It's been a bit quiet round here: lots of triathlon training, and I'm trying (with only partial success) not to spend so much time online. Thought I would share this prospectus of sorts: it has served various practical purposes recently, in slightly different variations, and I think I am ready to go on the record with it.
My goal for the next three to five years is an ambitious book project whose working title is The ABCs of the Novel. (My initial title was the more evocative Bread and Butter of the Novel, but one too many people asked me whether I was writing about food in literature, and I realized that rather than the British “bread-and-butter,” meaning elementary or basic, the American “ABCs” would better convey the breaking-down-to-fundamentals aspect of the work I hoped to do.) My first two scholarly books are histories more than anything else, and my own critical imagination remains strongly historical in its procedures and materials. I have found myself wondering, though, what might be done in a non- or even anti-historicist mode: not so much the ‘new formalism’ as a willfully timeless and non-chronologically governed development of the insights of narrative theorists as various as Wayne Booth and Gérard Genette. I have decided to experiment with an abecedarian form something like that of Milosz’s ABCs, Raymond Williams’ Keywords or Barthes’s looser variations on that theme, with the goal of exploring the genre of the novel as widely and deeply as possible and attempting to sum up the results of what now represents about twenty-five years of serious reading on my part in the novel and narrative theory.
As the book is not yet written, it still has a near-magical luster for me (see Samuel Johnson’s lament for “the dreams of a poet doomed at last to wake a lexicographer”): it will be composed of entries that range from 250 words at the shortest to about 6,000 words for more substantive essays. Sample topics include fundamentals about first- and third-person narration, epistolarity, the Pamela-Shamela controversy and narrative epistemologies, the problem of authorial revision, the whys and wherefores of an ongoing communal failure in eighteenth-century studies to supersede or replace the narrative of the ‘rise of the novel’ offered by Ian Watt some fifty years ago, and the emergence of a set of conventions for the notation of human gesture in prose (Sterne and Diderot both loom large in that story). The book will also include brief and highly selective accounts of such topics as the prose fictions of the ancient world and of Japan c. 1000 C.E., romance, fiction and the counterfactual mode, Dostoevsky’s doubles, Tolstoy’s style, theories and histories of the novel by Lukacs, Henry James, E. M. Forster, D. H. Lawrence, Fredric Jameson et al., and a host of other topics.
Alongside this perhaps hubristically ambitious book, I hope to assemble a couple of associated smaller-scale projects: a collection of essays more tightly focused on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British fiction (this will include pieces I’ve already published as well as some new writing composed especially for that volume); and a short book on Richardson’s Clarissa, directed towards teachers, students and others who would like to read this dauntingly long novel and are not sure how to embark on that project. My other associated dream project is to write the introduction for a new trade edition of Clarissa, preferably published in an attractive three-volume format something like 1Q84; there are few things I would like more in life than to get that novel into the hands of a wider audience of readers.
As far as the essay collection goes, I envisage a volume that would reprint these four already published pieces along with four or five new ones composed specifically for the book and with a view to providing a good range of coverage (possibilities might include essays on Haywood, Fielding, Richardson, Smollett, Burney). These are the essays I’ve already written: (1) “Austen’s Voices,” included in Swift’s Travels: Essays in Honor of Claude Rawson (Cambridge, 2008), considers some fundamental points about the first- and third-person forms of narration that Austen inherits from her eighteenth-century predecessors, especially the prose satirists, and modifies radically according to her own vision and priorities. (2) “Restoration Theatre and the Eighteenth-Century Novel,” forthcoming in Tom Keymer’s Oxford History of the Novel in English, Vol. 1: Origins of Print to 1775, sets forth a simple-minded but provocative hypothesis about what eighteenth-century prose fiction might owe to the forms of notation for bodily action that were developed in the dialogue and stage directions of Restoration comedy. (3) “Reflections on the ‘minute particular’ in life-writing and the novel” (under revision) asks some similar questions about particular detail as it functions in realist fiction and eighteenth-century life-writing, (4) The chapter on Austen for the forthcoming Blackwell Companion to British Literature, edited by Robert DeMaria, Jr. and colleagues.