THE RISE AND DEVELOPMENT OF PROSE FICTION

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INTRODUCTION

Prose fiction is a product of man’s imagination and literary creativity which took several centuries to develop to its present form. It started with the traditional story-telling, the epic through romance which is the first fictitious narrative in prose. The French romance influenced European writings for centuries as it brought to “… the English Novel the gift of sustained and complex form and architectonic beauty”(Ezeigbo 2). Apart from the contributions of the likes of Geoffrey Chaucer, Malory, Boccaccio and others who initiated and continued the tradition of fictional narrative either in verse or in prose, other influences flamed the embers of the narrative form to the present genre of prose fiction, especially the novel which is the most popular type.

The evolution of prose fiction required cheap carrier media. Unlike verse, prose can hardly be remembered with precision. Oral traditions had helped prose narrators with stock narrative patterns as employed in fairy tales with or without complex plot structures. However, these stories were not as long as prose fiction which needed a medium that would enable the storyteller tell the story correctly. It is important for us to draw a distinction between the narratives in oral traditions and the prose fiction. The oral narrative is rendered orally in a particular community. The Prose fiction we are discussing in this material, on the other hand, is expected to be read beyond the immediate environment of the author because they are written and printed so could be circulated to many places. Below are some of the factors that aided the rise and development of the new genre.

Availability of Paper

Before the 1450s volumes of verse epics were presented in parchment and their owners recited them on festive occasions. The parchment was too expensive to be used for stories that one would read for leisure but was prestigious. Consequently, only libraries and a few wealthy individuals could afford them. Later, in the course of the 14th and 15th centuries, prose legends became fashionable among the female urban elite who needed to read these books again and again for inspirational purposes so the need for mass production arose.

Fortunately, paper was introduced as a carrier medium and this accelerated the development of prose fiction because paper made the production of cheap books possible. Consequently, one could then buy a book exclusively for one’s private diversion to be read as many times as possible. This created an avenue for production of books in large quantity as the existence of paper in different formats and sizes aided the production of books which someone could carry about or kept to be read at ease privately at home or in public without the support of a table. It became fashionable as part of the early modern reading culture for people to read novels in coffee houses or on journeys. The reader who immerses him- or herself in the noveland wishes to stay undisturbed or to be disturbed only with a look at his or herreading is here an early modern precursor of the modern commuter reading a novel or putting on head phones with the intention to stay private in the public.

Literacy/The Reading Class

Literacy spread among the urban populations of Europe due to a number of factors: Women of wealthier households had learned to read in the 14th and 15th centuries and had become consumers of prose fiction. The Protestant Reformation enkindled propaganda and press wars that lasted into the 18th century so people followed the events by reading the articles. Consequently broadsheets and newspapers became the new media of public information. The early modern customers even learnt to read and write through these publications and writing skills spread among apprentices and women of the middle classes.

The personal letter became a favourite medium of communication among 17th-century men and women. Popular titles sold more as people bought them not necessarily because of the subject matter but “…because they were the books everyone had heard of, or books of an eternal value to be chosen if one was not too sure about one’s abilities to judge. The prefaces exploited these insecurities praising the solid value of the old and well known titles” (Woods et al 456).

Prose fiction became in this situation the medium of open secrets, rumours, private and public gossip, a private, unscientific and irrelevant reading matter, yet one of public relevance as one could openly see that the book one was reading had reached the public as part of a larger edition.

Whether in 11th-century Japan or 15th-century Europe, prose fiction tended to have developed intimate reading situations. Individualistic fashions, personal views, intimate feelings, secret anxieties, “conduct” and “gallantry” spread with novels and people wanted to be part of this new culture. Love became the typical field of experience that prose fiction explored. The reader is invited to personally identify with the novel’s characters and a large number of this reading public was more noticeable in the towns and cities where the literacy level has increased considerably.

Circulating Libraries

The establishment of circulating libraries in Britain in the 18th century also contributed to the development of prose fiction. Subscription rate was cheap and affordable and they stocked wide varieties of prose fiction. It is difficult for one to buy all the published works, so many people patronized the library. Also, some tradesmen, housewives, farmers, shopkeepers who could not afford to buy the books were opportuned to borrow them from the libraries thereby increasing the demand for prose fiction.

Leisure

Prose Fiction was no longer a predominantly aristocratic entertainment around 1700 in England. However printed books gained the power to reach readers of almost all classes, the reading habits differed as more people irrespective of class tried “to follow fashions” by reading more books. In France, their works taught new, on the surface freer, gallant exchange between the sexes as the essence of life at the French court. Aristocratic and bourgeois customers sought distinctly French authors to offer the authentic style of conversations in the 1660s.

Within this period in England, literature became the primary preoccupation of women. They participated fully in learning and reading because ”they have more spare time on their hands, and led a more sedentary life…” (Joseph Addison Guardian 1713. No 155 qouted in Obstfield). Women of the aristocratic and middle classes were left on their own most of the times because “most men led full and busy lives and were hardly at home for most of the day, weeks or even months depending on their profession” (Ezeigbo 5).As the women did not participate in their husbands’ leisure activities, they spent their time in reading voraciously for their own leisure. In addition, the affluent families had nannies, valets and servants who did all the household chores so the ladies and their daughters had time to read as many novels as possible.

The women of the lower class were not left out. After the industrial revolution, these women had more time for leisure because they now had access to factory-made goods like soaps, bread, cloth and other household goods which were previously produced manually by them. They therefore spent their leisure in reading literature to entertain themselves and since prose fiction is easier and simpler to read than poetry and drama, more novels and short stories were produced to cater for the interest of this reading public.

Shift in Reading Taste

In the medieval period, most literate people in Britain read the Bible and other devotional works at their leisure. The industrial revolution brought with it economic and social transformation as well as increase in secular interests and people combined their religious inclinations with secular tastes. Consequently more people devoted their leisure to reading literature instead of religious books and the writers continued with innovations as time went on to meet the changing tastes of the reading public. Readers of fiction were made to experience another life in an intimate privacy of fiction. Topical issues became the subject matter of fiction. For instance, Charles Dickens led the audience into contemporary British workhouses as his novels presented firsthand accounts of child labour and crime became a personal reality with Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (Barnet et al 98).

The exploration of the individual’s perception eventually revolutionized the very modes of writing fiction. The potentially isolated hero that stood at the centre of romantic fictions since the Middle Ages gave way to the early novel(la) that placed the story itself at the centre: it was driven by plot, by incident and accident, rather than being the story of a single largerthan- life figure. However, the individual reappeared with characters like Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, Pamela, and Clarissa that reintroduced the old romantic focus on the individual as the centre of what was to become the modern novel.

Other countries of the world produced their own fiction to reflect their socio-political issues and some longed for national literatures with novels as the “essential production that could link the present with the past” (Obstfeld 23). Africans were not left out as Chinua Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart as a reaction to his perceived wrong portraiture of Africans in earlier novels by foreigners.

The search for one’s personal style stood at the centre of the competition among authors, now that novelists had become publicly celebrated minds and contemporary novelists are stepping into new awareness, winning prestigious prizes and awards. They belong to various associations like the world association of writers P.E.N. Some of the authors are renowned both in their countries and abroad while the ‘exiled author’, who is celebrated by the international audience but is persecuted at home has become a common feature in contemporary times. The author that is seen as a keeper of his or her nation’s conscience is a new cultural icon of the age of globalization.

The thematic preoccupation of the 20thand 21st-century novelists have expanded to include personal anxieties, daydreams, magic, crime, class stratification, political/military confrontations and hallucinatory experiences and more. The term “Kafkaesque” has joined the term “Orwellian” in common parlance to refer not only to aspects of literature, but is used in the world to refer to situations similar to the ones portrayed by the novelist in their works. In all these, the writers strive to meet the reading taste of their readers.

Printing Press

The invention of printing immediately created a new market of comparatively cheap entertainment and knowledge – the market of chapbooks. The chapbooks presented a more elegant production which the 17th and 18thcentury authors propagated as the belleslettres. Later, it became the wider sphere in which the modern ensemble of “literary genres” of poetry and fiction gained greater cohesion in late 18th century. The belle lettres later gave way to the separation of the genres. The statistics of the genres printed showed that prose fiction was the highest. For instance, “The press output and the money made with fiction have risen disproportionately since the 18th century” (Barnet 132).

Literary Journals/Criticism

The reviewing of fiction changed the situation for the fictional work in the course of the 18th century. It created a public discussion about what people were actually reading in novels. It had at the same moment the potential to divide the market into a sphere to be discussed and a low production critics would only hint at. The subcultures of trivial fiction and of genres to be sold under the counter with pornography as its most influential field followed the arrival of literary criticism in the 1740s and 1750s. Literary criticism published in newspaper and literary journals helped to popularize or bring down works and this in turn influenced the circulation of such works.

Constructive criticism has not left the world of fiction since its introduction from the earliest times. In Britain, literary criticism was evident in new entertaining journals like The Spectator and The Tartler at the beginning of the 18th century. Other literary journals emerged in the middle of the century with the offer of new, scientific reviews of art and fiction. By the 1780s, critical public reception constituted a new marketing platform for fiction, and authors and publishers recognized it as such. One could write to satisfy the old market or one could address the authors of secondary criticism and gain an audience through their discussions. Later, prose fiction was introduced in the curricula of school and university education and this further boosted the production of prose fiction aided by the availability of the printing press. By the end of the 18th century, the public perception of the place of a particular novel was no longer supplied simply by social status and fashionable geographical provenance, but by critical media attention.

Colonial Influence (for African novel)

The African prose fiction emerged after the colonization of the continent. Colonial masters brought their education and many Africans became literate. They began to read what the foreigners wrote about Africa in the works they published which they felt presented the African in a very derogatory light. Consequently, these early educated Africans sought to correct the lopsided portraiture of the African by writing their own works in which they presented what they claim is the true picture of the African societies before the advent of colonialism. In addition the devastating effects of colonialism on Africa were also presented in those early works. Some of such works include CamaraLaye’sAfrican Child, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and FerdnandOyono’sThe Old Man and The Medal.

CONCLUSION

Prose fiction as a vibrant literary genre in its present form evolved over the centuries. It unfolds in a complex interaction between authors, their publishers, the reading public, literary criticism, and its inclusion in the curricula of schools. The latter provided through their branches of academic criticism many of the topics, the modes of discussion and to a good extent the experts themselves who teach and discuss literature in schools and in the media. Modern marketing of fiction reflects this complex interaction with awareness of the specific reverberations a new title must find in order to reach a wider audience.

In this article, we have discussed the factors that contributed to the development of prose fiction. It is clear that the age, culture and other socio-political issues are reflected in prose fiction. Good authors are celebrated with awards and prices and criticism can make or mar a prose fictional work. Authorstherefore strive for excellence through the improvement of their individual styles. This assures the acceptability and popularity of their works.

 

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