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Evolution of the Novel

The novel as we know it is the result of several thousand years of storytelling, a gradual evolution that begins a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away Greece.

Five books survive intact from the 1st to 3rd centuries that are known today as Ancient Greek novels. Written largely on papyrus they are remarkable for still existing in their entirety, many have been completely lost or survive only in fragments. Along with numerous places throughout what is now the Middle East they helped establish the idea of fictional stories, most long form stories at this point were presented as being records of factual historical events.

Skipping forward to the 11th century and across the world to Japan we find the The Tale of Genji. Written by noblewoman and lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu it tells the story of the life and loves of Shining Genji, the son of an ancient emperor. Described as the first true novel the story features several aspects that are now accepted necessities in a novel, it has a central character, a (massive) cast of major and minor side characters, character development, and a sequence of events that follows the central character. One major element it lacks is that of a real plot, instead events simply happen and all 400 characters get older as time passes. This might have had to do with how it was likely written, each chapter being shared with the author’s friends as soon as it was finished with no greater plan guiding the story.

In 1605 in Spain author Miguel de Cervantes published Don Quixote, considered by many to be not only one of the greatest novels ever written, but also the beginning of modern European novels as we know them. Into the following centuries the novel continued to solidify into its current form. Originally considered the shorter cousin of the great epics and romances it became instead the longest form around, spawning the shorter novella in the process.

By the approach of the 20th century plots and themes have begun to diversify, a trend that has accelerated exponentially in the last few decades. We have genres now that would’ve been unthinkable 100 years ago. To this day novels continue to evolve, both in how they’re written and read. We’ve progressed from papyrus to parchment to paper, and now we have dedicated screens on which to read our books.

Novels are exciting (to me at least), and their constant evolution is one of the best parts.

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