Along with the movie and the advertisement, the novel is the central aesthetic form of our time. Yet it is clear that, despite our association of the novel with modernity, narrative forms looking remarkably like the modern novel arise in periods as diverse as Hellenistic antiquity and medieval France, and can be found in quite other civilizations, notably China. It is tempting to describe the novel as a collection of very disparate genres (as an influential essay by Gustavo Pérez Firmat once put it) rather than a singular and coherent form. Alternatively, we can think, as Mikhail Bakhtin does, of a series of parallel histories working through successive transformations and incorporating a range of other genres in the shaping of the loosely related forms that we think of as making up the contemporary novel.

The two volumes of The Novel (distilled from the five volumes of the prior Italian collection, Il Romanzo) contribute substantially to raising and theorizing these questions. You could say, schematically, that there are two main lines of filiation in twentieth-century novel theory, one running from Georg Lukács’s Theory of the Novel (1917), the other from the work of Bakhtin. In Lukács’s great essay an essentializing account of genre is mapped onto an essentializing story about history, such that the novel’s historico-philosophical force is seen to lie in the coincidence of its structural categories with those of the modern world. Deeply time-bound, the novel is defined by the negative shape of its central categories: its fall from epic totality to ‘modern’ fragmentation, its thematization of the lack of fit between the problematic individual and the dead or demonic world of social convention, the principle of irony which seeks to correct the world’s lack of immanent meaning, and a temporality which is at once the dead weight of routine, an order of memory, and the impossible promise of a future transcendence. Bakhtin’s work, by contrast, is concerned less with the correspondence of social with literary forms than with the transformative work of novelistic discourse on the discourses that carry the social.

This collection is, by and large, much more interested in the Lukácsian problematic of the relation between morphology and social forms. In his brief foreword to Volume One, Franco Moretti writes that ‘the novel is always commodity and artwork at once: a major economic investment and an ambitious aesthetic form . . . Don’t be surprised, then, if an epistemological analysis of “fiction” slides into a discussion of credit and paper money or if a statistical study of the Japanese book market becomes a reflection on narrative morphology’. There’s a version of this concern in Andrew Plaks’s essay on the emergence of the Chinese novel, when he writes that

such long-range trends as population shifts to the great cities of the Yangtze Delta region and the rise of urban culture, the conversion to a silver-based money economy, commercialization, commodification, incipient industrialization—even overseas colonization, to name just the most striking factors, seem not entirely unrelated to the appearance of a new form of prose literature so well suited to questioning the values of the old order.

These arguments have to do with underlying conditions, but Plaks then moves to pose the question in terms of the formal categories organizing this new genre: in the period of the classic Chinese novel the ‘paradigmatic Confucian act of self-cultivation’ shifts ‘from the moral integrity of the autonomous individual acting within the web of human relations (in Chinese, the physical person: shen) to the ideal of integral wholeness at the core of the inner self, expressed with the term xin (“heart” or “mind”)’.