The authors range from major novelists (Eliot, Trollope, James, Stevenson) to the scintillating A. Nonymous. The dates cover 1848 to 1884. The essays are diverse but not comprehensive. A story emerges, a debate takes place. Are novels good or bad? Meaning, novels as a whole – should one waste any time reading novels – and specific novels. Perhaps Charlotte Brontë is bad for you and George Eliot is good for you. Not that this debate has entirely ended, but we know which side won. The Victorian Art of Fiction helped me see the path of the argument. . . .
The essays often work in pairs. They are chronological, so Rohan will have to tell us how that worked. George Eliot’s sly “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists” (1856) is followed by W. R. Greg’s “False Morality of Lady Novelists” (1859), who at first sounds as bad as his title, but improves. Anthony Trollope’s celebratory, even valedictory, “Novel-Reading” (1879) is followed by John Ruskin’s scathing, hilarious, utterly bonkers “Fiction – Fair and Foul” (1880), which functions in this anthology as the final scream of the “novels rot your brain” argument. And we end with Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson civilly discussing what the novel can do (anything) and how, exactly, it can do it (now there’s the difficulty), two master craftsmen who could not take the novel more seriously. They win.
I spent such a long time deliberating over what to include in the collection (of course, it was literally impossible to survey all the possibilities!) and then laboriously, and no doubt imperfectly, editing and annotating them, that by the time the book finally appeared in print I had lost any sense of perspective about how interesting the essays were and why, so I’m really looking forward to seeing what stands out to fresh eyes. I am glad, already, to see that the selections communicate the sense of ongoing debates–and that ‘Amateur Reader’ enjoys, as I did, the remarkable variety and often wild idiosyncrasy of the voices in them.