In this series we’ve been exploring writing in all its forms. Today we’re starting a detailed look at one of the most popular forms of writing – fiction.
Fiction, and particularly novel writing, is the writing that attracts the most interest. It’s where most people start. I was trained in it myself, way back when. Most ‘how to write’ training today is geared towards fiction, and I’ve noticed that a lot of online discussion is predicated on the assumption that any book being written will, by default, be a novel.
Not all books are, of course. But it’s true about a lot of the books that are written these days – and certainly that’s true of the books being self-published on Amazon.
Fiction is also where the money is. The only billionaire author, and most of its millionaires, are novellists.
So where did the ‘novel’ come from? The form we know and love today emerged in the late eighteenth century. Jonathan Swift had something to do with it. So did Jane Austen – she, in fact, is often regarded as the inventor of the novel in its modern form. That’s not quite true. But certainly she helped shape it. Specifically, she found new ways of engaging reader emotion – she created interesting characters and set them to interact on a stage identifiable to the audience.
In her classic Pride and Prejudice (1813) the main emotion was – well, pride. By modern standards Austen’s style was pompous, even clunky. Check this out:
“She hardly knew how to suppose that she could be an object of admiration to so great man; and yet that he should look at her because he disliked her was still more strange. She could only imagine however, at last, that she drew his notice because there was a something about her more wrong and reprehensible, according to his ideas of right, than in any other person present…” (Pride and Prejudice, 1813)
But that was perfectly acceptable in that age; Austen was a great novelist, a great story teller, and we can but lament at the way her premature death cut short her career.
Nor was Austen alone. In 1816, Mary Shelley took novel writing in different directions with Frankenstein, effectively a foray into science fiction. Novels, it seemed, did not have to be ‘real’ in order to engage their reader – indeed, one of their appeals was that they allowed readers to escape.
By the early nineteenth century, then, the modern novel was fairly on its way. Understanding how the novel journeyed over the next 200-odd years is handy to know if we want to write one – because it allows us to understand how the form has always been shaped in the specific by contemporary need, contemporary ideal – and it is still changing. Next week.
Meanwhile, do you have thoughts on why novels are such a popular first stop for people wanting to write? The creative urge? Expression of a story? All these things? I’d love to hear from you.
And have any of you seen ‘Ink and Incapability’, from Blackadder The Third (BBC 1988).
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013
Next week: Write it now – the evolution of the novel; also more funnies, more writing tips, and some highly refined geekery.