Early Literary Forms
So far as “short” fiction is concerned, the Renaissance, unlike later periods, had no coherent theory of prose fiction in general, let alone for distinguishing between shorter and longer forms. The period inherited a huge variety of shorter forms from its past—jests, anecdotes, fables, exempla, romances, fabliaux, homilies, folktales, récits, novelle—but few writers seem to have given conscious attention to questions of length. Instead, they seem to have been anxious to justify the art of fiction-making itself—“poetry” was their usual term—alongside other human activities. Much Renaissance fiction is uneasily claimed to be “history” and contains elaborate justifications of the teller’s veracity. Although George Gascoigne and John Barth are worlds apart in sophistication of technique, both show a self-conscious uneasiness about their craft that points not merely to the uncertain quality of fiction but, beyond, to the nature of their societies. If one looks to France, Italy, or Spain, one finds evidence of a more self-conscious concern with shorter as opposed to longer forms of fiction and, indeed, in France between about 1560 and 1600 and again between 1660 and 1700, various short forms dominated fashions in prose fiction. In England, however, no such self-consciousness seems to have existed, and in order to get an adequate sense of what forms of short fiction did exist, it will be necessary to stretch and at some points to ignore the limits of the topic.
Notwithstanding uncertainty over the nature of prose fiction (and this is not simply an English phenomenon), an increasing amount was written and published as the new technology of moving type coincided with the expansion of the reading public. Among the earliest books printed by William Caxton and Wynkyn de Worde were editions of medieval romances, and by 1600, approximately one-quarter of the books printed in England were prose fiction. The expansion of a literate, book-buying class was a complex business, and one of its most relevant aspects was the growing fear observable among the dominant and educated classes that the more the reading public grew, the more literary standards and—by association—social and political order, would be threatened. Authors who preferred the traditional role of court entertainer slowly adapted to the new commercial market, often with some reluctance, as new economic relationships developed between authors, entrepreneurs, and readers that would eventually radically transform the nature and status of the craft. Whereas Sir Philip Sidney’s primary audience was his sister, his family, and his friends, and John Lyly saw his fiction as a means of social advancement, Robert...
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