Definitely better than not being talked about…

The book of the week at one of my favorite lit-blogs, Wuthering Expectations, will be my very own anthology The Victorian Art of Fiction: Nineteenth-Century Essays on the Novel (Broadview, 2009):

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.

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2 Responses to Definitely better than not being talked about…

  1. JoVE says:

    Excellent news. That looks really interesting. And fabulous that it is being discussed.

  2. The sense of ongoing debates – that’s exactly what makes the book fascinating, beyond the quality of “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists” and so on. For example, the way the argument about the moral value of fiction becomes less important over time, cranky Ruskin aside. The evidence for the change is what is not included in the later essays, that James and Stevenson can more or less take the worth of fiction for granted and move on to other things.

    I read the whole thing and found one typo. I noted where it was, and have now completely forgotten. Broadview Press books seem to be well-edited.

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