With the incredibly popular works of fiction pervading our culture today -- Harry Potter, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Twilight, The Hunger Games, the list goes on -- it's difficult to imagine a time when the novel didn't exist. Unlike other genres of writing, however, the novel has its origins in fairly recent history.
"Nobody asks what was the first play, or what was the first poem," says Leah Orr, a specialist in 18th-century literature who received her Ph.D. from Penn State in May, "because those forms have existed before there was English. Fiction is a uniquely modern form -- not uniquely English, specifically -- but it became the great English genre after the 18th century."
Orr's dissertation, "Did the Novel Rise? Fiction and Print Culture in England, 1690-1730," rebuts the longstanding notion that the novel as we now know it became a recognized form and rose to prominence during that time period. That conception of early fiction, she argues, is based on close readings of a few famous texts by major authors, such as Daniel Defoe and Aphra Behn, and neglects the broader literary context in which those texts were written and first read.
Working closely with Robert D. Hume, Evan Pugh Professor of English Literature, Orr researched early 18th-century conceptions of fiction from the distinct perspectives of writers, publishers and readers.
She confesses that she initially pursued a degree in English not because she intended to study a few great authors like Shakespeare and Dickens, but because she liked reading. "I appreciate great literature, but I'm not in it because I just want to read a few works very closely. I'm more interested in just reading everything" -- renowned and obscure works alike and lots of popular fiction, including an entire shelf of Michael Crichton books Orr read as a child. "It was interesting for me to see parallels to what the popular fiction of the 18th century was like," she says.
In the course of her dissertation, she has read some 475 works of fiction printed during 1690-1730. "Some were bad," she admits, but "some were surprisingly good too, and they were mostly all entertaining."
The focus of her dissertation emerged at the intersection of two smaller projects: a bibliography of 18th-century fiction and an independent study of fiction from that period. While completing her independent study, Orr encountered a number of prominent literary critics who described the rise of the novel in terms of a few select authors -- as a simple progression from Daniel Defoe, to Samuel Richardson, to Henry Fielding. "I was reading this alongside this bibliography of hundreds of other items," she says, "and it just didn't seem to add up."