Sunday, May 07, 2006

Is there anything new under the sun?

So, I’ve begun this scholarly book on the early novel, William Warner’s Licensing Entertainment – it’s a book I should have read for school a long time ago but didn’t, and now I’m returning to it because I find the topic interesting. I love eighteenth-century literature, and particularly the novel; I find the story of the “rise,” or emergence, or development, or history, or whatever you want to call it, of the novel fascinating, and this book gives a new perspective.

One of the things this book argues is that our contemporary worries about entertainment and new forms of media are not actually new – these worries existed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries too, when the novel was just getting going and when technology made books easier and cheaper to print. The forms of media are different – people then were uncertain about the effects of reading novels, while people today are more likely to be concerned about other forms such as television and video games. And I don’t mean to imply that all these forms are equivalent in their effects on a culture. But people in the eighteenth century argued that the novel was dangerously focused on pleasure and was morally corrupt. They saw it as people see “lower” forms of culture today, as cheap, often sexually-scandalous pleasures:

Novels have been a respectable component of culture for so long that it is difficult for twentieth-century observers to grasp the unease produced by novel reading in the eighteenth century…during the decades following 1700, a quantum leap in the number, variety, and popularity of novels led many to see novels as a catastrophe to book-centered culture…Any who would defend novels had to cope with the aura of sexual scandal which clings to the early novel, and respond to the accusation that they were corrupting to their enthusiastic readers.

Can you imagine seeing the novel as a catastrophe to book culture? And today some people worry that others aren’t reading novels. Here is one commentator, Clara Reeve, from the end of the eighteenth century writing about novels in the earlier part of the century:

The press groaned under the weight of Novels, which sprung up like mushrooms every year …. Novels did but now begin to increase upon us, but ten years more multiplied them tenfold. Every work of merit produced a swarm of imitators, till they became a public evil, and the institution of Circulating library, conveyed them in the cheapest manner to every bodies hand.

And these novels were corrupting the youth. This is Warner again; the phrases he’s quoting come from another eighteenth-century commentator, Vicesimus Knox:

This saturation of culture by novels defeats that most time-honored method for protecting the innocence of youth from “the corruptions of the living world” – namely, physically secluding them from the “temptations” and “vice” of that world. Still worse, when novels are transported into the “recesses of the closet” used for free private reading or writing, they insinuate themselves into the mental life of the young reader, where they can “pollute the heart,” “inflame the passions,” and “teach all the malignity of vice.”

So some things have changed, some haven’t. We're worried about the effects of new forms of entertainment on those who consume them. We’re still worrying about the vast numbers of novels out there and their supposedly low quality. We still think our reading culture is debased and getting worse. We still have people worrying about the corrupting influence of some novels and wanting to ban or censor them, although the act of reading a novel itself isn’t as suspect. Except, as Alberto Manguel describes, many are suspicious of those who devote hours to novel reading, and probably many of us have had parents who were anxious about the hours we spent reading as a child. There’s something about the privacy of the act that makes people nervous.

I like reminders that our culture’s current-day worries are actually quite old. Those who worry about “scandalous” content in contemporary novels should go read Aphra Behn’s Love Letters or Eliza Haywood’s Love in Excess. They might be in for a surprise.