(Fictional) Autobiography, Literary Fiction, Picaresque
As the character version of the book's real author, Daniel Defoe, writes in the Preface, while "The world is so taken up of late with novels and romances," this book that tells Moll Flanders' story is "a private history" and a "genuine" one at that (Preface 1). Although the book is a work of fiction, he presents it as a true story – an autobiography. The Daniel Defoe speaking to us in the Preface is just like a really great personal assistant for the real Moll Flanders. Imagine him taking notes for her, bringing her coffee, and shielding her from the paparazzi. The rest of the book, he promises, is the True Life Story of a Disguised Famous Criminal – a first person account, told by Moll Flanders, of her own life.
But, sadly, mischievous Moll Flanders does not actually exist. Defoe made her up, the big fat liar. And what a bummer, because it's quite a story. But that's just it. Defoe was quite a writer, and the more real she seems, the more we should credit his powers of imagination and persuasion. (For more on this, check out "Point of View/Narrative Voice.")
What a Novel Idea
Yep, the great Mr. Daniel Defoe was quite the master writer. And he was a pretty innovative guy to boot, because Moll Flanders is widely considered to be one of the first novels in English literature (another being his earlier work, Robinson Crusoe). It's hard to imagine a reading world before the novel but Defoe was definitely one of the first guys to champion the form we now love so much. He was one of the early inventors of the form, and that means that his work, Moll Flanders falls has the distinct honor of being one of the first works of literary fiction. Ever.
Once the novel caught on, of course, all different types of novels emerged. And looking back on Moll Flanders, critics began to think of it as something called the picaresque. A picaresque is a novel that features the realistic story of a loveable rascal or rogue, who roams from place to place, surviving by her wits, and even then just barely. This description fits Moll like a glove, which she might have had to use if they had had fingerprinting way back when. She is born into criminal poverty and uses her know-how and generally rascal-like behavior to get herself out of jam after snag after fiasco. Plus, because it's told from her perspective, in honest straightforward terms, all her adventures seem all-too realistic and believable. Moll Flanders may not be picturesque, but it's a picaresque through and through.