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How Did They Write the Book?

How Did They Write the Book? is the definitive coffee-table-style book on the history of the novel. It is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in the subject, and a great souvenir for fans of the genre. It covers the invention of the modern novel in all its aspects – from early beginnings in the 17th century, to social commentary, literary invention, and experimentation, right up to the present day. It is an incredible celebration of a story that started with the printing press over 400 years ago, and continues to evolve with the times.

The Birth of the Modern Novel

For centuries, the novel had existed in one form or another, but it was not until the late 17th century that it began to be recognized as a separate literary form. In reality, the novel had been around for much longer than that – it had just never been given a name. During this time, it was more like an extended story in verse, or short stories woven into longer works. The 17th century was a golden age for the novel, and it was during this time that the term ‘novel’ was first used to refer to the literary form. The literary establishment of the day began to value the form highly, and hailed the works of Wolfgang Goethe, William Shakespeare, and John Milton as some of the great examples of the genre.

Diversifying the Genre

The early 18th century was a time of great upheaval in literary culture. The Age of Enlightenment was in full swing, putting a new emphasis on reason and logic, as well as challenging traditional values. At the same time, the scientific revolution was making its presence felt in fields such as biology and chemistry, challenging the accepted views on traditional gender roles and the like. As a result, the traditional view of the novel – as a male-dominated genre centered on sword and sorcery, chivalrous love, and the like – began to be questioned. People wanted to read about the lives of female scientists and famous women inventors, as well as the heroes of the French and Indian Wars. The historical novels of the period vividly recount these dramatic events, providing a platform for female authors to explore social issues and questions of equality. One of the first literary works with a primarily female perspective to emerge from this cultural milieu is Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 classic, Little Women.

The Great Awakening

The late 1800s and early 1900s were a period of great innovation in many fields, including literature. While women had previously been able to contribute to the genre, the first true ‘roles’ for women in literature were established in the late 1800s, with works such as George Eliot’s 1868 collection of short stories, Dinah Craik’s 1902 novel, The Simple Life, and Charlotte Bronte’s 1875 novel, Villette. These works and others established ‘New Woman’ as a distinct literary category, challenging traditional views of femininity and female-female relations, and marking the beginning of a modern era for women in literature. One of the central works of this period is William Dean Howells’ 1879 novel, The Lady of Lebanon, which not only uses the form to explore new ways of thinking about women, but also to question a number of social issues, from race relations to the effect of the modern school system on young people. The early 20th century would see the rise of the modern novel in all its forms, as writers such as Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway would bring the form into the modern age. In the case of Woolf, her 1906 masterpiece, Mrs. Dalloway, is probably the most famous and influential of all novels – the first installment of the quartet that would make up her celebrated ‘war and peace’ trilogy.

Breaking Down the Boundaries

In the decades that followed the First World War, the boundaries of the novel began to break down, as new literary forms such as the ‘problem novel’ emerged. One of the earliest and best-known problem novels is Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1927 novel, Pelican Island, which consists of a collection of linked short stories that address issues ranging from childhood obesity to drug addiction. The form would later be used with great effect in William Burroughs’ novels, bringing a new dimension to the form – a more experiential approach, as the stories are linked not by a single plot, but by a number of thematic connections that form a single ‘problematic’ whole. Burroughs described the form in this memorable way:

“What the hell do I do with all this canvas and paint? I’m supposed to be painting pictures, not writing about them.”

These are some of the questions that How Did They Write the Book? asks and answers. It is an all-time classic in the field, bursting at the seams with interesting and valuable information about some of the greatest inventions in literary history.