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Some important English novels have been popular; some have not; but our volume is not a history of bestsellers. Granted, the novel is not an entirely autonomous literary form, developing in isolation from the influence of market forces. Nor does it develop in isolation from politics, national or international. Far from it: no one could seriously make such an argument. And yet if the novel sees at all – if it offers unique insights – it does so through the ceaseless making, breaking, and remaking of literary forms. Every decision that a novelist makes is formally mediated, and retracing those decisions provides access to the history of the novel. By attending to this history of formal innovations one begins to understand the range and depth of which the English novel has been capable. We hope, even though the Cambridge History concludes by affirming the enduring power of romance, that our way of turning the novel's progress into history is less quixotic than the quest of the Knight of the Woeful Countenance.
The challenging side of the genre never fades from view: it does, after all, create something new under the sun. To be sure, the aesthetic and the political avant-garde do not necessarily coincide. And, in any case, as Mikhail Bakhtin points out, any one asserted perspective in the novel is usually rendered relative to others with which it is in conflict.