Conference Abstracts | ASECS 2009

Newspaper Seriality and the Morality of Abridgement in the Early English Novel

Lee Kahan
Indiana University South Bend

As Stuart Sherman and others have argued, the eighteenth-century witnessed the birth of a new sense of time, one in which “durations regularly marked and transmuted into language accumulate in an unbroken, potentially open-ended series” (Telling Time 8). The newspaper played a paramount role in this new sense of time, as the intermittent news of the seventeenth century gave way to the serialized papers of the eighteenth century. The tendency among critics has been to associate this new sense of time as regularly marked with both a more ordered perception of reality and a more disciplined approach to its interpretation. J. Paul Hunter, for example, associates the newspaper’s “virtue[s] of predictability and continuity” with the rationalistic “desire to interpret by accumulation” (Before Novels 176, 178). For novel scholars like Hunter, the novel followed the newspaper’s lead, adopting its sense of time and appealing to the same desire that motivated its popularity.

In this paper, I would like to complicate this genealogy by examining ways that early eighteenth-century novels resisted this new sense of time and why they did so. While critical discourse about seriality is often infused with a progressivist rhetoric, the predictability and continuity of newspapers were not unequivocally regarded as “virtues” nor were they associated with rational interpretation. Instead, anti-newspaper discourse characterized seriality as one of the primary means by which news writers involved their readers in fictional worlds of their own making. They were accused of abusing its power in two ways: first, to create a dangerous reality effect that replaced real events with representations that mirrored reality in the slowness and steadiness of its unfolding; second, to generate a heightened state of suspense that produced the irrational desire for further details of any kind. According to newspaper critics, whether these details were true or not made no difference to the reader so long as they advanced the story.

I will show that early eighteenth-century novels frequently critique these workings of seriality through characters who use it to involve others in interested fictions of their own making. Such characters are invariably associated with the concept of “intelligence,” thereby invoking the many newspapers that used that word in their titles. While I will draw on a host of early works, my primary test cases will be Defoe’s True and Genuine Account … of Jonathan Wild and Moll Flanders. In both of these works, the heroes’ profits depend upon their ability to immerse their victims in tales that develop through the gradual accumulation of detail—a method at odds with both the narrative discontinuity of the works themselves and the narrative theory of the editors of those works, which emphasizes the rational benefits of isolated moral episodes over the irrational desire for a developing story. In the end, the characters at the center of these works are forced to reform their narrative practices by abridging their own tales, thereby underscoring the validity of the editor’s narrative practice and purging the novel of the dangerous reality effect associated with serialization. The novel therefore not only plays up the dangers of serialization but also associates its reform with the narrative practices of the novel itself. In doing so, Defoe (and, I will argue, other novelists of the period) uses newspaper seriality not only to defray similar concerns about his own genre but also to legitimate the novel’s cultural value—ironically, as a cure for the dangerous reality effect that the novel itself was frequently accused of creating.

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