- In Praise of Fiction: Prefaces to Romances and Novels, 1650–1760 by Baudouin Millet
Leuven: Peeters, 2017.
510pp. €82. ISBN 978-90-429-3310-1.
Until relatively recently, prefaces to prose fiction have been considered introductory material of little critical interest, passages that simply pro claim the veracity of the following narrative or anticipate critics or charges of forgery or plagiarism. The paratexts of Henry Fielding, Samuel Richardson, and Laurence Sterne stand as notable exceptions, wherein these writers theorize the writing of fiction. Baudouin Millet argues that omit ting the seemingly benign preface that describes the circumstances of the narrative misses the stakes of this framing device in the period. Millet identifies two major categories of prefatory material: fictional prefaces or pseudo-editorial prefaces, where the preface tells a story about the origins of the following narrative, and argumentative or authorial paratexts, which present abstract or critical considerations to the reader. These two broad types are not mutually exclusive, and part of this anthology's [End Page 598] thesis is that both comment on "the status of a fictional work; and they produce, either positively or negatively, discourses about the fictionality of the work they introduce" (10).
The anthology enables a form of distant reading, allowing us to read prefaces in the aggregate. Entries are organized by author and ordered by date of the first work, highlighting the large number of Continental translations in the 1650s, which gradually decline, and the rise of the critical paratext in the years 1740–60. Millet describes early fiction writers as working with an "anxiety of transgression" (16), first requiring the repeated claim to veracity, a claim that paradoxically becomes an indicator of fictionality. In the 1750s, this concern is mostly replaced with the Bloomian "anxiety of influence (or indebtedness)" (23), bringing to the fore questions of originality. The repetitive nature of many of the prefaces is part of the point: Millet seeks to articulate a range of genres within the preface, related to but distinct from the generic classification of its narrative. Building on Gérard Genette's generic perspectives, Millet argues that "prefaces can, therefore, more or less explicitly offer codes with which to read the romance/novel they introduce" (14).
Despite the heavy shadow that Fielding et al. cast over both the prefatory material and the footnotes, prefaces by the "great male masters" (3) are not included. The anthology also does not include other major fictional prefaces by Eliza Haywood, Delarivier Manley, and others featured in Ioan Williams's Novel and Romance 1700–1800 (1970; reprint, New York: Routledge, 2012). As with all decisions of inclusion, this choice has benefits and drawbacks. On the one hand, this anthology allows us to see the prefaces to prose writing in the aggregate, rather than focusing on the already well-known (and sometimes atypical) examples. On the other hand, Millet often notes how various prefaces anticipate or respond to ideas of fictionality in Fielding and Richardson, with footnotes referencing prefaces that are not included in Millet's collection. I appreciate how this anthology makes a case for a way of reading prefaces, rather than simply publishing a group of texts many would prefer to skip, but occasionally this singular focus inhibits the reading of the anthology. Thomas Lediard's 1738 preface reads: "I have placed fictitious Names over some of the initial Letters, where I think Reputation is concern'd," which Millet footnotes with "a device also used by Richardson in Pamela" (330). This is a fact both widely known by the specialists that seem to be targeted by this anthology and also not particularly relevant, since that 1740 novel is certainly not unique in using this device.
As the focus on romance and the novel indicate, Millet is most interested in bringing the preface into the centre of the conversation on fictionality among (especially) Michael McKeon, Catherine Gallagher, and William [End Page 599] B. Warner. While this conversation remains relevant, the stakes feel less high when most of the critical citations come from the 1990s (the most recent being from a decade ago...