A New Species of Criticism: Eighteenth-century Discourse on the Novel

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University of Delaware Press, 1994 - Literary Criticism - 209 pages
The fascinating, complex commentary on the novel genre by its earliest practitioners and critics moves to the foreground in A New Species of Criticism. Exhuming and analyzing a variety of ostensibly peripheral texts - prefaces, dedications, letters, pamphlets, and periodical reviews - Joseph F. Bartolomeo examines the role played by critical discourse in establishing the novel as a potent force in literary and popular culture. He also demonstrates the extent to which early novelists and critics anticipated many of the aesthetic and ethical issues that concern critics of fiction, and of other popular genres, in our time.
The first part of this study is devoted primarily to novelists' commentary within and about their texts. Writers before 1740 set the critical agenda by struggling with the relative importance of and the relationships between the sources, means, and ends of novels. From Congreve through Haywood and Defoe, novelists weighed and disputed the significance of formal artistry, moral rectitude, and the relation between fiction and historical truth. At mid-century, Richardson, Fielding, and Johnson - three of the most influential commentators on the genre - created critical personae that masked significant tensions. Richardson's many voices and competing moral and artistic demands, Fielding's problematic foregrounding of "theory" within his narratives, and Johnson's conflict between honesty and probity guaranteed contradiction. Finally, in a context of broader acceptance of the genre, subsequent novelists used critical discourse in part to establish either their uniqueness or their worthiness as successors to already canonized masters.
In the second part of the book Bartolomeo turns to regular scrutiny of fiction by practitioners of another new genre, periodical reviewing. Critics for The Monthly Review and The Critical Review - in their treatment of the gap between the theoretical potential and practical failure of the novel, and of the issues of gender, morality, and originality - self-consciously stratified prose fiction and its audience in order to establish their position as arbiters of taste for a cultural elite. This degree of consistency vanished, however, when reviewers turned their attention to more formal and generic concerns. The inductive nature of practical criticism ensured balance, not only within reviews of individual works, but among reviewers as a whole in assessing each formal element and subgenre. Critics were quick to dismiss or to question general rules when faced with inferior novels that followed them and superior novels that spurned them.
Such a determined resistance to dogmatic purity in fact constitutes the defining characteristic and greatest virtue of this entire body of critical discourse. Contradiction, uncertainty, and inconsistency - rather than thwarting the success of the novel - contributed to a critical heteroglossia that enabled the new genre to develop in several different directions and thereby to flourish.

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