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In Search of A Readership: A Review of William Egginton’s ‘The Man Who Invented Fiction’

Suppose you sat down to an exam to find the words ‘Miguel de Cervantes invented fiction – discuss’ scrawled across the top of the page; how would you proceed?

My instincts tell me to define my terms, lay out my arguments, and conclude that, taken together, they imply my thesis — maybe even respond to potential criticisms. They tell me to break down and clarify each concept, to set clear scopes for my claims, and to highlight at various stages exactly how each new piece of information adds to or detracts from my conclusion. They tell me all of this because I’ve been conditioned to demand of large claims proportionately high standards for rigour and evidence. But then, I’m not the author of The Man Who Invented Fiction. William Egginton, the man who is, approaches things rather differently. But somehow it still works.

At first I was disappointed. But then I had assumed a book on Cervantes would be intended for a more specialized audience. It isn’t. And once I realized this myself, my initial disappointments disappeared. The book is for the people, and any evaluation worth its salt obviously has to take this into account. The problem is that while it’s essentially a literary biography, it’s all wrapped up in the clothing of an extended essay. And so in a way it’s setting itself up for failure. But luckily this is more of a marketing problem than anything. My hope for this review is that it might correct this a little by pointing to exactly where I think the book’s value resides. If readers then decide they don’t like it, well at least it was for the right reasons.

If you’re the sort of person I am, then you’ll tend to come at a work like this pencil in hand. But this is the wrong approach. Though Professor Egginton’s knowledge is considerable, the access he grants us to it here is piecemeal. And so the reader is more likely to end up with a collection of loosely connected insights than they are a comprehensive account. For most this isn’t something to be lamented, but for those inclined to essays on early modern writers, it might just be. I think this is a mistake. It shouldn’t be looked to for scholarship. It’s an invitation to relax and actually enjoy what you’re reading. It’s compelling, well researched, and fun – and well suited to a more bookish crowd. But if it’s substantiation you’re after, further reading may be required.

The book’s discussion of the world-as-a-stage metaphor should illustrate my point. Egginton sketches for the reader a fascinating history of the comparison, from the theologians of the Middle Ages up to Cervantes. In the days before Don Quixote we were actors on God’s stage. Whether our script read ‘King’ or ‘Pauper 3’ was of little consequence: it was our performance of that role by which He judged us. In its medieval uses the metaphor had explanatory power, but by the early seventeenth century it had become a cliché; and worse, it was providing implicit support for an iniquitous status quo. Cervantes saw this. But by the time he was through with it, it’s meaning had entirely changed. It wasn’t for God we were performing, but for each other; and it was precisely this insight that led him to fiction.

At least this is the conclusion I assume Professor Egginton was trying to draw; it’s never explicitly stated. Of course, given the context, one wouldn’t think it should be too difficult to make the leap. But at the end of the chapter in which it occurs it isn’t fiction to which a connection is made, but Cervantes’ life: “Whatever his motivations, donning the guise of a comfortable country gentleman and moving out to Esquivias was… the move of a man who had learned that the world was indeed a stage”. This leaves things a little ambiguous. And it is ambiguities of this sort that frustrate the book’s attempt at coherence. But alas, though it might cause problems for a more academic reader, it poses virtually none for someone with a more casual interest. (And this, remember, is its target audience.) The fact is interesting, and it stands on its own. And as far as I’m concerned, it makes a fine addition to my cocktail party repertoire.

The book is filled with such episodes, and to my mind, they’re precisely why it’s worth reading. I have no doubt that if it finds the right audience The Man Who Invented Fiction is sure to be warmly received. But this is probably its biggest challenge. For those inclined to pick up a book on literary history, it might not have enough meat on meat on its bones. For the rest, it will come across as too academic. But let’s not despair: with a bit of luck, and a few good reviews, the book will find a few readers in middle ground. And they won’t be disappointed.

Verdict: Three Stars

The Man Who Invented Fiction is published by Bloomsbury, and is available for the hardcover price of $32.00 CAN. For more information visit here.

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