The prose form that eventually came to be called the novel has always been the least precisely defined of literary genres. For that reason, it is difficult to assign a beginning to the history of the novel in Spanish literature. Most of the prose of the Middle Ages and much of that written during the eighteenth century does not fit very well into the category of long fiction of which the nineteenth century realistic novel is the synthesis. Poetry could be defined—at least until the advent of the experimental poetry of the twentieth century—as a literary form in which the language is ordered through rhyme and meter, and drama is identified by the fact that it is intended for live presentation on a stage. The characteristics that make a work of prose “novelistic,” however, have eluded most attempts at precise identification.
The history of the novel in Spain is the history of a form that is constantly new, or “novel.” The shape of that history is determined to some extent by a concern for the purpose of the novel, which is really a concern for the effect of the novel on the reader. Throughout the development of long fiction in Spain, as in many other Western cultures, reading for pleasure was considered an idle and potentially dangerous pursuit and reading for edification an admirable pastime. The novel was subjected to a process of more or less subtle censorship by the official institutions of society, which tended to make it justify itself as something other than pure entertainment, as something useful. This social phenomenon is most obvious in the case of the masterpiece of Spanish fiction, Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615), but it is manifest even in the earliest extant imaginative prose writing in Spain, the exemplum literature of the thirteenth century.