So what exactly is this thing called a novel? Most of us read them, whether we go for classic literature, fantasy epic, romance, thriller, or any of the other innumerable forms, and we know what one is when we see it. Defining what it is – that’s another matter.
It’s often said that the novel began with Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes, published between 1605 and 1615. It’s probably true that the modern European tradition of the novel (and, by extension, those of the Americas and other areas) begins here, developing through the 17th and 18th centuries. The novel in English, similarly, is held to begin in 1719 with Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe.
Were there novels before any of this, though? The easy answer is that there weren’t, since the word (even in its various western European forms) wasn’t used before this. In fact, Don Quixote wasn’t described as a novel at the time of publication. This is hardly an adequate answer, though.
Perhaps the best approach is to attempt to define what a novel is and, with due respect to a few centuries of literary criticism, I’ll venture a working definition.
A novel is a mainly prose narrative, designed primarily to be read off the page, rather than heard. It’s substantially fictional, though it may include real people, places and events, either contemporary or historical, within a fictional framework. It’s narrative must tell a single story, however complex and multi-layered this might be. It must be of sufficient length that it contains numerous sequences of events within that overall story, each with its own dynamics. It explores its themes by the use of various devices, including plot and characterisation.
This is probably inadequate. In any case, as with all attempts to impose simple rules on art, there’ll be some great classic novel that breaks each one of those rules. In fact, Finnegans Wake alone breaks most of them. The novel’s also constantly changing – for instance, the rise of the audio book may start to challenge the “designed primarily to be read off the page” stipulation, although I’d say that stands at the moment. Anyway, the definition offers a starting point.
The “read off the page” aspect means there are two main requirements for novels to take hold in a culture. One is a means of wide distribution – preferably printing, or else a thriving copying industry – and the other is a literate middle class with enough leisure time to read.
Possibly the earliest culture that met those requirements was the later Greco-Roman world – by that stage, Greek and Roman cultures were too mixed for the distinction to mean much. That period produced a number of works that could plausibly be described as novels, such as The Golden Ass by Apuleius and Daphnis and Chloe by Longinus. These had an effect on post-Renaissance Europe, but the tradition died out when the decline of Roman order put paid to both distribution and leisure time.
A more fertile area is China and Japan, both of which had novel traditions well before Cervantes, with works such as The Tale of Genji from 11th century Japan or The Romance of the Three Kingdoms from 14th century China. These, of course, developed into ongoing novel traditions as valid as the Western one, with modern Chinese and Japanese fiction developing out of it.
One of the most interesting novel traditions comes from mediaeval Iceland. While this didn’t really have a large middle class, it did have widespread literacy – it’s estimated that in the 14th century around 70% of Icelanders could read – and enforced leisure in those long, dark winters, and it produced some of the great novels in the form of the Sagas.
Many people misunderstand what the Sagas were. They were neither oral tradition nor in verse, and, although some retold ancient legends, the most characteristic ones were historical fiction about the early development of Iceland in the 10th and 11th centuries. Stories like Njals Saga and the Laxdaela Saga are extraordinarily sophisticated literary works, portraying vivid, well-rounded characters who reflect and are shaped by a society moving from anarchy to order. They fulfil every one of the criteria given above for being novels.
Not all long narratives, though, can be defined as novels. For instance, Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory fulfils many of the criteria, but it can’t seriously be described as a single story. Although it starts with Arthur’s birth and finishes with his death, it goes very much by the scenic route and can be better described as a series of stories.
The modern Western novel is one of the world’s great literary traditions and has produced staggering works, but it’s not the only one. Like storytelling itself, the novel is an idea that humans gravitate to whenever circumstances are right.