Francis Coventry (essay date 1752)
SOURCE: Novel and Romance, 1700-1800: A Documentary Record, edited by loan Williams, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970, pp. 176-79.
[In the following preface from the third edition of The History of Pompey the Little, Coventry attributes his contemporaries' disdain for prose fiction to an attempt by educated males to maintain their privileged place within society.]
To Henry Fielding, Esq.;
My design being to speak a word or two in behalf of novel-writing, I know not to whom I can address myself with so much propriety as to yourself, who unquestionably stand foremost in this species of composition.
To convey instruction in a pleasant manner, and mix entertainment with it, is certainly a commendable undertaking, perhaps more likely to be attended with success than graver precepts; and even where amusement is the chief thing consulted, there is some little merit in making people laugh, when it is done without giving offence to religion, or virtue, or good manners. If the laugh be not raised at the expence of innocence or decency, good humour bids us indulge it, and we cannot well laugh too often.
Can we help wondering, therefore, at the contempt, with which many people affect to talk of this sort of composition? they seem to think it degrades the dignity of their understandings, to be found with a novel in their hands, and take great pains to let you know that they never read them. They are people of too great importance, it seems, to mispend their time in so idle a manner, and much too wise to be amused.
Now, tho' many reasons may be given for this ridiculous and affected disdain, I believe a very principal one, is the pride and pedantry of learned men, who are willing to monopolize reading to themselves, and therefore fastidiously decry all books that are on a level with common understandings, as empty, trifling and impertinent.
Thus the grave metaphysician for example, who after working night and day perhaps for several years, sends forth at last a profound treatise, where A. and B. seem to contain some very deep mysterious meaning; grows indignant to think that every little paltry scribbler, who paints only the characters of the age, the manners of the times, and the working of the passions, should presume to equal him in glory.
The politician too, who shakes his head in coffee-houses, and produces, now and then, from his fund of observations, a grave, sober, political pamphlet on the good of the nation; looks down with contempt on all such idle compositions, as lives and romances, which contain no strokes of satire at the ministry, no unmannerly reflections upon Hanover, nor any thing concerning the balance of power on the continent. These gentlemen and their readers join all to a man in depreciating works of humour: or if they ever vouchsafe to speak in their praise, the commendation never rises higher than, 'yes, 'tis well enough for such a sort of a thing;' after which the grave observator retires to his news-paper, and there, according to the general estimation, employs his time to the best advantage.
But besides these, there is another set, who never read any...
(The entire section is 1352 words.)