In 1723, Jane Barker urged readers of A Patch-Work Screen for the Ladies to buy up ‘these Patches’: the sale would ‘greatly oblige the Bookseller, and, in some degree, the Author’. In that nod towards the primacy of bookseller and buyer lies a tale fleshed out by Leah Orr in Novel Ventures: Fiction and Print Culture in England, 1690-1730. She boldly contends that booksellers ‘exerted far greater influence on the development of fiction than did individual authors or acts of creative genius’ (p. 5). In contrast to rise-of-the-novel narratives assembled out of pieces of a few select texts, she casts a broad net to take in the mass of fiction ‘people were actually buying, selling, translating, reprinting, and reading’ (pp. 26–7) to identify trends within the publishing industry. The insistent focus upon quantifiable patterns, upon marketing and finance over creativity and artistry, may strike some readers as reductive. Others will welcome the immersion in the operations of the marketplace as a matter of intellectual hygiene, a much-needed challenge to author-centred approaches so often used to tell the story of the novel and its putative emergence, rise, or making. Wherever one stands in debates over the origins of the form, this historically minded account offers a host of new directions for study of the early novel. Among the more impressive features of Novel Ventures is its state-of-the-art archival methodology. To free herself of the prejudgments entailed by one or another ‘rise’ model, she undertook to read all extant works of printed fiction from the period: nearly 500 separate titles (!). A project of such Herculean scale and scope is possible only because the resources made available by electronic databases (EEBO, ECCO, and the ESTC) permit ‘a greater degree of comprehensiveness’ than previously ‘thinkable’ (p. 9). Indeed, the drone’s eye view of trends in the fiction publishing business, combined with Orr’s flair for statistical analysis, yields many revelations and correctives. Among them is the inconvenient truth, well known but often disregarded, that prose fictions during this period (and after) made up a tiny sliver of the total print output, under 1% by her reckoning—a statistic that shines a chastening light on notions of ‘popular fiction’. We learn that existing bibliographies (and as a consequence, many historical accounts) generally omit reprints of earlier fictions, some of them hailing from the medieval and Tudor periods, and that reprints constitute nearly a quarter of the works printed 1690–1730. Along with translations, they make up nearly half the fiction published during this period. Readers were evidently more blasé than we have imagined about the ‘newness’ of the fiction entertainments and, arguably, failed to distinguish between home-grown and Continental fictions, nor did they share our preoccupation with authorship. A walloping 70% of all fictions failed to name their author on the title page, and around one third gave no hint anywhere of authorship. She concludes that present understandings of readers’ needs and desires within the period are skewed by a bias in favour of identifiable authors. Noting the unrecognized importance in the total print output of abridgements and chapbooks, she uncovers as well a bias in favour of longer works that, among other things, blinds historians to the relative sophistication of the too readily dismissed chapbooks. These and many other findings are discussed in seven clear, confident chapters; 13 tables lay out various quantifiable trends. The first three chapters address ‘Fiction in the Print Culture World’; the final four consider trends within the fictions under four headings: ‘Reprints of Earlier English Fiction’, ‘Foreign Fiction in English Translation’, ‘Fiction with a Purpose’, and ‘Fiction for Entertainment’. A brief conclusion provides a foregone answer to the question: ‘Did the Novel Rise?’ There is much to admire in this radically sceptical rethinking of relations between readers, authors, and booksellers in the period, but inevitably a study so ambitious falls short here or there. I was troubled by the discussion of the ‘success’ of certain works, where success is measured by numbers of reprints and, more problematically, is used almost interchangeably with ‘influence’. The analysis can be bracing, as in the perceptive case studies of the revision history of two oft-reprinted foreign works, Don Quixote and Telemachus (the latter of which went through ‘an astonishing eighty-three separate editions’ over the course of the century [p. 175]). But in the absence of evidence of actual reader response, the author too often relies upon the imagined experiences of suppositious readers to account for a work’s success. Such conjecture is jarring in work that sets out to be ‘history supported by demonstrable facts’ (p. 15), and the supposed reader responses are themselves surprisingly flat. (Readers wanted interesting characters, unified plots, and lively stories). Tracing the appeal of a fiction to its narrative elements may have seemed more ‘demonstrable’, but it feels like a missed opportunity. I found myself wishing for a fuller, more rounded analysis of the sort offered by the best recent work on reading as a sociable activity. I am thinking particularly of Abigail Williams’s historically specific study of reading practices in The Social Life of Books: Reading Together in the Eighteenth-Century Home (2017). These splendidly complementary studies should be read alongside one another. Also frustrating is her reluctance to attribute authorship even where authorship is rarely questioned. The two-page discussion of Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister omits any mention of Aphra Behn, an omission all the more puzzling considering that Behn has claim in some scholarly circles to writing the first English novel, an argument first advanced by Judith Kegan Gardiner in 1989. But the sole reference to Behn comes in a note stating that the author has elsewhere—where we are not told—‘disputed the attribution of this work to Behn’ (p. 288). The attribution is widely accepted; Orr owes it to her readers to provide a reference. Haywood’s near certain authorship of the notorious scandal chronicle Memoirs of a Certain Island likewise gets no mention, not so much as a note. One wishes Orr had at least gestured towards the scholarly consensus on these matters for the sake of students new to the field, as well as specialists who may respond (as I did) with befuddlement. But these are quibbles. This intelligent study brings new force to the ongoing story of the unweaving of the rise of the novel, and much more. The field of early fiction emerges repatterned, with unexpected features and new contours woven into visibility, and is shown to include translations and reprintings; anonymous works; chapbooks, jest books, and fables; collected works and anthologies; and the more familiar works of courtship and romance, religion and adventure, scandal, and politics. If the taxonomic and statistical methodology employed does not lend itself to insights into the imaginative power of individual works or an author’s creative decisions, it does firmly ground study of the novel in the material realities of the print culture in ways that the next generation of scholars will ignore at their peril. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press 2018; all rights reserved This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The Review of English Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: May 4, 2018
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