Sherri asks a really cool question in the comments of the Franzenfreude entry:
Just out of curiosity, what do you consider the genre’s birth? I’m a bit uneducated about the whole history of the genre: novel, but I thought the first novel was written in the 1000’s in Japan (The Tale of Genji)- by a woman! Maybe you mean the western/european history?
I think this is a really interesting topic, so I’d like to answer it in a blog post rather than in the comments.
There’s not much agreement on the origin of the novel. As Sherri points out, The Tale of Genji (1021) has been mentioned as the first novel. So has Boccaccio’s The Decameron (1353). Arguments have also been made in favor of Don Quixote (1605/1615) and The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes and of His Fortunes and Adversities (1554). However, none of these works fit neatly into the most commonly accepted definition of a novel: an extended prose narrative with incidents arranged in a causal chain centering around a psychologically distinguished main character. Don Quixote, for instance, is a parody of the romance, a pre-novelistic form with medieval European roots.
Personally, I think it’s best to think of the novel as having several origins. However, I would argue there is a definite origin of the novel as a genre, i.e., a literary form with a number of practitioners self-consciously working for a sustained period of time. I would point to Britain of the 1740s and 1750s as the start of the genre.
Mid-eighteenth-century Britain was the first country with a large, literature audience affluent enough to spend money on books as entertainment. Beyond these conditions I think it’s important to point out that this was a time in which the definition of a person had changed. Middle class Britons lived novelistic lives. They were individuals who made free choices in realistic circumstances. In this way they achieved an autonomy of self that would have been unimaginable to, say, a medieval Englishman.
Samuel Richardson is the first creator of complex novelistic characters. His Pamela (1740/41) is generally regarded as the first fully realized English novel. Significantly, it’s a marriage plot in which a young woman struggles for the right to freely choose her husband.
Henry Fielding is perhaps the first self-conscious novelist. Both Joseph Andrews (1742) and Tom Jones (1749) contain essayistic passages describing the novel as a genre. (By the way, heteroglossia, or the mixing of writing types, has also been advanced as a distinguishing characteristic of the novel.)
Finally, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (first volume 1759) is important because Sterne is explicitly playing with the genre’s rules just as they are becoming codified. By the late 1750s the novel had coalesced to the point at which it could produce an anti-novel.
This account may be too Anglo-centric. It’s derived from Ian Watt and Michael McKeon, two historians of British literature. On the other hand, some people–some Arabs, for example–have cited this history as ground for dismissing the novel as a purely European genre and therefore irredeemably foreign to non-Western literary traditions.
In any event, I think it’s important to remember that the novel as a genre was born at the same time the middle class individual was born. I believe that the novel, more than any other narrative form, most closely resembles how middle class people actually live. That was the case in mid-eighteenth-century Britain, and it remains true now.
And thanks, Sherri, for asking such a great question.