The novel is centuries older than we've been told | Books | guardian.co.uk
I was misled by my advisers, as Bertie Wooster would say. At university in the early 1970s, I was led to believe the novel originated in England in the 18th century, and no professor told me otherwise as I pursued my PhD in the 1980s. Sometimes Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe was mentioned as a prototype, but according to literary dogma the novel experienced a kind of virgin birth with Pamela, Samuel Richardson's epistolary novel of 1740. But outside the walls of academe, in those alternative classrooms called used bookshops, I kept coming across books that certainly looked like novels but obviously predated Pamela. There was not only Lady Murasaki's Tale of Genji, a huge novel written around 1010, but the shorter Tale of the Lady Ochikubo, written a few decades earlier. I picked up the Everyman's edition of The Story of Burnt Njal, a 13th-century Icelandic fiction that was labeled a "saga" but looked very much like a realistic novel. I came across multivolume Chinese novels from the Ming Dynasty like The Golden Lotus, a sordidly realistic novel from Shakespeare's time. I read Robert Graves's White Goddess and was puzzled by his reference to "a novel called The Recognitions" that dated from the 4th century. There were novels in the 4th century?
I also came across works of fiction that didn't resemble conventional novels but reminded me of the unconventional, experimental ones I was reading at the time. Apuleius's Golden Ass (written around 160 AD) read like something John Barth might have written, while Petronius's Satyricon (written a century earlier) looked like a Thomas Pynchon novel. Rabelais's 16th-century Gargantua and Pantagruel resembled any number of gargantuan, Rabelaisian 20th-century novels from James Joyce's Ulysses to Gilbert Sorrentino's Mulligan Stew.
It dawned on me that there was a problem with nomenclature. What most people mean by a novel is the "conventional" novel, or "modern," or "realistic" novel. But I'm more interested in the noun than its qualifying adjectives. While I regard a novel as any book-length work of fiction –a definition endorsed by Webster's dictionary and EM Forster's Aspects of the Novel – most literature professors want to limit the term to realistic fictions set in identifiable sociocultural contexts, especially ones that make psychological probes into human nature. While that definition might exclude a few of the titles above, it describes most of the others to a T. (The Tale of Genji is a realistic novel that displays more psychological insight than almost any European novel before the 20th century.) But unfortunately, the first editors of many of these early novels labeled them "romances" or "sagas" or satires, folk epics, tales, pastorals, legends, picaresques, and other terms, which allowed literature professors to ignore them. Or I should say, those professors who are aware of them: I suspect most professors have never even heard of The Tale of Lady Ochikubo or The Golden Lotus, so their status as novels is a non-issue for them.