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Jacob Russell

I begin my composition classes by asking my freshman students why Montaigne called his writings "essays." I like to compare what I want them to do in an essay to a "try out" for a sports team. That leads to interesting questions: what or who is "trying out?" Who or what is the judge of success? My aim is to make the idea-as-writing central. Yes, I will have to give them grades, but in their writing, they are not what is being judged, and though I don't pretend that we are equals in this effort, to succeed, they must learn how to both let the writing be a genuine exploration of an idea--to take risks, to write without knowing where the words will lead them, and to themselves become the first judge of their success. They are not in class to perform for my benefit, but the the writing is to perform for us together as readers. Only then can we discuss what constitutes success.

I too am troubled by "novel" as a necessary lable. I called my first effort, a "semi-comic literary fiction in seven movements," which seemed more accurate, given the priviledge of its loosly musical structure over the narrative. Why not, I wonder, go back to Montaigne? By acknowledging the experimental quality in the name, the essay has continued to evolve and branch out such that nothing else would capture its essence but that open ended designation--an essay, a exploration, a "try-out."

Why not...
Fictional Essays?

I like that... "essay" as Montaigne used the word in its French sense.

A much better description of the "novel" I've been working on...

Ari Figue's Cat: a Fictional Essay in 72 chapters.

Jim H.

Lit crit is not and never has been an exact science. And it's hardly the equivalent a social science either, as there is no general agreement over the precise definitions of terms. That may not be a bad thing—creative ferment, no calcifying of forms, and all that.

'Novel' can have any of several meanings, from the broad 'fictional text of a certain length' to a specific fictional form. Northrop Frye attempted a distinction of fictional forms: the Novel, the Romance, the Confession, and the Menippean satire (a/k/a the Anatomy). It is a classification that works when one is attempting to make some precise distinctions—say, between Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (Anatomy) and Banville's Book of Evidence (Confession). Frye hoped to recuperate/rehabilitate any number of works of fictional prose that had been slighted by the critical establishment because they did not fit the traditional definition of the novel (Austen, James) or the romance (Hawthorne, Scott).

You can read his essay, beginning at pg. 303, here: http://www.archive.org/details/anatomyofcritici001572mbp.

I recently posted a hyperlinked summary of it here, if you're interested: http://wisdomofthewest.blogspot.com/2009/01/frye-on-forms-of-fiction.html

I suppose usage of the term 'novel' matters in the context in which it is being used. If I'm talking to a general populace (or the marketer thereto), it's okay to use 'novel' broadly to refer to that fictional work of a certain length. It has currency there. But, for purposes of understanding the varied traditions of fictional prose, beginning, say, with Xenophon's Cyropaedia or Chariton's Chaireas and Kallirrhoe or Petronius, and including Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy and Pilgrim's Progress and The Anatomy of Melancholy, and up through Finnegans Wake and Invisible Cities and Only Revolutions and 2666, it makes sense to identify the specific, conservative form that is the novel for purposes of distinction, classification, and, more importantly, understanding.

Happy New Year, Dan.

Jim H.

Bianca Steele

The same paragraph struck me as well. I give the n+1 editors credit for recognizing that and feeling uncomfortable with it.

Dan: The history of the novel, in my view, is the continued search for subjects, strategies, and techniques that would redeem the artistic potential both of the form and of prose itself as a literary medium.

What you describe here is fine as philosophy, as definition and elaboration of the term “novel,” but unless tortured into a nonstandard reading you give no sign you would support, it leads to a theory that has no place for what novelists actually think they are doing when they are doing what they do. I’m not calling for a sociology of novelists in the technical sense. However, what you describe seems to say to any existing novelist, “It’s fine that you like what you like, but what you’ve already decided you like is in the past, and for the novel to be a living thing, we need new things instead.” Just saying.

Dan: the "book business" expropriated the label "novel" as a marketing device and has continued to force all subsequent efforts at expanding the form back into its slim container

To my mind, what constitutes a novel at any time is what established novelists, people who no longer have to worry about publishers’ shifting opinions to the same degree, think they are doing -- though it is obvious that there’s a conflict if those novelists’ theories have no influence on or relationship to what the publishers believe. My tentative guess would be that the novelists you’re calling experimental are trying to evade “the established novelist/publisher hegemony” entirely. I wonder if it makes more sense to think in terms of two different kinds of “novels,” rather than continue to insist that only the experimental line is still evolving, much less that it is just like the other kind of novel except that it is more evolved. (Is a 1960s experimental novel more evolved than a 1990s “mainstream” novel, or only than a 1960s mainstream novel?)

I disagree with some details of your analysis (esp wrt the relative weight to put on story, idea, society, and aesthetic qualities), but it looks like a good basis for starting to work out a definition (and maybe I’ll someday have time to do so). I do have some beginnings of thoughts on what a novel ought to be and do at my blog,


in a discussion of what I’m ambivalent about, regarding the kind of novel Doris Lessing’s The Cleft is -- it sounds like you would not agree with the criticisms of this novel that I’ve heard, though, if you also would not agree with my own description of it.

Dan Green

"However, what you describe seems to say to any existing novelist. . ."

Ultimately all I'm really saying is that if a writer calls his/her work, or agrees to call it, a "novel" then it's a novel. This doesn't mean that, from within the existing tradition of the novel, some can't be praised for expanding its scope and others be criticized for staying with the tried and true. If the novel as a whole remains with the tried and true, it dies.

Jacob Russell

This is not 'theory' to me.

It's personal.

As a writer, I don't try to be "experimental." The short fiction I wrote when I started--by way of breaking my teeth, getting my chops, was fairly conventional... but with each story I wrote I realized how much work I put into reigning myself in--not consciously, but by some internalized stricture--and that what I wanted to do was... something else.

What most satisfied me in those early stories was what felt to me most subversive... like I was getting away with something... and when they were published, it was only because no one else seemed to notice!

My first novel gave me room and time to work out what it was I was after (it took me eight years). Then I found myself up against the commercial gatekeepers... agents and publishers who told me they LIKED what I'd done... but they didn't know how to sell it.

I wanted, just to see if I could, write something more "mainstream." Less than a page into the second novel and I found myself gleefully heading into outer (or inner) space... no matter. This is why I write. This is what I want to write... heading always into the dark, never knowing where the words will lead. Each new chapter, joyfully pulling the rug out from under what I did in the last.

All I can say is, I've come to the point where attempting to stay within the tried and true... feels like dying to me.

No writer can be the judge of the ultimate merit of their own work. I neither seek nor desire the stuff of fame and fortune. I carry no sense of entitelment--but to be locked out of the theater, outside the stage door, because one's writing defies commercial cataloging is enough to sorely try one's patience.

Jim H.


You said: "all I'm really saying is that if a writer calls his/her work, or agrees to call it, a "novel" then it's a novel."

I'm not sure you really mean that. You don't allow that, e.g., she could just be wrong. Not know what she's talking about.

Then, think about James Frey calling his work a memoir or autobiography—when clearly it wasn't. He was either disingenuous or delusional. The same could be true of your writer: what if she's playing a joke on you?

I can be as relativist as the next guy (probably more so), but, it seems to me, there have to be—no, there are—some standard criteria for calling a thing a novel. The question is how flexible and inclusive the standards are. And the debate is over what those standards are—and, as your statement intuits, who gets to decide. There are plenty of constituencies: the market (e.g., agents, editors, the sales department), the community of readers, the community of writers, critics, or, as your statement implies, each individual in each of these various communities.

Jim H.

Humpty Dumpty

"Novel" is a marketing term. It means 'fiction longer than approx. 100 pages'. And even then there are counterexamples. That's the end of it. Any further pursuit of the true meaning of 'novel' is a misguided essentialist quest. Novels are whatever you want, or stipulate, them to be.

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