- Novel Ventures: Fiction and Print Culture in England, 1690–1730 by Leah Orr
I will be deeply disappointed if Orr's work does not inspire imitators. She begins with the premise that, when confronted with the "complex and messy" collection of fiction in the early eighteenth century, rather than choose to eliminate chaos by selecting a handful of texts and forcing a progressive and linear "rise," we should instead approach the corpus of fictions "without predetermined conclusions" because "their values may baffle us, but that does not make them less valid."
Of course, it is worth noting that assessing what counts as fiction in a period of generic slipperiness is easier said than done, as Orr herself notes: "How do we study fiction in a world that seldom distinguished fact from fiction, new from old, original from translation?" Her corpus, which consists of "nearly five hundred separate works of fiction printed in England between 1690 and 1730" is, as she notes, a task only truly achievable in a time when the bibliographies of fiction and the English Short Title Catalogue can be brought to bear on the digital corpora of Early English Books Online (EEBO) and Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (ECCO). Orr adds to that sum a valuable appendix of over two dozen works of fiction not included in McBurney's Checklist of English Prose Fiction, 1700–1739. She considers both printed works newly published in the period and reprints, providing a rich sense of the works available in the marketplace. Published fiction, she argues, was so disconnected from the notion of "serious" literature that it provides [End Page 192] "greater insight into the business side of the literary production than other forms of writing do."
It is worth noting that these parameters cannot wholly account for earlier texts encountered in private collections or via manuscript circulation, which was still a viable mode for text transmission. And while an easy answer would be that such forms of circulation were too exclusive to be considered alongside the prose fiction corpus in print, Orr's own findings about the nature of the fiction marketplace reject such a simplification. These correctives about "common knowledge" are one of the most important contributions of this monograph. She also provides useful correctives and compelling arguments for claims that the fiction marketplace was much smaller than previously assumed, that chapbook readers "would have to have reading skills at least as good as a reader of a simple amorous tale," that "many works of fiction were anonymous because readers were not concerned with who wrote them, and authors were not trying to make a reputation for themselves by writing fiction."
Her description of her focus as on "texts, booksellers, and readers" belies her primary engagement with textual apparatus—in many cases the primary resource for evidence about the latter two categories. Orr notes that the barriers to accessing texts are "no longer a problem" which is largely true, though it is a claim that deserves (at least) two caveats: (1) the majority of the digital surrogates used to fuel this work are held by proprietary databases; and (2) the category of "surviving texts" is an incredibly important qualifier. These of course do not undercut in any way the contribution of Orr's work here: it is as comprehensive as possible, and I look forward to her data being fruitfully joined to complementary work in the future.
Because so much of Orr's work seems ripe for extension by scholars working on other genres or other periods, I find myself wishing there were a way truly to see her method and her data—admittedly an impossibility within the constraints of the monograph form. Her thirteen tables are a tantalizing snapshot of the hard-won, and largely invisible, labor of building controlled vocabularies and imposing taxonomies on a wildly variable corpus.
What Orr does with this substantial corpus is nevertheless useful: analyzing and enumerating genre term strategy in title pages and advertisements and rethinking our existing categories and taxonomies. Her observations on her novel...