Despite its current pre-eminence, the novel is a relative new-comer to the world of literature. There are prose tales that pre-date the novel, such as Boccacio's Decameron (1351), and the romances of Spenser and Malory, but the first fully-developed novel was Samuel Richardson's Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded (1740). The novel is differentiated from its predecessors by its internal cohesion, its emphasis on a tightly orchestrated plot and action, its realistic portrayal of characters and situations, and its eschewing of overtly allegorical elements. Characters in novels are more than archetypes, they are invested with a sense of interior consciousness, a psychological depth missing from the figures that populated earlier prose works. It is less fantastic than the romance, relying more heavily on mimesis, ie. the attempt to accurately "mirror" the real or quotidian world in a fictional setting.
Pamela, it should be noted, was written with the intention of teaching young women how to correctly write a letter. It is an epistolary novel, in which the action unfolds in a series of letters. The novel thus has its genesis in the attempt to regulate writing, to propose a correct and decorous means of taming the potential dangers of the written word. This didactic intention was, moreover, directed at women, thus establishing (perhaps to Richardson's dismay) what has been a long and fruitful connection between women and the novel. In the Victorian era it was one of the few arenas in which women were socially sanctioned to express themseves, leading to fears of the "effeminization" of literature.
This gendering is no doubt partially responsible for the fact that the novel has until recently been considered inferior to verse and drama. In the nineteenth century, conduct manuals for young women cautioned against the moral and intellectual perils incumbent with the reading of novels. However, with the rise of the realist novel, the form has found a new cultural cache and has been instrumental in defining and producing our collective need for the comforts of The Book and closure.
The novel's hegemony has recently been questioned by John Barth, who announced the death of the novel, and its "demise" has inspired the writers of the new novel, the post modern novel and hypertext fiction.