An Anarchy of Authors

If you worry whether you are too fond of applying abstract standards to life, one good cure, at least for me, is the study of history.

It’s perhaps easy to feel confused in today’s world, to wonder if you know what you should and shouldn’t be doing: the nice thing about reading up on other time periods is that you realise they had no idea, either.

I’m currently reading Ian Watt’s brilliant study of the early English novel, The Rise of the Novel, and his account of 18th century life and manners is very reassuring, because in the areas where they might have been expected to feel confident, they felt quite at sea, and in the areas where they were confident, their attitudes and assumptions now seem fairly ridiculous.

(This post is part of a series on my PhD Comp exams)

If you are a writer yourself, for instance, and sometimes worry that some snooty New York Times person doesn’t consider you a “real” author, the good news is that the 18th century was just as snooty.

Samuel Johnson, for example, lamented:

The province of writing was formerly left to those who, by study or appearance of study, were supposed to have gained knowledge unattainable by the busy part of mankind.

and:

The present age may be styled, with great propriety, the Age of Authors; for perhaps, there never was a time in which men of all degrees of ability, of every kind of education, of every profession and employment, were posting with ardour so general to the press.

Or, when one reads Henry Fielding writing, at the very start of the novel form, that the writers of his time had lost touch with the “ancient laws,” and that even the world of literary criticism had become a “downright anarchy,” it makes similiar high-minded critiques, written today, seem even less interesting.

Watt is very illuminating, too, in how he accounts for the popularity of the novel in terms of the new level of leisure afforded to middle-class women. In mid-18th century England, at least in the metropolitan centres, it was now possible to buy a great variety of goods, goods which households, in previous generations, had been required to make themselves. Suddenly there was far less work to do, both for the lady of the house and her servants.

Certainly, by our standards, 18th century domestic life would still seem outrageously toilsome and repetitive, requiring huge amount of work simply to keep the lights lit and the water clean. However, by the standards of the past, educated women did have far less to do than their counterparts a century before–yet they were also harshly limited, if married, in their ability to do paying work.

Unable to go out into the world and work, no longer required to sew and cut the shirts and linens now available for purchase in the local market, a (relatively) huge reading market had appeared, ready for the kind of extended, domestically-focused entertainment that this new genre–the novel–would provide.

Of course, such a view of an entire era was not possible to the people living through it, and many complained about this new novel-reading craze. This suggests to me that we contemporary people must be similarly unaware of the very real reasons prompting our more peculiar cultural trends, and so we should probably spend less time worrying about the ones we happen to dislike.

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