CWRU author examines the parallel rise of the novel and print culture

Just as e-books and text messaging have their skeptics today, when Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe rolled off the printing press in 1719, the public wondered how this work of fiction and others like it would affect public morals and social order, according to Christopher Flint, associate professor of English.

In his new book, The Appearance of Print in Eighteenth-Century Fiction (Cambridge University Press), Flint, a scholar of British literature, connects the rise of a modern print culture with the appearance of books such as Defoe’s and a new literary form eventually recognized as “the novel.”

Flint explained that the spread of printing presses throughout the nation made typographic texts affordable and accessible to a wide range of people. In terms of public discourse, Britain only became a fully integrated print-centered culture in the 18th century. The result was a crucial historical shift in representation.

The Appearance of Print advances this topic by relating a broad spectrum of changes in 18th-century culture, such as advances in papermaking or new modes of literacy, to innovations in how authors, publishers, distributors and readers manipulated printed literature, and fiction specifically.

Flint examined how the era’s printing resources shaped the organization of the written word—from typography to page format to book construction. He notes that “the novel” began exclusively as a printed object. Unlike drama, epic poetry or even the Renaissance romance, it was written explicitly to be published. It oriented readers toward the visual particularities of uniform alphabetic letterpress.

As part of this sensitization to print, Flint inspected the ways in which novelists adapted the printed word to reproduce oral or handwritten discourse. For example, works created in the form of private letters gave rise to a psychological realism that has often been considered the hallmark of the modern novel.

In the epistolary novel Clarissa, by the master printer turned novelist Samuel Richardson, the collected letters seem to simultaneously capture the immediate thoughts of the characters and provide physical evidence of their veracity.

“You read the letters as if they are the actual documents between two people—hence the realism, and, at the same time, you have the characters writing down their thoughts and reflections and psychological motivations as they are thinking directly to the page,” Flint explained.

But, he continues, Richardson also intensified the work’s artificial nature by inserting fragmented text printed diagonally and upside down, adding creative italics, florets, bullets and indices, and using a typeface called Grover’s Scriptorial to mimic Clarissa’s handwriting and signature.

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne, another writer fascinated by print conventions, mystified readers by leaving them hanging at the end of a chapter with a comma, or perplexed them suddenly with missing chapters that would appear later in a different type, skewing both the reading of the book and customary page numbering. One of the work’s nine volumes even puts the marbled end papers in the middle, in effect, “turning the book inside out,” Flint said.

Sterne also manipulated paratexts—chapter heads, footnotes, prefaces and white space—to divert his readers, urge them to reread, or purposely confuse them. Such effects, like Richardson’s, served to foreground the expressive function of print.

Flint speculated that Sterne would have embraced Web-based hypertext novels that allow readers, through links, to direct the story’s plot as they choose.

The 18th-century world of publishing is different from our own, Flint observed, but some aspects remain the same. As technology alters literary production, authors and publishers often feel increasingly distanced from their audience and seek to offset potentially alienating consequences by engaging readers at the most fundamental level of the modern book: mechanically inked characters upon the page.