when it appeared and still in the 1760s) a new "romance", thanks to its exotic setting and thanks to its singular hero offering a story of survival in isolation. Crusoe lacked almost all the amenities of the new "novels": wit, a fast narration evolving around a group of young fashionable urban heroes and their intrigues, a scandalous moral, gallant talk to be imitated and brevity and conciseness of the plot. The development did, however, lead to Eliza Haywood's epic length "novel" Love in Excess (1719/20) and to Samuel Richardson's Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1741), essentially still a novel with its typical two part title: naming the story and promising its value as an example. It led to a production of classics of the intriguing production and to a reform movement in the 1740s.

Dubious and scandalous histories, 1660–1720

1719 newspaper reprint of Robinson Crusoe

The entire market of early modern fiction remained part of the wider production of (potentially dubious) histories. A market of "literature" in the modern sense of the word, a market of fiction and poetry, did not exist. "History and politicks" was the rubric early-18th-century Term Catalogues had in stock for the entire production of pamphlets, memoirs, travel literature, political analysis, serious histories, romances and novels.

That fictional histories could share the same space with academic histories and modern journalism had been criticized by historians since the end of the Middle Ages: fictions were "lies" and therefore hardly justifiable at all. The climate had, however, changed, in the 1670s. Paradoxically, the same historians who pleaded for a new era of academic research also pleaded for fiction to stay within the field of histories. The authors who advocated Pyrrhonism, scepticism as a historical discipline, did not demand that fictions change. Instead, they demanded that historians should step from the old project of historical narratives to a new project of critical analysis and discussion of sources. Pierre Bayle exemplified this with all the articles of his Dictionnaire Historique et Critique (1697) and with his statements on the legitimacy of fictions, especially those of the modern political market.

The new novels, romances and dubious histories, the quasi historical and yet immensely readable works of the Madame d'Aulnoy, César Vichard de Saint-Réal, Gatien de Courtilz de Sandras, and Anne-Marguerite Petit du Noyer, were, according to the modern advocates of the free press, not only embedded in the field of veritable critical histories: they had an important function to fulfill in that field. In a time when factuality was not a sufficient defence against a libel suit, the romantic lay out allowed the publication of histories that could not risk an unambiguous assertion of their truth. The question was not whether one should separate the markets of true and fictional histories from each other but whether one would be able to establish critical discourses to evaluate all the interesting production.

The market of the late 17th century and early 18th century employed a simple pattern of options of how fictions could both be part of the historical production and reach out into the sphere of true histories. The fringes of this pattern flourished as cheap excuses. They allowed it authors to claim they had published fiction, not truth, if they ever faced outright allegations of libel:

image positioning
Probably not that fictitious 3.1
Heroical Romances:
Fénelon's Telemach (1699)
Probably not that factual
Sold as romantic inventions, read as true histories of public affairs: Manley's The New Atalantis (1709)
Sold as romantic inventions, read as true histories of private affairs: Menantes' Satyrischer Roman (1706)
Classics of the novel from the Arabian Nights to M. de La Fayette's Princesse de Clèves (1678)
Sold as true private history, risking to be read as romantic invention: Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719)
Sold as true public history, risking to be read as romantic invention:

La Guerre d'Espagne (1707)

Satirical Romances:
Cervantes' Don Quixote (1605)
Romances of adventures: the title pages of both the English edition of François Fénelon's Telemachus (London: E. Curll, 1715) and Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (London: W. Taylor, 1719).

Prefaces and title pages of 17th- and early-18th-century fiction acknowledged this pattern: histories could claim to be romances, but threaten to relate true events, as in the roman à clef. Other works could, conversely, claim to be factual histories, yet earn the suspicion that they were wholly invented. A further differentiation was made between private and public history: Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe was, within this pattern, neither "romance" nor "novel". It smelled – with its title page alluding to Fénelon's Telemachus (1699/1700) – of romance, while the preface stated that one (most certainly) read a true private history:

IF ever the Story of any private Man's Adventures in the World were worth making Pvblick, and were acceptable when Publish'd, the Editor of this Account thinks this will be so.
     The Wonders of this Man's Life exceed all that (he thinks) is to be found extant; the Life of one Man being scarce capable of a greater Variety.
The Story is told with Modesty, with Seriousness, and with a religious Application of Events to the Uses to which wise Men always ap[p]ly them (viz.) to the Instruction of others by this Example, and to justify and honour the Wisdom of Providence in all the Variety of our Circumstances, let them happen how they will.
     The Editor believes the thing to be a just History of Fact; neither is there any Appearance of Fiction in it: And however thinks, because all such things are dispatch'd, that the Improvement of it, as well as the Diversion, as to the Instruction of the Reader, will be the same; and as such he thinks, without farther Compliment to the World, he does them a great Service in the Publication.

Defoe's Robinson Crusoe did not use the twilight to spread political insinuations; the hardly credible account did, however, offer the alternative of a deeper allegorical reading. Other authors proved the practical value of the pattern. Delarivier Manley–under interrogation after the publication of her scandalous Atalantis (1709)–replied that she had written a work of sheer romance, a fairy tale located on the famous fictional island. If the ruling Whigs wanted to prove that all her stories matched a scandalous truth of their own actions, they might venture a libel case. The authoress was released and continued her insinuations with three more volumes of proclaimed romance published during the next two years.

While journalists continued to defend the dubious production (relying on the enlightened audience's ability to read with the necessary grain of skepticism if not with amusement), the defenders of public morals demanded an entirely new organization of the market, one that isolated fiction. This was the market the 18th century was to establish.

From dubious history to literature: The 18th-century market reform

Total numbers of English titles, 1600–1799 according to ESTC data. Years of political turmoil produced higher numbers of controversial short tracts.

London's book market 1700, distribution of titles according to Term Catalogue data. The poetical and fictional production does not have a unified place yet.
The yearly output of fiction in English.

The rise of the novel

The 18th-century "rise of the novel has several theorized causes.

One is a story of statistics. English readers of the late 17th century and early 18th century were offered a total of some 2,000 to 3,000 titles per year. The numbers had risen dramatically after the abolition of the Star Chamber in 1641. The simple title count gives, however, a distorted picture as it equates the sales and influence of theological and political pamphlets with editions of books printed to sell over several years. Statistics of the French and German markets have their own distortions: French numbers are comparatively higher because Dutch publishers printed (or reprinted) French books for the international market. French was Europe's lingua franca and the language of international politics and fashions. Germany's book trade was large but divided between Protestant and Catholic states. The former had arranged for a wider exchange at Leipzig's fairs. The academic production in Latin was comparatively large on the continent due to the importance continental universities had gained as providers of careers.

Literature, as we nowadays define it, was of marginal significance in Europe until the end of the 18th century. In the Western markets some 2% to 5% of the total production fell into the categories of poetry and dubious or elegant historical works that were later united under the new heading of "literature". In English, fictional output remained here at 20 to 60 titles per year in the beginning of the 18th century, depending on how one accounts for the wider market of histories. French, German and Dutch statistics are comparable. The eastern and southern European neighbors largely subscribed to the international market.

The Western European output of literature in the modern sense rose significantly in the course of the 18th century; the growth rates stabilised in the 1740s. A change in the public appreciation supported that growth and was reflected by the growing media coverage of new works.

Cultural status and place

As of around 1700, fiction was no longer a predominantly aristocratic entertainment. The Provençal 12th-century romances and their imitations had already attracted urban connoisseurs who had had the financial means to commission bigger manuscripts in the 14th and 15th centuries. Printed books had soon gained the power to reach readers of almost all classes, the reading habits differed. To follow fashions remained a privilege. Spain was a trendsetter into the 1630s; French authors superseded Cervantes, de Quevedo, and Alemán in the 1640s. As Huet was to note in 1670, the change was one of manners. The new French works taught a new, on the surface freer, gallant exchange between the sexes as the essence of life at the French court. Aristocratic and bourgeois customers sought distinctly French authors to offer the authentic style of conversations in the 1660s.

The situation changed again from 1660s into the 1690s: the French market split. Dutch publishers began to sell works by French authors, published out of the reach of French censors. The publishing houses of The Hague and Amsterdam also pirated the entire Parisian production of fashionable books and thus created a new market of political and scandalous fictions and European fashions. Composers Corelli and Vivaldi sent their sheet music from Italy to Étienne Roger in Amsterdam in order to reach a wider European audience. The same Roger published Renneville's L'inquisition Françoise (1715). In the year of its publication, the latter work was available both in an English version published in London and a German version published in Nuremberg. Books of the period boasted of their fame on the international market and of the existence of intermediate translations. "Written originally in Italian and translated from the third edition of the French" one read in imitation of this craze on title page of Manley's New Atalantis in 1709. A market of European rather than French fashions had arrived in the early 18th century.

Intimate short stories: The Court and City Vagaries (1711).

By the 1680s the fashionable political European production had inspired a second wave of private scandalous publications and generated new productions of local importance. Women authors reported on politics and on their private love affairs in The Hague and in London. German students imitated them and used the relative anonymity they enjoyed in far smaller towns like Jena, Halle and Leipzig, to boast of their private amours in fiction. The market of the metropolis London, the anonymous international market of the Netherlands, the urban markets of Hamburg and Leipzig generated new public spheres. Once private individuals – students of university towns and daughters of London's upper class posing on the title pages anonymously under announcements like "Written by a Young Lady" – began to use the novel as platform on which they could openly reevaluate their questionable reputations, the public began to call for a reformation of manners.

The reform became the main goal of the second generation of 18th-century novelists who, by the mid-century, openly welcomed the change of climate that had first been promoted in journals such as The Spectator (No. 10 of The Spectator had stated the aim "to enliven morality with wit, and to temper wit with morality... to bring philosophy out of the closets and libraries, schools and colleges, to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables and coffeehouses"). Constructive criticism of novels had until then hardly left the world of fiction. The first treatise on the history of the novel had appeared as a preface to a novel, Marie de La Fayette's Zayde (1670). "Literary journals" devoted to the sciences could not easily switch to devote themselves to belles lettres. A distinct secondary discourse developed with a wave of entertaining new journals like The Spectator and The Tatler at the beginning of the century. New "literary journals" like Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's Briefe, die neuste Literatur betreffend (1758) added to this production in the middle of the century with the offer of new, scientific reviews of art and fiction. By the 1780s, critical public reception constituted a new marketing platform for fiction, and authors and publishers recognized it as such. One could write to satisfy the old market or one could address the authors of secondary criticism and gain an audience through their discussions. It would take yet another generation for the novel to arrive in the curricula of school and university education. By the end of the 18th century, the public perception of the place of a particular novel was no longer supplied simply by social status and fashionable geographical provenance, but by critical media attention.

Realism and art
"Better than any romance" – Constantin de Renneville's French Inquisition (1715), the author's arrest.

The term " literary realism" is regularly applied to 19th-century fiction. The novels Defoe, Richardson and Fielding wrote between 1719 and the 1750s can be read as precursors. Research of the last decades has, however, contested views that it was Robinson Crusoe's realism that ended the sway of "French baroque romances".

Madeleine de Scudéry's "romances" had not been completely unrealistic; Keys had circulated with them. They had left the market nonetheless in the 1670s, defeated by the more realistic "novels" that appeared then. The ensuing production had broadly encroached upon the news market: Delarivier Manley's Atalantis was reviewed by a German academic journal in 1713 as work of contemporary public history. Christian Friedrich Hunold fled Hamburg in 1706 after his Satyrischer Roman had depicted the city's elegant urban life as a place of scandal. The French pseudo histories connected today with names such as Gatien de Courtilz de Sandras (1644–1712) had become even more radical in their realism: they had depicted the real world with a detail historians remain unable to deactivate as "merely fiction".

It has been noted that Defoe's Robinson Crusoe followed Alexander Selkirk's "true" account. and that Crusoe's style of writing recycled modes of the Protestant spiritual autobiography. The presentation of his book had its own models, however, much rather in the contemporary French pseudo histories. René Auguste Constantin de Renneville's report of his imprisonment in the Bastille had appeared in English with Defoe's publisher William Taylor four years earlier. Renneville had promised: "Lives and strange Adventures of several Prisoners", Crusoe risked the focus on himself: "The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe". An imprisonment of 11 years had been Renneville's bargain, Crusoe made it 28 years. Renneville's English translator had complained of an author who was "not always in a Temper; sometimes he is all Piety and Godliness, and then again flies out into a Romantick Strain." Crusoe's "editor" Taylor repeated these complaints before the sailor himself raised his voice with the greatest inconsistencies imaginable, claiming that he was both, most real and healthy (though 84 years of age) and a man of an allegorical truth with which he stood on one level with Don Quixote, a hero of a roman à clef (so Crusoe), and Jesus Christ who had resorted to allegories and parables in order to reach his audience. Robinson Crusoe was serialized as possibly true history by The Original London Post; and it became the work of creative literature Jean-Jacques Rousseau could finally praise in his Émile, ou De l'éducation in 1762.

One can note a balance of opposing developments here: the 18th century witnessed the rise of increasingly realistic fictions, while both authors and critics defined the entire field of fictions as distinct from the historical. The development de-scandalised the market: Valuable fictions defended a higher truth, a truth beyond the flat, factual and historical truth of every-day experience. Theories of aesthetics praised the "imitation of nature" and the artist's almost divine power to create worlds of a deeper significance in the second half of the 18th century. The previous conflict between historians and romancers was thus finally resolved: Valuable Fictions and true histories became two fields the modern nations needed. Literary journals and literary histories became the privileged media of a new analysis of literary art – the development that has been noted above as one of status and that eventually caused the 19th-century conceptual change of the word literature.

The market divide that led to the modern trivial production in the second half of the 18th century was the by product of this process. The rise of pornography beginning in the 1750s is an early sign for that divide.

The words "novel" and "romance"
The short "novel" supplanted the longer "romance" in the 1680s. It found a second peak on title pages in 1720s when it received its body of classics. The labeling of fictions became only more interesting at the end of the century.

The change of words, the rise of the word "novel" at the cost of the rivaling "romance", remained a Spanish and English phenomenon. Readers all over western Europe had welcomed the novel(la) or short history as an alternative in the second half of the 17th century. Only the English and the Spanish had, however, openly discredited the old production.

The change of taste remained a temporal phenomenon. Fénelon's Telemachus (1699/1700) already exploited a nostalgia for the old production of heroism and professed virtue. Jane Barker explicitly advertised her Exilius as "A new Romance", "written after the Manner of Telemachus" in 1715 to which she added a preface on the scandalous new production one had to get rid of. Robinson Crusoe spoke of his own book as a "romance" though he preferred, of course, readers to believe he was utterly real.

The term "novel" first peaked on the English market in the 1680s, when the novel(la) manifested itself as the alternative to the older "romance". It lost its attractiveness with ensuing scandalous production in the twilight between truth and fiction. The 1720s saw a second peak of "novels" with the first editions of classics of the genre and with new large scale "novels" in the style Eliza Haywood wrote. In the mid-18th century it was no longer clear whether the market had not simply developed two terms: "romance" as the generic term, "novel" as the term for the fashionable production that focused on modern life.

The late 18th century brought an answer with the "romantic" movement's readiness to reclaim the word "romance" as term for explicitly grotesque and distant fictional settings. Robinson Crusoe became a "novel" in that period appearing now as a work of the new realism of fiction the 18th century had brought forth. The term "romance" was eventually restricted to love stories in the course of the 19th century.

Legitimating the novel: World classics, 1670–1830

Classics of the novel from the 16th century onwards: title page of A Select Collection of Novels (1720–22).

Pierre Daniel Huet's Traitté de l'origine des romans (1670) laid the ground for the early-18th-century market in classics of the novel. The theologian had not only dared to praise fictions; he had also explained techniques of theological reading, the interpretation of fictions: one could read novels and romances to gain insight into foreign and distant cultures (and into one's own culture), once one viewed them as something produced to achieve aims and to satisfy consumers. Christ had used parables to teach; ancient Milesians had used them to arouse sexual fantasies; France produced them at present to test the options of a less inhibited conversation between the sexes.

The decades around 1700 saw the appearance of new editions of Petronius, Lucian and Heliodorus of Emesa. The publishers equipped them with prefaces that referred to Huet's treatise and the canon it had established. Exotic fictions entered the market to give insight into the Islamic frame of mind. One read The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (first published in Europe from 1704 to 1715 in French, and translated immediately from this edition into English and German) as a contribution to Huet's history of romances.

New classics added to the market: The English Select Collection of Novels in six volumes (1720–22) is a milestone in this development, including Huet's Treatise with the European tradition of the modern novel (that is, novella) from Machiavelli's to Marie de LaFayette's masterpieces.

Aphra Behn's prose fictions had appeared as "novels" in the 1680s and were reprinted in collections of her works which turned the scandalous authoress into a modern classic. Fénelon's Telemachus (1699/1700) became a classic within three years after its publication. New authors entered the market ready to use their personal names as producers of fiction: Eliza Haywood thus followed the footsteps of Aphra Behn in 1719 using her name with unprecedented pride.

"The reformation of manners", 1678–1790

Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1741)

The production of classics allowed the novel to gain a past, prestige and a canon. It called at the same moment for a present production of equal merits. A wave of mid-18th-century works that proclaimed their intent to propagate improved moral values gave critics modern novels they could discuss publicly. Instead of banning novels, the efforts at reformation of manners that had begun in the 1690s now led to their reform.

Female authors and heroines were the first affected by the development. Madame d'Aulnoy and Delarivier Manley became notorious examples of a bygone age of impudence. They had washed their dirty linen in public and used their novels to reinvent themselves and convert their own notoriety into fame. The new female heroines had to show intimacy and sensitivity where their early-18th-century ancestors had been ready to appear in public in order to sanitize their reputations. Intimate confessions and blushes filled the new novels, feelings of guilt, even where suspicions were groundless (early-18th-century heroines had defended their virtues and reputations flamboyantly even where they had gone astray). The modern heroines acted transparently, whereas their early-18th-century counterparts had resorted to secret dealings in endless intrigues. Madame de La Fayette's La Princesse de Clèves (1678) can be read as the first novel that showed the new behaviour.

Goethe's Werther (1774).

To become a fashion, if not the standard of modern behaviour, the new personality features needed new social environments. Marie de La Fayette's Princesse had fallen into a desperate situation as soon as she risked the outrageous transparency to confess her feelings for another man to her husband. Neither he nor his rival knew how to continue once all this was clear. Mid-18th-century novels created alternatives: protagonists acted transparently, their antagonists saw that as a weakness and exploited and ruined them – quite the early-18th-century option – but now the moral balance shifted: the open-hearted heroines were no longer victims one could blame for a lack of virtue, but tragic (or melodramatic) figures who had defended a better world. Other novels placed the new transparent heroines into equally new caring environments. Their families resisted temptations to marry them off against their wills, and men around them resisted temptations to seduce them in moments of weakness. The message was that respect and care were to meet open-heartedness in a new age of sensibility. Other novels experimented with surprising acts of an enlightened rationality with which their protagonists could escape deadlock situations far worse than the one Marie de La Fayette's Princesse had produced with her confessions.

The last volume of Antoine François Prévost's Memoirs and Adventures of a Man of Quality, " Manon Lescaut" (1731), aroused a scandal with its melodramatic turns and its unresolved conflicts.

Samuel Richardson's Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740), composed "to cultivate the Principles of Virtue and Religion in the Minds of the Youth of Both Sexes" focused, by contrast, on the potential victim, a heroine of all the modern virtues vulnerable through her social status and her occupation as servant of the libertine who falls in love with her. Eventually, she shows the power to reform her antagonist.

Christian Fürchtegott Gellert's Life of the Swedish Countess of G** (1747/48) tested the options of rationality. The titular countess had to decide between two husbands after her first, believed to be dead, returned from a Siberian war captivity. Both her husbands, former friends, had to come to terms with the rational problem her situation presented (and did it in a startling mixture of piety and modern philosophy).

Beginnings of a secret market of pornography, illustration to vol. 1, p.50 of the 1766 Fanny Hill edition.

Male heroes adopted the new sentimental character traits in the 1760s. Laurence Sterne's Yorick, the hero of the Sentimental Journey (1768) did so with an enormous amount of humour. Oliver Goldsmith's Vicar of Wakefield (1766) and Henry Mackenzie's Man of Feeling (1771) produced the far more serious role models.

The virtuous production inspired a sub- and counterculture of pornographic novels. Greek and Latin authors in modern translations had provided elegant transgressions on the market of the belles lettres for the last century. Satirical novels like Richard Head's English Rogue (1665) had led their heroes through urban brothels, women authors like Aphra Behn had offered their heroines alternative careers as precursors of the 19th-century femmes fatales – without creating a subculture. The market for belles lettres had been openly transgressive as long as it did not find any reflections in other media. The new production beginning with works like John Cleland's Fanny Hill (1748) differed in that it offered almost exact reversals of the plot lines the virtuous production demanded. Fanny Hill is introduced to a life of prostitution, learns to enjoy her part and establishes herself as a free and economically independent individual – in editions one could only expect to buy under the counter.

Openly uncontrollable conflicts arrived in the 1770s with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). The titular hero realised how impossible it had become for him to integrate into the new conformist society. Pierre Choderlos de Laclos's Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782) shows the other extreme, with a group of aristocrats playing games of intrigue and amorality.

The sentimental protagonists of the 1740s had already surprised their readers and aroused a debate whether human nature was correctly depicted with these new novels. They discovered a truth of the heart one had not dared to deal with so far. The radical and lonely characters that appeared in the 1760s and 1770s broke with traditions and eventually needed entirely new back-stories to become plausible. Childhoods, and adolescences had to explain why these protagonists should have developed so differently. The concept of character development began to fascinate novelists in the 1760s. Jean Jacques Rousseau's novels focused on such developments in philosophical experiments. The German Bildungsroman offered quasi-biographical explorations and autobiographical self-examinations of the individual and its personal development by the 1790s. A subcategory of the genre focused on the creation of an artist (if not the artist writing the novel). It led to the 19th-century production of novels exploring how modern times form the modern individual.

Fiction as a new experimental field, 1700–1800

Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy, vol.6, p.70-71 (1769)

The new 18th-century status of the novel as an object of debate is particularly manifest in special development of philosophical and experimental novels.

Philosophical fiction was not exactly new. Plato's dialogues were embedded in fictional narratives. Utopias had added to this production with works from Thomas More's Utopia (1516) to Tommaso Campanella's City of the Sun (1602). Works such as these had not been read as novels or romances but as philosophical texts. The 1740s saw new editions of More's work under the title that created the tradition: Utopia: or the happy republic; a philosophical romance (1743).

Voltaire utilised the romance to write philosophy with his Micromegas: a comic romance. Being a severe satire upon the philosophy, ignorance, and self-conceit of mankind (1752, English 1753). His Zadig (1747) and Candide (1759) became central texts of the French Enlightenment and of the modern novel. Jean-Jacques Rousseau bridged the genres with his less fictional Emile: or, On Education (1762) and his far more romantic Julie, or the New Heloise (1761). It made sense to publish these works as romances or novels, works of fiction, only because prose fiction had become an object of public discussion. The public reception provided by the new market of journals was both freer and wider than the discussion in journals of philosophy would have been. It had become attractive to step into the realm of fiction in order to provide matter for the ongoing debates.

The genre's new understanding of itself resulted in the first metafictional experiment, pressing against its limitations. Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759–1767) rejected continuous narration. It expanded the author-reader communication from the preface into the plot itself – Tristram Shandy develops as a conversation between the narrative voice and his audience. Besides narrative experiments, there were visual experiments: a marbled page, a black page to express particular sorrow, a page of little lines to visualize the plot lines of the book one was reading. Jonathan Swift's A Tale of a Tub (1704) is an early precursor in this field – a work that employs visual elements with similar ambition – yet hardly a text in the tradition of the original novel or its rival the romance.

The novel as national literature, 19th-century developments

Charles Dickens on the cover of L'Eclipse June 14, 1868 on his way across the English Channel

By the beginning of the 19th century, prose fiction had moved from a field of questionable entertainment and precarious historicity into the centre of the new literary debate. A new arrangement of the sciences taught at modern universities would finally protect the development. Theology, law, medicine, and philosophy had been the four traditional faculties. National literature became the object of a new university system in which the natural sciences acted as exact sciences, the social sciences with an outlook on the modern societies, and the humanities with a responsibility for history and culture. Literature in a definition that turned fiction into a central literary production would be a subject of the philologies in the latter segment of research.

The traditional task of literary historians, to review the sciences, was referred to the individual sciences and their respective academic journals. The general debate of literature was turned into an exploration of poetry and fiction.

The modes of this exploration were new. Poetry had been analysed in poetological treatises asking for perfection and the rules that had to be mastered in the different genres. Early-18th-century critics had been ready to see the opera as the central poetic production of the modern era. One would differentiate between an Italian and a French style and consider an international production. This arrangement was discredited in the course of the 18th century. Operas became music and the new literary histories offered in the 19th century focused on the greatest works an outstanding nation or language had brought forth. The new interest lay in interpretations. Georg Gottfried Gervinus' Geschichte der poetischen National-Literatur der Deutschen, published in its successive volumes between 1835 and 1842 became the European model with a project that rather resembled Pierre Daniel Huet's Treatise on the Origin of Romances (1670) than any of the previous works on poetry or on literature (the sciences). The new literary historian spoke about the cultural significance of the works he analysed. Unlike Huet Gervinus was solely interested in the works of his nation – whose history and mentality he hoped do better understand. Other nations were of interest as they had threatened the intellectual development to be observed. Huet had given a world history of fiction. The 19th-century literary historian offered his project with the controversial promise to show how the nation had freed and found itself in its fictional production.

The project persuaded scholars in France and Italy to bring forth similar histories for their nations while the Anglophone world remained rather uninterested. Hippolyte Taine eventually offered the first history of English literature at first in French, a year later, in 1864 in an English version that opened with a look back on the 1st century of modern literary history:

HISTORY, within a hundred years in Germany, and within sixty years in France, has undergone a transformation owing to a study of literatures.
      The discovery has been made that a literary work is not a mere play of the imagination, the isolated caprice of an excited brain, but a transcript of contemporary manners and customs and the sign of a particular state of intellect. The conclusion derived from this is that, through literary monuments, we can retrace the way in which men felt and thought many centuries ago. This method has been tried and found successful.
      We have meditated over these ways of feeling and thinking and have accepted them as facts of prime significance. We have found that they were dependent on most important events, that they explain these, and that these explain them, and that henceforth it was necessary to give them their place in history, and one of the highest.

Charles Dickens offering a public reading of his works, a symbol of the new literary life. Harper's Weekly, December 7, 1867.
Émile Zola, the political novelist in the centre of the public outrage he unleashed (painting by Henry de Groux, 1898).

The essentially nationalistic analysis of poetical fictions had begun in Germany in the late 1720s with a look back on three decades of international European fashions. German authors had embraced French " gallantry" as the essence of elegance and style. The country had gained nothing in the wars the European nations had supported on behalf of the Empire. The comparatively European decades of the Nine Years War (1689–1697), the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714) and the Great Northern War (1700–1721) had eventually left the intellectual elite disenchanted. The discussion of the nation's poetry Johann Christoph Gottsched proposed at the end of the 1720s formulated a national project connected with the offer to reform the entire market of German poetry. Johann Jakob Bodmer, Johann Jakob Breitinger, and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing adopted Gottsched's project and created the national discourse that finally gained national importance between 1789 and 1813 when Germany had to define itself in the events of the French Revolution and the ensuing Napoleonic Wars.

At the turn into the 19th century the first German territories implemented the new field of research in their national school curricula. Three decades later the first histories of German literature apperaed with proposals of the canon the young nation would need. Literature made its way into the educational systems, it became the object of the university philologies, of German classes at schools, and of criticism in the public media.

The new topic was of immense interest thanks to its focus on the nation, thanks to its controversial perspectives on the nation's history and identity, thanks to its attempts to reform the markets of fiction. The secularization pushed the new topic in France and Germany. Literature offered worldly texts to be interpreted in schools and at universities where religious texts had been interpreted thus far.

The Anglophone world adopted the new topic reluctantly. London had developed a commercial production of the belles lettres, independent from the markets of Amsterdam and Paris, as early as the early 18th century. The new market had found its own commercial criticism and did not need an academic variant with a distinctly national perspective. Shakespeare had become an object of national veneration without the help of academic critics by the 1760s. A rediscovery of the past had followed, with such doubtful discoveries as the Ossian-fragments. Critics discussed the belles lettres in fashionable English journals. Latest theatre performances were discussed in the newspapers at the end of the 18th century. The continental debate of "literature" remained uninteresting with all the academic institutions it promised to generate.

Great Britain did not need new national platforms. State politics and religion were open platforms – in Britain protected by modern press laws since the 1690s. The continent had opted for a fundamental secularisation. Britain rested on the union of state and church, the USA on the opposite notion of private religiosity and a state that would not interfere. Neither country needed a topic for school lessons, in which worldly texts would be used in much the same way as religious texts had been used before. As for criticism of plays and fictions one could well live with the commercial criticism the market brought forth. Germany invented a dualism of "Literaturwissenschaft", literary criticism formulated by university professors, and "Literaturkritik", literary criticism as to be found in the newspapers. A single word remained enough to speak of literary criticism in English.

Oscar Wilde on trial in 1895.

The new topic was eventually adopted both in Britain and the USA in the 1870 and 1880s. The educational systems of the Western nations developed international standards. The Western canon became the project of a new international competition. The Western nations defined themselves as "Kulturnationen" as exporters of a specific Western civilisation in the middle the second European colonization wave. To do this they eventually shared the same academic institutions that monitored, evaluated and basically organised their public controversies. Literature and culture had been topics the nations could hope to handle with more competence than religion. The " Republic of Letters", the "respublica literaria", the early modern scientific community that had coined the term literature had definied itself as the first truly pluralistic institution. The universities it required would be state run and controlled by the respective nations.

The new topic spread in win-win situations. The publishing industry promoted fiction, literature, Belletristik. New authors profited from the exchange. The reading public eagerly followed the debate and was ready to identify with the greatest authors now produced.

New commercial rules began to structure the exchange. Most of the early-18th-century authors of fiction had published anonymously. They had offered their manuscripts and received all the payment to be expected for the manuscript. The new copyright laws introduced in the 18th and 19th centuries promised a profit share on all future editions and created a new strategy with the revolutionary work, readers would initially hardly understand. One would publish such a work in a small first edition hoping for critics to prove it into an eternal classic. Novelists, a scandalous branch of authors a century ago, assumed entirely new roles as public voices; they spoke as their nation's conscience, as national sages, as far sighted judges in newspapers, in public debates and in entirely new celebrations of their public status. The novelist who reads in theatre halls and book shops is a 19th-century invention.

Fiction gained new qualities in the exchange. The literary market gave rise to difficult texts that could not hope to be understood without critical interpretations. New novels openly addressed the present political and social issues – sure to be discussed by media focusing on the same issues. Responsibility became a key issue: Responsibility of the citizen whose voice is heard or responsibility of the artist whose work future generations will have evaluate. The theoretical debate concentrated on the moral soundness of modern novels, on the integrity of individual artists, and on the provocative claims of aestheticists such as Oscar Wilde and Algernon Charles Swinburne who proposed to write " art for art's sake", that is with a responsibility the present audience and the present critics might not be able to understand.

The up-market of works deserving to be read as "literature" was matched by a growing market of "popular fictions", "trivial literature" – a market that discontinued the production of chapbooks and grew in the former field of elegant belles lettres. New institutions like the circulating library affected the market as platforms publishing houses would address with their first editions. Fiction became the object of a new mass reading public protected, monitored and analysed by nationwide debates and by institutions the new states would hope to control.

The developments did not lead to stable definitions of the terms it popularized. "Art", "literature" and "culture" became much rather the field of controversies authors, critics, and readers would feed in ever new attempts to find platforms for their interests. The exchange affected from now onwards children at school as much as intellectuals who risked their lives in public controversies.

Pushing art to its limits: Romanticism, 1770–1850

Illustration of a Dutch edition of Juliette, ca. 1800.

The very word romanticism made direct reference to the art of romances. The genre, as opposed to the modern novel, experienced a revival with gothic fiction from Ann Radcliffe's "romance" The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) to M.G. Lewis' "romance" The Monk (1795).

The new romances not only attacked the modern novel's "natural" depictions of life, they destabilized the very differentiation modern critics had been trying to establish between serious classical art and popular fiction. Gothic romances were grotesque. Their subject matter deserved less credit than the worst medieval tales of Arthurian knighthood. If the Amadis had troubled Don Quixote with curious fantasies, the new romantic tales were worse: they became nightmares, they explored sexual fantasies, they led to the end of human civilization.

The authors of this new type of fiction could be (and were) accused of exploiting all available topics to thrill, arouse or horrify their audience. These new romantic novelists could, at the same time, claim to explore the entire realm of fictionality. New–psychological–interpreters would read these works as encounters with the deeper hidden truth of the human imagination or the collective mind with all its recesses: sexual motives, anxieties, and insatiable desires. Under a psychological reading, novels were said to explore our deeper motives by moving into the field of art and by trying to reach and transgress its limitations. Artistic freedom would reveal what had not previously been openly visible: a theory that turned Huet's retrospective cultural description into an exploration of our options. The literary world started to recognize the fragment as art potentially surpassing all the works of intricate composition. Terror and kitsch entered the productions with explorations of the trivial.

The romantic fiction of de Sade, Poe, Mary Shelley and E. T. A. Hoffmann, their works from Les 120 Journées de Sodome (1785/1904), Die Elixiere des Teufels (1815), to Frankenstein (1818), and the Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840) would later attract 20th-century psychoanalysts and supply the images of 20th- and 21st-century horror films, love romances, fantasy novels, role-playing computer games and surrealist art.

Important figures in romanticism include: Victor Hugo, with his novels The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831) and Les Misérables (1862), and Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov, whose novel A Hero of Our Time (1840) is notable for introducing Superfluous man in the world of literature.

"Realism" and the reevaluation of the past and the present, 1790–1900

Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852)

The ancient romancers most commonly wrote fiction about the remote past. The present had been the object of "curious" explorations in the hands of satirists like Grimmelshausen and Richard Head and in the hands of scandalous authors from de Courtilz de Sandras to the anonymous author of La Guerre d'Espagne (Cologne: Pierre Marteau, 1707).

Illustration for Jules Verne's Vingt mille lieues sous les mers (1870)

Walter Scott's historical novel Waverley (1814) broke with these traditions. Scott did not write to satisfy the audience with temporal escapism, nor did he threaten the boundaries between fact and fiction with his works, as Constantin de Renneville had done with his French Inquisition (1715). Scott's work remained a novel, a work of art. He used the art of imagination to re-evaluate history by rendering things, incidents and protagonists as only the novelist was allowed to do. His work remained historical fiction, yet it questioned existing historical perceptions. The special power was partly gained through research: Scott the novelist, resorted to documentary sources as any historian would have done, but as an artist he gave things a deeper significance. Attracting a far wider market than any historian could address, and rendering the past vividly, his work destabilized public perceptions of that past.

Most 19th-century authors hardly went beyond illustrating and supporting widespread historical views. The more interesting titles won fame by doing what no historian nor journalist would do: make the reader experience another life. Émile Zola's novels depicted the world of which Marx and Engels wrote in a non-fictional mode. Slavery in the United States, abolitionism and racism became topics of far broader public debate thanks to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), as whose characters provided personifications for topics that had previously been discussed mainly in the abstract. Charles Dickens led the audience into contemporary British workhouses: his novels imitated firsthand accounts of child labour. War changed with Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace (1868/69) from historical fact to a world of personal fate. Crime became a personal reality with Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment (1866). Women authors had dominated the production of fiction from the 1640s into the early 18th century, but few before George Eliot so openly questioned the position of women, the precepts of their education, and their social position.

As the novel became the most interesting platform of modern debates–allegedly free, as art could claim to be in the modern secular western societies–a race began between nations to (re-)establish their national literatures with novels as the essential production that could link the present with the past. Alessandro Manzoni's, I Promessi Sposi (1827) did this for Italy; Russia and the surrounding Slavonic brought forth their first novels; the Scandinavian countries entered the race.

With the new appreciation of history, the future also became a topic for fiction. Samuel Madden's Memoirs of the 20th century (1733) had been a satire, presenting a future that was basically the present age, but with the Jesuits secretly ruling the globe. Louis-Sébastien Mercier‘s L'An 2440 (1771) had gone a step further and created an enlightened future, that one could establish immediately if only one dared to live according to better moral precepts. The step into a different future began with Mary Shelley's The Last Man (1826): a work whose plot culminated in the catastrophic last days of a mankind extinguished by the plague, even if it remained an autobiographical allegory of the authoress deploring her personal losses. Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (1887) and H. G. Wells's The Time Machine (1895) were, by contrast, marked by the idea of long term technological and biological developments. Industrialization, Darwin's theory of evolution and Marx's theory of class divisions shaped these works and turned historical processes into a subject matter of wide debate: Bellamy's Looking Backward became the second best-selling book of the 19th century after Harriet Beecher-Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Such works of scientific reflection inspired a whole genre of popular science fiction as the 20th century approached.

Explorations of the self and the modern individual, 1790–1930

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Wilhelm Meister (1795)

The individual, the potentially isolated hero, had stood at the centre of romantic fictions since the Middle Ages. The early novel(la) had placed the story itself at the centre: it was driven by plot, by incident and accident, rather than being the story of a single larger-than-life figure. And yet, the individual had returned with a wave of satirical romances and historical pseudo romances. Individuals such as Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, Pamela, and Clarissa reintroduced the old romantic focus on the individual as the centre of what was to become the modern novel.

Ancient, medieval and early modern fictional characters lacked certain features that modern readers expect. Epics and romances created heroes, individuals who would fight against knight after knight, change (as an Assyrian princess) into men's clothes, survive alone on an island – while it would never see its personal experience as an individualizing factor. The early modern novelist had remained a historian as much as the author of the most personal French contemporary memoir. As soon as it came to relating the facts and experiences, it became a question of proper writing skills.

The modern individual changed. The rift can first be seen in the works of medieval mystics and early modern Protestant autobiographers: moments in which they witnessed a change in their very experience of things, an inner isolation they would only be able to communicate to someone who had experienced the same. The sentimental experience created a new field of – secular, rather than religiously motivated – individualizations which immediately invited followers to join. Werther's step out of the value systems that surrounded him, his desperate search for the one and only soul to understand him, inspired an instantaneous European fashion. Napoleon told Goethe he had read the volume about a dozen times; others were seen wearing breeches in Werther's colour to signal that they were experiencing the same exceptionalism. The novel proved the ideal medium for the new movements as it was ultimately written from an individual's point of view with the aim to unfold in the silence of another's individual mind.

The late-18th-century exploration of personal developments created room for depictions of personal experiences; it gained momentum with the romantic exploration of fictionality as a medium of creative imagination; and it gained a political edge with the 19th-century focus on history and the modern societies. The rift between the individual and his or her social environment had to have roots in personal developments which this individual shared with those around him or her, with his or her class or the entire nation. Any such rift had the power to criticize the collective histories the modern nations were just then producing. The new personal perceptions the protagonists of novels offered were on the other hand interesting as they could easily become part of the collective experience the modern nation had to create.

First galley proof of In Search of Lost Time (1913–1927) with handwritten revision notes by Marcel Proust.

The novel's individual perspective allowed for personal reevaluations of the public historical perceptions and it allowed for personal developments that could still lead back into modern societies. The 19th-century Bildungsroman became the arena of such explorations of personal developments that separated the individual from, and then reunited it with, his or her social environment. Outsider perspectives became the field of mid-19th-century explorations. The artist's life had been an interesting topic before with the artist being by public definition the exceptional individual whose perceptions naturally enabled him to produce different views. Novels from Goethe's Wilhelm Meister (1795) to Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time (1913–1927) and James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) created an entire genre of the Künstlerroman. Jane Austen's Emma (1815), Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1856), Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (1873–77), and George Eliot's Middlemarch (1871–72) brought female protagonists into the role of the outstanding observer. Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist (1839) and Gottfried Keller's Green Henry (1855) focused on the perspectives of children, Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment (1866) added a drop-out student who became a murderer to the spectrum of special observers whose views would promise reinterpretations of modern life.

The exploration of the individual's perception eventually revolutionized the very modes of writing fiction. The search for one's personal style stood in the centre of the competition among authors in the 19th century, now that novelists had become publicly celebrated minds. The destabilization of the author-text connection, which 20th-century criticism was to propose later on, finally led to experiments with what had been the individual's voice so far – speaking through the author or portrayed by him. These options were to be widened with new concepts of what texts actually were with the beginning of the 20th century.

The novel and the global market of texts: 20th- and 21st-century developments

Berlin, May 10, 1933, Nazi book burning.
Persian Samizdat edition of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses late 1990s?
Announcement of the Laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature 2008

Given the number of new editions and the place of the modern novel among the genres sold in bookshops today, the novel is far from the crisis predicted by John Barth. Literature has not ended in "exhaustion" or in a silent "death". New technologies continue to be rapidly adapted for the writing and distributing of novels. In 1968, four years after the introduction of the first word processor, the IBM MT/ST, the first novel was written on it – Len Deighton's Bomber, published in 1970. Printed books have not yet been superseded by new media such as cinema, television or such new channels of distribution as the Internet or e-books. Novels such as the Harry Potter (1997–2007) books have created public sensation among an audience critics had seen as lost.

Novels were among the first material artefacts the Nazis burnt in public celebrations of their power in 1933; and they remained the very last thing they allowed their publishers to print as World War II ended in the devastation of central Europe: fiction could still be employed to keep the retreating troops in dream worlds of an idyllic homeland waiting for them. Novels were in the pockets of American soldiers who went to Vietnam and in the pockets of those who protested against the Vietnam War: Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf and Carlos Castaneda's Journey to Ixtlan (1972) had become cult classics of inner resistance. While it was difficult to learn anything about Siberia's concentration camps in the strictly censored Soviet media, it was a novel, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) and its proto-historic expansion The Gulag Archipelago (1973) that eventually gave the world an inside view.

The novel remains both public and private. It is a public product of modern print culture even where it circulates in illegal samizdat copies. It remains difficult to target. Totalitarian regimes can close down Internet service providers, and control theatres, cinemas, radio and television stations, while individual paper copies of a novel can be smuggled into countries, defying strict censorship, and read there in cafés and parks almost as safely as at home. Its covers can be as inconspicuous as those of Iranian editions of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses (1988). An Orwellian regime would have to search households and to burn every retrievable copy: an engagement of dystopian dimensions that only a novel, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (1953), would envisage.

The artefact that constituted one of the earliest flashpoints in the current cultural confrontation between the secular West and the Islamic East, Rushdie's Satanic Verses (1988), exemplifies almost all the advantages the modern novel has over its rivals. It is a work of epic dimensions no film maker could achieve, a work of privacy and individuality of perspective wherever it leads into the dream worlds of its protagonists, a work that uniquely anticipated ensuing political debates, and a work many Western critics classified as one of the greatest novels ever written. It is postmodernist in its ability to play with the entire field of literary traditions without ever sacrificing its topicality.

The democratic West depicted itself as the advocate of literature as the freest form of self-expression. The Islamic fundamentalist interpretation of the same confrontation has its own historical validity. This interpretation sees a conflict between Western secular nations and a postsecular religious world. In this view, the West has severed its religious roots and begun to idolize an arrangement of secular "pluralistic" debates. "Literature", "art", and "history" – the subject matter of the humanities – have become a Western substitute for religion. The Islamic republic eventually demonstrated how far the West had created its own inviolable if not sacred spheres in this development: Westerners can become atheists, they can admire any "blasphemy" as "art", but they cannot act with the same freedom in the field of history. Holocaust denial is criminalised in several Western nations in defence of secular pluralism. The Islamic nations protect, so goes the rationale, at the heart of the conflict a different hierarchy of discourses.

In a longer perspective, the conflict arose with the worldwide expansion of Western literary and cultural life in the 20th century. To look back, around 1700 fiction had been a small but virulent market of fashionable books in the sphere of public history. By contrast, in 19th-century Europe the novel had become the centre of a new literary debate. The 20th century began with the Western export of new global conflicts, new technologies of telecommunication and new industries. The new arrangement of the academic disciplines became a world standard. Within this system the humanities are the ensemble of subjects that evaluate and organise public debate, from art and literature to history. Former colonies and modern third world nations adopted this arrangement in their educational systems in order to pursue equal footing with the "leading" industrial nations. Literature entered their public spheres almost automatically as the arena of free personal expression and as a field of national pride in which one had to search for one's historical identity, as the Western nations had done before.

Model of 20th-century literary communication. A complex interaction is organised by public and academic literary criticism as the central provider of discussions, education and media attention.

A number of literatures could challenge the West with traditions of their own: Chinese novels are older than any comparable Western works. Other regions of the world had to begin their traditions as the Slavonic and Scandinavian nations had done in the 19th-century's European competition: South Asia and Latin America joined the production of world literature at the beginning of the 20th century. The run for the first black African novel to be written by a black African author is today a topic of research in postcolonialist literary studies. The race was fueled by Western theories of cultural superiority: 20th-century critics such as Georg Lukács and Ian Watt saw the novel as the form of self-expression characteristic of the "modern Western individual". The worldwide spread of the novel was monitored and mentored by such Western institutions as the Nobel Prize in Literature. The list of its laureates can be read as a chronicle of the gradual expansion of Western literary life. Rabindranath Tagore was the first Indian poet and novelist to receive the prize in 1913, Guatemalan Miguel Angel Asturias received it in 1967, Japanese Yasunari Kawabata in 1968, Colombian Gabriel García Márquez in 1982; the Nigerian Wole Soyinka, honoured in 1986, became the first black African author to receive the award; the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz became the first novelist of the Arab world to do so in 1988; Orhan Pamuk, honoured in 2006, is a Turkish novelist.

Numbers of titles published in the UK in 2001.
Total consumer market, UK, 2008; value in £m

The contemporary novel defends the significance it had won by the 1860s, and it has stepped beyond, into a new awareness of its public outreach. Nationwide debates can become international debates at any given moment. Today's novelists can address a worldwide public, with international institutions, prestigious prizes, and such far-reaching associations as the worldwide association of writers P.E.N. The exiled author, who is celebrated by the international audience while he or she is persecuted at home is a 20th-century (and now 21st-century) figure. The author as keeper of his or her nation's conscience is a new cultural icon of the age of globalization.

Back in the early 18th century some 20–60 titles per year, that is between one and three percent of the total annual English production of about 2,000 titles, could be reckoned as fiction – a total of 20,000–60,000 copies on the assumption of standard print runs of about 1,000 copies. In 2001 fiction made about 11% of the 119,001 titles published in the UK consumer book market. The percentage has remained relatively stable over the past 20 years, though the total numbers doubled from 5,992 in 1986 to 13,076 in 2001. The press output and the money made with fiction have risen disproportionately since the 18th century: According to Nielsen BookScan statistics published in 2009 UK publishers sold an estimated 236.8 million books in 2008. Adult fiction (an estimated 75.3 million copies) made 32% of this market. Children's, young adult and educational books, a section comprising best-sellers such as the Harry Potter volumes, made another 63.4 million copies, 27%. The total UK consumer market is supposed to have had a value £1,773m in 2008. Adult fiction made roughly a quarter of that value: £454m.

A vibrant literary life fuels the market. It unfolds in a complex interaction between authors, their publishing houses, the reading public, and a literary criticism of immense diversity voiced in the media and in the nation's educational systems. The latter provide through their branches of academic criticism many of the topics, the modes of discussion and to a good extent the experts themselves who teach and discuss literature in schools and in the media. Modern marketing of fiction reflects this complex interaction with an awareness of the specific reverberations a new title must find in order to reach a wider audience.

Different levels of communication mark successful modern novels as a result of the genre's present position in (or outside) literary debates. An elite exchange has developed between novelists and literary theorists, allowing for direct interactions between authors and critics. Authors who write literary criticism can eventually modify the very criteria under which theorists discuss their works. Literary recognition can also be gained when novels influence thinking about non-literary controversies. A third option remains with novels that find their audiences without the help of critical debate. Even serious novels can become the object of direct marketing strategies along the lines publishers usually reserve for "popular fiction".

Writing literary theory

Many of the techniques the novel developed over the past 100 years can be understood as the result of competition with the new 20th- (and 21st-) century mass media: film, comics and the World Wide Web shaped the novel. Shot and sequence, focus and perspective have moved from film editing to literary composition. Experimental 20th-century fiction is, at the same time, influenced by literary theory.

Literary theory, arising in the 20th century, questioned key factors that had been matters of agreement in 19th-century literary criticism: the author wrote the text, he was influenced by his period, by an intellectual climate the nation provided and by his personality. The work of art eventually reflected all these aspects, and literary critics recreated them. The ensuing debate identified a canon of the truly great works brought forth by each nation.

20th-century literary theory challenged all these notions. It moved along with what philosophers called the linguistic turn: the artifact to be read was primarily a text. The text unfolded a meaning in the reading process. The question was, what made the literary text so special? Its complexity: a simple answer that immediately called for a complex science to describe and to understand these complexities. The literary theorists argued that the literary criticism of the 19th century had not truly seen the text. It had concentrated on the author, his or her period, the culture that surrounded him or her, his or her psyche – factors outside the text, that had allegedly shaped it. Strict theorists argued that even the author, hitherto considered the central figure, whose message one wanted to understand, did not even have privileged access to the meaning and significance of his or her own work. Once the text was written it began to unfold associations, no matter whether one was its author or another reader. The theory debate stepped forth in redefinitions of its project: Formalism (1900–1920), New Criticism (1920–1965), Structuralism (1950–1980) and Poststructuralism (late 1960s through 1990s) became the major schools. The modes of analysis changed with each of these schools. All assumed that the text had its own meaning, independent of all authorial intentions and period backgrounds. Each of these schools proposed a criticism that directed its attention to an understanding of this meaning.

James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)

James Joyce's Ulysses (1922) became the central text that explored the potential of the new theoretical options. The 19th-century narrator left the stage; what remained was a text one could read as a reflex of thoughts. The " stream of consciousness" replaced the authorial voice. The characters endowed with these new voices had no firm ground from which to narrate. Their audiences had to re-create what was purposefully broken. One of the aims was to represent the reality of thoughts, sensations and conflicting perspectives. William Faulkner was particularly concerned with recreating real life, an undertaking which he said was unattainable. Once the classical authorial voice was gone, the classical composition of the text could be questioned: Ulysses did that. The argumentative structure with which a narration used to make its points lost its importance. Each sentence connected to sentences readers recalled. Words reverberated in a worldwide circulation of texts and language. Critics would understand more of the possible allusions and supply them in footnotes.

Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway (1925), Samuel Beckett's trilogy Molloy (1951), Malone Dies (1951) and The Unnamable (1953), Julio Cortázar's Rayuela (1963) and Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (1973) all explore this new narrative technique. Alfred Döblin went in a slightly different direction with his Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929), where interspersed non-fictional text fragments enter the fictional sphere to create a new form of realism.

Authors of the 1960s– Robert Coover is an example–fragmented their stories and challenged time and sequentiality as fundamental structuring concepts.

Postmodern authors subverted the serious debate with playfulness. The new theorists' claim that art could never be original, that it always played with existing materials, that language basically recalled itself had been an accepted truth in the world of trivial literature. A postmodernist could reread trivial literature as the essential cultural production. The creative avant-garde of the 1960s and 1970s "closed the gap" and recycled popular knowledge, conspiracy theories, comics and films to recombine these materials in what was to become art of entirely new qualities. Roland Barthes' 1950s analysis of popular culture, his late 1960s claim that the author was dead while the text continued to live, became standards of postmodern theory. Novels from Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), to Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (1980) and Foucault's Pendulum (1989) opened themselves to a universe of intertextual references while they thematized their own constructedness in a new postmodern metafictional awareness.

What separated these authors from 18th- and 19th-century predecessors who had invited other textual worlds into their own compositions, was the interaction the new authors sought with the field of literary criticism. 20th-century metafictional works expect literary historians to deal with them; literary critics and theorists become the privileged first readers that the new texts need in order to unfold. James Joyce is said to have said this about the reception he designed for his Ulysses (1922): "I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that's the only way of insuring one's immortality." – a statement to which Salman Rushdie referred in 1999, according to Paul Brians's Notes for Satanic Verses:

Asked about the possibility of " Cliff's Notes" to his writings, Rushdie answered that although he didn't expect readers to get all the allusions in his works, he didn't think such notes would detract from the reading of them: "James Joyce once said after he had published Ulysses that he had given the professors work for many years to come; and I'm always looking for ways of employing professors, so I hope to have given them some work too."

Novelists such as John Barth, Raymond Federman and Umberto Eco crossed the borders into criticism. Mixed forms of criticism and fiction appeared: "critifiction", a term Raymond Federman attempted to coin in 1993.

While the postmodern movement has been criticized at times as theoretical if not escapist, it successfully unfolded in several films of the 1990s and first decade of the 21st century: Pulp Fiction (1994), Memento (2000), and The Matrix (1999–2003) can be read as new textual constructs designed to prove that we are surrounded by virtual realities, by realities we construct out of circulating fragments, of images, concept, a language of cultural materials the new filmmakers explore.

Writing world history

Virginia Woolf, 1902

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Vladivostok, 1995

Chinua Achebe, Buffalo, 2008

Michel Houellebecq, Warsaw, 2008

Elfriede Jelinek, Munich, 2004

Joyce Carol Oates, 2006

Doris Lessing, Cologne, 2006

Paul Auster, Salman Rushdie and Shimon Peres, New York City, 2008

Kenzaburō Ōe, Cologne, 2008
Henning Mankell, Oslo, 2007

On the one hand, media and institutions of criticism enable the modern novel to become the object of global debate. On the other hand, novels themselves, individual books, continue to arouse attention with unique personal and subjective narratives that challenge all circulating views of world history. Novels remain personal. Their authors remain independent individuals even where they become public figures, in contrast to historians and journalists who tend, by contrast, to assume official positions. The narrative style remains free and artistic, whereas modern history has by contrast almost entirely abandoned narration and turned to the critical debate of interpretations. Novels are seen as part of the realm of "art", defended as a realm of free and subjective self-expression. Crossovers into other genres – the novel as film, the film as novel, the amalgam of the novel and the comic book that led to the evolution of the graphic novel – have strengthened the genre's influence on the collective imagination and the arena of ongoing debates.

Personal realities have attracted 20th- and 21st-century novelists: first in an explicit reaction to the new science of psychology, later, far more importantly, in a renewed interest in subject matter that almost automatically destabilizes and marginalizes the realities of "common sense" and collective history. Personal anxieties, daydreams, magic and hallucinatory experiences mushroomed in 20th-century novels. What would be a clinical psychosis if stated as a personal experience – in one extreme example, Gregor Samsa, the point of view character of Kafka's The Metamorphosis, awakes to find that he has become a giant insect – will, as soon as it is transformed into a novel, become the object of competing literary interpretations, a metaphor, an image of the modern experience of personal instability and isolation. The term "Kafkaesque" has joined the term " Orwellian" in common parlance to refer not only to aspects of literature, but of the world.

Horror has also been an extremely popular genre in literature. Many are from famous horror-writer Stephen King and known horror writer Dean Koontz. King has wrote over 100 stories throughout his lifetime. His first published novel was Carrie, a horror novel about a teenage girl tormented by her fellow schoolmates and her religious-crazed mother, she uses her powers of telekinesis to exact revenge. The novel became a best-seller. But King's first hardback best-seller is the well-known novel The Shining, about a family who moves into a hotel in Colorado and the husband takes a job there. The son, Danny Torrance, has the power to see ghosts and malevolent spirits, which is called "Shining". The novel adapted into a 1980 horror film and that became named as one of Hollywood's most scariest films. Not all horror novels are written for adults. R.L. Stine is a children's horror writer, best known for writing the popular Goosebumps series. Neil Gaiman wrote the children's horror novella Coraline, a story about a girl and her family moving into an apartment and she finds a secret door to a perfect world, but later finds out that the world is a trap to capture her and destroy her. The novella was a success, winning the Bram Stoker Award. It was later adapted into the Academy-Award nominated film Coraline.

Each generation of the 20th century saw its unique aspects expressed in novels. Germany's lost generation of World War I veterans identified with the hero of Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front (1928) (and with the tougher, more existentialist rival Thor Goote created as a national socialist alternative). The Jazz Age found a voice in F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Great Depression and the incipient Cold War in George Orwell. France's existentialism was prominently voiced in Jean Paul Sartre's Nausea (1938) and Albert Camus' The Stranger (1942). The counterculture of the 1960s gave Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf (1927) a new reception, while producing such iconic works of its own as Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club (1996) became (with the help of the film adaptation) an icon of late-20th-century manhood and a reaction to the 20th-century production of female voices. Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, Doris Lessing, Elfriede Jelinek became prominent female and feminist voices. Questions of racial and gender identities, the option to reclaim female heroines of a predominantly male cultural industry have fascinated novelists over the last two decades with their potential to destabilize the preceding confrontations.

The major 20th-century social processes can be traced through the modern novel: the history of the sexual revolution can be traced through the reception of sexually frank novels: D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover had to be published in Italy in 1928; British censorship lifted its ban as late as 1960. Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer (1934) created the comparable US scandal. Transgressive fiction from Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita (1955) to Michel Houellebecq's Les Particules élémentaires (1998) entered a literary field that eventually opened itself to the production of frankly pornographic works such as Anne Desclos' Story of O (1954) to Anaïs Nin's Delta of Venus (1978).

Crime became a major subject of 20th- and 21st-century novelists. The extreme confrontations of crime fiction reach into the very realities that modern industrialized, organized societies try and fail to eradicate. Crime is also an intriguing personal and public subject: criminals each have their personal motivations and actions. Detectives, too, see their moral codes challenged. Patricia Highsmith's thrillers became a medium of new psychological explorations. Paul Auster's New York Trilogy (1985–1986) crossed the borders into the field of experimental postmodernist literature.

The major political and military confrontations of the 20th and 21st centuries have inspired novelists. The events of World War II found their reflections in novels from Günter Grass' The Tin Drum (1959) to Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1961). The ensuing cold war lives on in a bulk of spy novels that reach out into the realm of popular fiction. Latin American self-awareness in the wake of the (failing) left revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s resulted in a " Latin American Boom", connected today with the names of Julio Cortázar, Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel García Márquez and the invention of a special brand of postmodern magic realism. The unstable status of Israel and the Middle East have become the subject of Israeli and Arab perceptions. Contemporary fiction has explored the realities of the post-Soviet nations and those of post-Tiananmen China. Arguably, though, international perceptions of these events have been shaped more by images than words. The wave of modern media images has, in turn, merged with the novel in the form of graphic novels that both exploit and question the status of circulating visual materials. Art Spiegelman's two-volume Maus and, perhaps more important in its new theoretical approach, his In the Shadow of No Towers (2004) – a graphic novel questioning the reality of the images the 9/11 attacks have produced – are interesting artefacts here.

The extreme options of writing alternative histories have created genres of their own. Fantasy has become a field of commercial fiction branching into the worlds of computer-animated role play and esoteric myth. Its centre today is J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954/55), a work that mutated from a book written for young readers in search of openly fictionalised role models into a cultural artefact of epic dimensions. Tolkien successfully revived northern European epic literature from Beowulf and the North Germanic Edda to the Arthurian Cycles and turned their incompatible worlds into an epic of global confrontations that magically preceded all known confrontations.

Science fiction has developed a broad variety of genres from the technological adventure Jules Verne had made fashionable in the 1860s to new political and personal compositions. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) has become a touchpoint for debate of Western consumerist societies and their use of modern technologies. George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) focuses on the options of resistance under the eyes of public surveillance. Stanisław Lem, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke became modern classical authors of experimental thought with a focus on the interaction between humans and machines. A new wave of authors has added post-apocalyptic fantasies and explorations of virtual realities in crossovers into the commercial production of quickly mutating sci-fi genres. William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984) became a cult classic here and founded a new brand of cyberpunk science fiction.

Writing for the market of popular fiction

Bestsellers to be bought in a German supermarket, 2009

Pulp magazines in a German newspaper shop, 2009
Customer orienting himself in second hand fiction in Antwerp's Tuf-Tuf book shop, 2010

The contemporary market for trivial literature and popular fiction is connected to the market of "high" literature through the numerous genres that both fields share.

The historic advantage of genres is to allow the direct marketing of fiction. While the reader of "high" literature will follow public discussions of novels, the low production has to employ the traditionally more direct and short-term marketing strategies of open declarations of their content. Genres fill the gap the critic leaves and work as direct promises of a foreseeable reading pleasure. The very lowest stratum of trivial fiction is based entirely on genre expectations, which it fixes with serializations and identifiable brand names. Ghost writers hide behind collective pseudonyms to ensure the steady supply of fictions that will have the very same hero, the very same story arc, and the very same number of pages, issue after issue.

Though a production not promoted by secondary criticism it is trivial literature that holds the big market share. Romance fiction had an estimated $1.375 billion share in estimated revenue of the US book market in 2007. Religion/inspirational followed with $819 million, science fiction/fantasy with $700 million, mystery with $650 million and classic literary fiction with $466 million according to data supplied by the Romance Writers of America homepage.

The most important subgenres were in this period, according to Romance Writers of America data given on the basis of numbers of releases:

  • Contemporary series romance: 25.7%
  • Contemporary romance: 21.8%
  • Historical romance: 16%
  • Paranormal romance: 11.8%
  • Romantic suspense: 7.2%
  • Inspirational romance: 7.1%
  • Romantic suspense (series): 4.7%
  • Other ( chick-lit, erotic romance, women's fiction): 2.9%
  • Young adult romance: 2.8%

In a historical perspective one could be tempted to see modern trivial literature as the successor of the early modern chapbook. Both fields share a focus on readers in search of accessible reading satisfaction. Early modern booksellers stated a reduced vocabulary and a focus on plots as the advantages of the abridgements they sold. The market of chapbooks disappeared, however, in the course of the 19th century. The modern trivial production had by that time developed out of the once so elegant – early modern belles lettres.

The 20th-century love romance is a successor of the novels Madeleine de Scudéry, Marie de La Fayette, Aphra Behn, and Eliza Haywood wrote from the 1640s into the 1740s. The modern adventure novel goes back to Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719) and its immediate successors. Modern pornography has no precedent in the chapbook market; it goes back, again, to the libertine and hedonistic belles lettres, to John Cleland's Fanny Hill (1749) and its companions of the elegant 18th-century market. Ian Fleming's James Bond is a descendant of the anonymous yet extremely sophisticated and stylish narrator who mixed his love affairs with his political missions in La Guerre d'Espagne (1707). Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon exploits Tolkien, as well as Arthurian literature and its romantic 19th-century reflections. Modern horror fiction also has no precedent on the market of chapbooks – it goes back into the high market of early-19th-century romantic literature. Modern popular science fiction has an even shorter history, hardly dating past the 1860s.

Dan Brown on the book jacket of one of his novels

The modern trivial production can be said to be the result of the 19th-century constitution of "high literature". Where "high literature" rose under the critical debates of literature, the production that failed to receive the same critical attention had to survive on the existing markets.

The emerging field of popular fiction immediately created its own stratifications with a production of bestselling authors such as Raymond Chandler, Barbara Cartland, Ian Fleming, Johannes Mario Simmel, Rosamunde Pilcher, Stephen King, Ken Follett, Patricia Cornwell, and Dan Brown who enjoy the potential to attract fans and who appear as role models in author-fan relationships. The lowest market segment does not develop any mythologies of authorship. It hardly differentiates between hero and author: one buys the new Perry Rhodan, Captain Future, or Jerry Cotton.

Trivial literature has been accused of promoting escapism and reactionary politics. It is supposedly designed to reinforce present divisions of class, power and gender. Nonetheless, popular fiction has dealt with almost any topic the modern public sphere has provided. Class and gender divisions are omnipresent in love stories: the majority of them harp on tragic confrontations that arise wherever a heroine of lower social status falls in love with a doctor, the wealthy heir of an estate or company, or just the Alpine farmer whose maid she happens to be. It is not said that these aspirations lead to happy endings. They can be read as escapist dreams of how one could change ones social status by marriage; they are at the same time constant indicators of existing or imaginary social barriers. All major political confrontations of the past one hundred years have become the scenery of trivial exploits, whether they focused on soldiers, spies or on civilians fighting between the lines. Conspiracy theories have mushroomed under the covers of trivial fictions from Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Identity (1980) to Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code (2003): they mirror a widespread feeling that the electorate of the Western democracies receive at best an illusion of freedom, an omnipresent picture presented in the media, while those who pull the strings hide in the dark.

The authors of trivial fictions–and that is the essential functional difference between them and their counterparts in the sphere of "high" literature–tend to proclaim that they have simply exploited the controversial topics. Dan Brown does this on his website answering the question whether his Da Vinci Code could be called an "anti-Christian" novel:

No. This book is not anti-anything. It's a novel. I wrote this story in an effort to explore certain aspects of Christian history that interest me. The vast majority of devout Christians understand this fact and consider The Da Vinci Code an entertaining story that promotes spiritual discussion and debate. Even so, a small but vocal group of individuals has proclaimed the story dangerous, heretical, and anti-Christian. While I regret having offended those individuals, I should mention that priests, nuns, and clergy contact me all the time to thank me for writing the novel. Many church officials are celebrating The Da Vinci Code because it has sparked renewed interest in important topics of faith and Christian history. It is important to remember that a reader does not have to agree with every word in the novel to use the book as a positive catalyst for introspection and exploration of our faith

The author of popular fictions has a fan community to serve and satisfy. He or she can risk rebuffing both the critical public and its literary experts in their search for interesting readings (as Dan Brown effectively does with his statement on possible readings of his novel). The trivial author's position towards his text is generally supposed to be relaxed. Authors of great literature are by contrast supposed to be compelled to write. They follow (says the popular mythology) their inner voices, a feeling for injustice, an urge to face a personal trauma, an artistic vision. The authors of trivial fictions have their own call: they must not fail the expectations of their audiences. A covenant of loyalty and mutual respect is the basis on which the author of popular fictions continues his or her work. The lower branches of the production have no contact to mythologies of authorship.

The boundaries between the so-called high and low have blurred in recent years through the explorations of postmodern and poststructuralist critics and through the exploitation of trivial works by the film industry. The present landscape of media – with television and the Internet indiscriminately reaching the entire audience – has a potential to destabilize boundaries between the fields. The division lines are, on the other hand, likely to stay intact as the critical discourse continues to need and to produce privileged objects of debate.

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