novel content creation and the 18th-century reading revolution

In the middle of the eighteenth century, a new form of content creation grew rapidly in Britain. The new popular content was long, realistic but fictional narratives of ordinary individuals whose lives nonetheless were put forward as significant for everyone. These works were called “novels.”

Novels were YouTube in the eighteenth century. Authors of novels included roughly equally men and women, “leisured gentlewomen, high-profile aristocrats, obscure vicars, and curates, sea captains, destitute merchants’ wives, reformed and some unreformed prostitutes, over-archieving adolescents, and pious autodidacts.” A leading novel publisher in Britain explained in 1769:

all we have hitherto published have been sent to us unsolicited from their authors, without any stipulated pay, promise of reward, or previous agreement whatsoever, either by ourselves or any other person for us.

Most authors didn’t even have their names attached to their work: about 72% of new novels published in Britain and Ireland, 1770-1799, were published anonymously.[1]

Most novelists received little monetary compensation for their works. Sometimes authors funded publication of their works, or assumed liability for losses from publication. When authors sold their copyrights, the typical payment was low but payment variance was high. For example, in 1787 a publisher bought a copyright from an obscure novelist for £5, while in 1794 the same publisher bought a copyright from a well-known novelist for £500. The median payment to British novelists among surviving copyright sales receipts, 1770-1799, was about £29. That was about the annual earnings of building craftsmen. By 1860 in the U.S., only 216 persons declared their profession to be “author.” In contrast, 3,154 persons declared their occupations to be the newer occupations of daguerreotypist and photographer.[2]

While authors of novels typically did not earn enough money to sustain themselves, novels quickly dominated popular book reading. In the late eighteenth century, purchasing books would have been a financial hardship for most persons. Social and commercial libraries, however, made books much more readily available. At the end of the eighteenth-century in Britain and in the U.S., novels comprised 40% or higher shares of titles in commercial circulating libraries. Limited evidence from circulation records suggests that the share of novels among books borrowed was probably higher than 50%.

Novels had well-recognized popular effects in the second half of the eighteenth-century. Commentators observed that a rage to read (Lesewut) was gripping the German lands. Reading the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (Die Leiden des jungen Werther, 1774) prompted young men to dress like the character Werther.  Reportedly about 2000 young men committed suicide in sympathy with Werther.  In France, the novel Julie, or the New Heloise (Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse, 1761) created a large body of weaping readers. American readers of the highly popular novel Charlotte Temple (1794) tended her purported grave in New York City.

The prevalence of imitations, mock sequels, and parodies among late eighteenth-century novels marked them to contemporaries as a “faddish, superficial make of literature.” Following Henry Mackenzie’s popular Man of Feeling (1771) came the anonymous and forgotten Man of Failing (1789). Only one year after Hannah More’s highly successful didactic work, Coelebs in Search of a Wife (1809) came Coelebs in Search of a Mistress (1810), under the likely authorial pseudonym Sir George Rover. Many now-forgotten novels of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were hastily written, poorly crafted works.[4]

Many influential persons in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries considered novels to be wastes of time, causes of ill health, and corrupters of virtue and morals. In 1794 a London reviewer described a new novel, Widow, as “fashionably vicious.” The reviewer warned against reading such novels and implicitly proclaimed the importance of the reviewer’s own work:

O! for a warning voice to prevent those, at least, in whom age has not yet destroyed the capabilities of improvement, from dreaming away their hours in turning over publications like these.

Another author more directly warned against reading for amusement and diversion:

To read a book merely in order to kill time is an act of high treason toward humanity because one is belittling a medium that was designed for loftier purposes.

Others described reading as a cause of masturbation and other injuries to good health:

the obligatory position, the lack of all physical movement when reading, combined with the violent alternation of imaginings and feelings [create] limpness, bloatedness and constipation of the intestines, in a word hypochondria, which has a recognized effect on the genitals of both sexes, particularly of the female sex [and creates] coagulations and defects in the blood, excitation and exhaustion of the nervous system, as well as conditions of langour and weakness in the whole body.

The effect of novels on manners and morals was an acute concern. Novel reviewers in London publications in the late eighteenth century described reviewed novels as “one of these pernicious incentives to vice that are a scandal to decency”; “utterly repugnant to every idea of delicacy and honor”; and, “Written solely for the use of circulating libraries, and very proper to debauch all young women who are still undebauched.” A popular American author of conduct literature noted in 1831:

Of late years, the circulating libraries have been overrun with profligate and strongly exciting works, many of them horribly exciting. I have deep prejudice against the whole class. The greater the genius displayed, the more dangerous the effects. The necessity of fierce excitement in reading is a sort of intellectual intemperance; and like bodily intoxication, it produces weakeness and delirium….They have a most unhealthy influence upon the soul….

From a less evangelical, more republican position, novels were described as “murdering of freedom of thought and the press.” Similarly quotations from late eighteenth and early nineteenth century sources could be multiplied endlessly. All the ill effects ascribed to television, video games, and the Internet in recent years apply equally well to reading novels two hundred years ago.[5]

Novels and tabloids changed persons’ relationships to printed words. Historians of the book have described a “reading revolution” (Leserrevolution) — a shift in the distribution of reading from intensive reading (reading a book, particularly the Bible, carefully and repeatedly) toward extensive reading (reading one new novel after another). More generally, the rise of empirical science shifted authority from a bounded text to an unbounded corpus of evidence. The expansion of print functioned like science in the realm of imagination and culture.

About 1854, a man who grew up in Ridgefield, Connecticut recalled his youth:

Books and newspapers — which are now diffused even among the country towns, so as to be in the hands of all, young and old — were then scarce, and were read respectfully, and as if they were grave matters, demanding thought and attention. They were not toys and pastimes, taken up every day, and by everybody, in the short intervals of labor, and then hastily dismissed, like waste paper. The aged sat down when they read, and drew forth their spectacles, and put them deliberatively and reverentially on the nose. These instruments [spectacles] were not as now, little tortoise-shell hooks, attached to a ribbon, and put off and on with a jerk; but they were of silver or steel, substantially made, and calculated to hold on with a firm and steady grasp, showing the gravity of the uses to which they were devoted. Even the young approached a book with reverence, and a newspaper with awe. How the world has changed![6]

Yes, the world has changed. The world continues to change.

The history of the novel helps to provide some perspective on current media developments. Today major media companies are struggling to set up user-generated content divisions to foster production of user-generated content. At the same time, author and blogger Andrew Keen is promoting his new book entitled, “The Cult of the Amateur.” He recently changed the book’s subtitle from “How the democratization of the digital world is assaulting our economy, our culture and our values” to “How today’s Internet is killing our culture.” Without a whiff of amusement, a leading blogger laments, “There’s no food for thought in this book.” Even more seriously, a business intelligence company recently reported that user-generated videos “made up 47% of the total online video market.” The report proclaimed, “consumer usage exploded in 2006 but revenues will prove slow to develop. The honeymoon period for user generated content is over.”

The entertainment business is as strong as ever.

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[1] Raven, James (2000), “Historical Introduction: The Novel Comes of Age,” in The English novel, 1770-1829: a bibliographical survey of prose fiction published in the British Isles, gen. eds. Peter Garside, James Raven, and Rainer Schöwerling (Oxford: Oxford University Press), vol. 1, pp. 17, 51, 42.

[2] Id. pp. 52-53, which records 51 copyright receipts. In 1757, a journalist complained that a bookseller-publisher “never paid to any author for his labour a sum equal to the wages of a journeyman taylor.” Quoted in id. pp. 50-1. Building craftmen in Southern England, 1736-1773, earned about 24 pence per day, or about £30 for a full year of work. See B.R. Mitchell, British Historical Statistics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988) p. 165. The data on occupations is U.S. Census data, collated and discussed in Galbi, Douglas (2003), “Copyright and Creativity: Photographers and Authors.”

[3] Raven (2000) p. 85-6, 93; Winas, Robert B. (1975), “The Growth of a Novel-Reading Public in Late-Eighteenth-Century America,” Early American Literature, IX.

[4] Raven (2000) pp. 15, 34. Garside, Peter (2000), “The English Novel in the Romantic Era: Consoliation and Dispersal,” p. 58, in Garside, Raven, and Schöwerling, vol. 2.

[5] Raven (2000) p. 119; Wittmann, Reinhard (1999), “Was there a Reading Revolution?” in A history of reading in the West, eds. Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier (Amherst : University of Massachusetts Press) p. 301, quoting J.A. Bergk, Die Kunst, Bücher zu lesen (1799) p. 69 and Karl G. Bauer, Über die Mittel, dem Geschlechstrieb eine unschädliche Richtung zu geben (1791) p. 190; Raven (2000) pp. 17, 114, 101; Lydia Maria Child, The Mother’s Book (1831), Ch. VII; Wittmann (2000), quoting, original source not cited; see Dmitri Williams (2003), “The Video Game Lightening Rod: Constructions of a New Media Technology,1970-2000,” Information, Communication & Society 6:4 pp. 523–550.

[6] Goodrich, Samuel G. (1857), Recollections of Lifetime (New York: Miller, Orton & Co.) vol. 1, p. 86, quoted in David D. Hall, “The Uses of Literacy in New England, 1600-1850,” in William Joyce et al., eds, Printing and Society in Early America (Worcester, Mass.: American Antiquarian Society, 1983) p. 21.