The Novel-Reading Panic in 18th-Century in England: An Outline of an Early Moral Media Panic
Ana Vogorinčić (University of Ljubljana)
Medijska istraživanja, Vol.14 No.2 Prosinac (2008)
The article explores the unfavourable reaction to the popularisation of novel-reading in 18th-century England in order to show that the outraged opposition to this leisure praxis could be understood in terms of the contemporary socio¬logical concept – ‘moral panic’ – thereby revealing novel-reading as an early version of popular media culture. After outlining the cultural context of 18th-century England as well as the main characteristics of its novels, the paper discerns the anxieties, arising from the passion for fiction, and lays out the argumentation supporting the fear of reading as was advocated by the moral heralds of the time. The analysis reveals that the oppositional reaction to novel-reading indeed encompassed all the key constitutive elements of the proper moral panic phenomenon. Maintaining a dialogue between 18th-century and the present, the essay concludes by drawing analogies with contem¬porary reactions to television viewing, linking the worried response to the spread of novels with another related notion, the media panic, thus showing that what came to be seen as a feature of the modern (20th and 21st century) mass media culture has in fact a much longer history.
In the later half of 18th-century England, evidence of self-indulgent novel-reading on the one hand, and of the outrage it caused on the other was commonplace. This today is well known and much has already been written on the allegedly endangered women-readers, not to mention the sea of studies about the guilty novels themselves. However, despite the obvious and not entirely unobserved similarities in nowadays reactions towards some of the popular leisure practices – take television viewing or video games or internet – I have not yet come across a study which would seriously consider the trend of novel-reading in 18th-century England as an early example of such anxieties, now commonly labelled as moral panic. My attempt therefore is to explore how and to what extent the anti-novel discourse fits into this fairly modern sociological concept, and vice versa, to verify if the latter can be applied to a historically distant cultural praxis.