Did y’all know that there’s an ongoing argument about which book was the first novel written in English? The question mostly revolves around what the definition of a novel is – is it realistic or fantastical? is it dependent on length? does allegory count?
All of which is very interesting, but not what I want to talk about. According to that Wikipedia article, Robinson Crusoe is often accepted as the winner (if such a thing is something to be won, that is) based on a 1950s literary sociological study* by some dude. Not relevant. What is relevant, and interesting, is that RC came out in 1719! I repeat, 1719! What struck me immediately was that Shakespeare and other playwrights had been composing plays in English for over a hundred years prior to 1719. English, back then, wasn’t “high art”. It was the language of the people. The written word was for ponces, plays were for the everyman. Of course, it’s also important to remember that the novel as an art form was in its infancy. If you really wanted to be taken seriously, you didn’t write “fiction”. You still sneer at the word! You wrote History! or Science…-y! books and you wrote in Latin.
I’m an art student and the couple of theory and history classes (and even the studios) I’ve taken have all talked about this dichotomy between high and low art. When I was talking last week about genres and conventions and briefly in my post about awards, I was also talking about high art and low art. The genre ghettos are literature low art and the books that win most of the awards are high art. Why? Because that’s the culture at the moment. As we can see, looking back to when writing in English was “low”, these things change.
*Note to self: need more literary sociology in life!