Reality and the Novel: How Fiction Enables Novel Readers to Probe Reality
Presenter: William Warner is Professor of English at UC Santa Barbara. His research and teaching focuses on the long history of mediation, from 18th-century print culture and 20th-century media. His work in the 18th century has focused upon understanding how the novel emerged, over the course of the 18th century, as the dominant form of print entertainment: Licensing Entertainment: The Elevation of Novel Reading in Britain, 1684-1750 (UC Press, 1998); and on the media history of Enlightenment: with Clifford Siskin he is editor of This is Enlightenment Chicago, 2010). More recently he has published Protocols of Liberty: Communication Innovation and the American Revolution (Chicago, 2013), winner of the 2014 Gottschalk Prize, given by American Society for Eighteenth Century. Most recently he has turned his attention to exploring the relationship between reality and the novel.
Description: This presentation will develop several related ideas. 20th century critics (like Auerbach, Watt and others) used the late 19th century concept of “realism” to frame the emergence of the modern novel in the 18th century. This had the effect of virtualizing reality so that novelistic representation is understood as a simulation that is decisively separated from reality. Poststructuralist critics like Roland Barthes argued that within literature reality is an effect of language, thereby putting quotes around “reality.” This renders reality inaccessible to novelistic language and literary analysis. My approach begins by dispensing with this skeptical form of the realist creed and by taking the quotes off of reality. Then we can begin to take seriously the various ways in which early novelists engaged reality. For example, through the description of actual settings or the incorporation of the rhythms of ordinary speech within narrative, the new novels of the long 18th century (from Cervantes to Austen) give the reader an experience that was, and still is, fraught with realities.