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Before Fiction: The Ancien Régime of the Novel by Nicholas D Paige (review)

From: Studies in the Novel
Volume 45, Number 1, Spring 2013
pp. 134-136 | 10.1353/sdn.2013.0004

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There is a growing body of criticism that seeks to reexamine the rise of the novel, moving away from the focus on realism and considering instead the development of fictionality. Before Fiction is an exciting addition to this line of thought: a series of close readings of early French novels in terms of their understandings of the space of fiction. But it is much more than that. On a broader level, the book is a reflection on how we understand innovation and development in literature, and the way that literary history is written.

Paige begins by distinguishing between what he dubs three different regimes of fiction (being careful to clarify that by “regimes” he is not referring to Foucauldian epistemes or Thomas Kuhn’s paradigms): the Aristotelian, the pseudofactual, and the fictional. In the Aristotelian model, which takes as its starting point Aristotle’s distinction between poetry and history, authors adapt history and known characters into stories with ‘good,’ or unified, plots. The second regime, which dates from around 1670 to the early nineteenth century, is the pseudofactual (a term he takes from Barbara Foley’s work of 1986, Telling the Truth: The Theory and Practice of Documentary Fiction), in which authors pose as editors who present ‘found’ manuscripts to the public. The third phase could be considered modern fiction as we know it, in which authors expect that readers will take their works not as literally true, but as representative of reality despite being invented. Although this is often seen by critics as the moment of realism’s triumph, where novels could purport to describe real life without pretending to be literally true—what Paige calls the “‘more and more real’ narrative” (20) of theorists such as Dorrit Cohn—it can more appropriately be seen as the rise of an openly fictional mode, the acceptance that a novel is not real.

It is the transition between the pseudofactual and the fictional that Paige focuses on, as have many critics working on the idea of fictionality. Paige provides an overview of these approaches, focusing particularly on the works of Lennard Davis, Barbara Foley, and Catherine Gallagher. The problem with their accounts, he writes, is that the transition between the two modes becomes increasingly unclear, as modern fictionality comes to be seen as already present within the pseudofactual. What is more, the insistence on a noticeable shift between the two forms fails to account for the longevity of the pseudofactual pretense: if the idea of a wholly invented story became acceptable, why did authors continue to insist that their stories were true well into the nineteenth century?

Here the broader project of the book becomes clear. Paige is writing against what one might call the ‘paradigm-shifting masterpiece’ version of literary evolution, our view that certain novels revolutionize literary form, inventing new techniques that redefine the literary field: “We see our canonical novels of the past as an archipelago connected to the mainland of now, whereas they may be only a series of data points acting as hosts for our perception of patterns—patterns we perceive based on our knowledge of what is to come” (25). Instead, he suggests that fiction be considered as “nebula of writing practices and ideas about writing—techniques invented and modified, sometimes quickly and sometimes not, through a difficult-to-specify dialectical relationship with what people think literature can and should do” (205). This means that Paige does not see novels as necessarily symptomatic of broader social anxieties or trends, though he does not deny their relation to the cultures and historical moments from which they emerge, or the possibility of links between discourses of fiction and those of law, science, or economics. He remains focused, however, on the mechanics of form, considering it, in a sense, as a set of technological developments, “devices that need to be invented and then worked on by their inventor and the inventor’s competition” (33). Seeing fiction in this way, in morphological terms, rather than as a symptom of other conceptual or social movements, opens up a series of fascinating questions about how literary form changes that have remained, Paige asserts, largely unexplored.

Each chapter skillfully combines a close...

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