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New Left Review 52, July-August 2008

Moretti’s 5-volume Il romanzo recast the field of the novel—historically deeper, geographically wider, morphologically broader. What are the implications for its theory? Prose, adventure and xiaoshuo as explanatory vectors; and prevalence of older power relations in the bourgeoisie’s hegemonic literary form.



There are many ways of talking about the theory of the novel, and mine will consist in posing three questions: Why are novels in prose; Why are they so often stories of adventures; and, Why was there a European, but not a Chinese rise of the novel in the course of the eighteenth century. Disparate as they may sound, the questions have a common source in the guiding idea of the collection The Novel: ‘to make the literary field longer, larger, and deeper’: historically longer, geographically larger, and morphologically deeper than those few classics of nineteenth-century Western European ‘realism’ that have dominated the recent theory of the novel (and my own work). [1] This article was given at the conference ‘Theories of the Novel’, organized by Novel, at Brown University, in the fall of 2007. Except for a couple of passages, expanded in the light of the discussion that followed, I have left the text more or less as it was, only adding a few footnotes. I am very grateful to Nancy Armstrong, who persuaded me to write the paper in the first place; and to D.A. Miller and William Warner, with whom I have discussed it at length. The sentence from The Novel comes from the brief preface (‘On The Novel’) that can be found in both volumes of the Princeton edition (see footnote 2), on p. x. What the questions have in common, then, is that they all point to processes that loom large in the history of the novel, but not in its theory. Here, I will reflect on this discrepancy, and suggest a few possible alternatives.

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Franco Moretti, ‘The Novel: History and Theory’, NLR 52: £3

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