Rumour of voices in a literary dispute. the pros and cons in the evolution of the novel genre in the 18th century
The position of the novel as a genre was not easy in the 18th century. Yet in the 17th century, but mostly in the 18th, new genres appeared and – what is more important – changes could have been observed in the approach to the existing ones. Modern novel emerged at the time when the official, compulsory doctrine was classicism, but when social, cultural and literary realities created by this doctrine changed so much that they demanded a new debate, a revision of the positions, a renewing of already defined and commonly accepted patterns. Criticism of the new novel was developed mainly in two directions: in the field of morality where the novel was believed to harm when presenting love (an indecent model to imitate), and in the field of aesthetics, where it was constantly suspected to be harmful as an unrecognised genre, deprived of rules, based on fiction, lacking of likeliness. Novelists were accused of spreading low-valued tastes and corrupting the readers’ tastes. Critics despised their works arguing that they were not true literature. Critics as well as novelists were divided into two camps: the orthodox, conservative, who were unfavourable to the development of the genre, and its defenders who were able to find arguments and strategies to respond to criticism. Novel was generally ill-famed, but, at the same time, it was supported by a large crowd of faithful readers who gave it strength. As a result of the attacks on the genre, the novelists faced a dilemma: they could either agree with the positive argument of the morality lesson and present only an idealised picture of human nature, which was not true, or they could present human nature like it actually was and be accused of showing bad, corrupting examples. In the dispute between novel opponents and defenders, the role of the critics should be emphasised, because they were actually the ones who reoriented the development of the novel in a new direction due to their strong position in the field of literature. Thank to their badly disposed attitude towards the genre, they turned off the novelists from extravagancies and forced them to realism. As to the novelists, by opposing literary tradition, they developed the genre giving it a new freshness that would revolutionise the literature of Enlightenment.