What is a novel?

The novel is the predominant form of modern fiction. But what is it, and what isn’t it?Basically, a novel is a long, original fictional prose narrative written to be read (rather than heard), which brings together character(s), plot and context in a way which is unified and organically satisfying.I’ll unpack these one by one, with examples and counter examples.

  • Long Something which satisfies all the other characteristics but is ‘short’ is either a short-story or a novella. Essentially, a novel is bound (or capable of being bound) as a whole volume or more than a whole volume in a conventional sized hardback or paper-back. Novellas can usually be bound two or three into an ordinary sized book, and short-stories can be bound with four or more together. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, just a rule of thumb. Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach

 was shortlisted for the Booker prize in 2007, exciting a lot of debate about whether, at just 166 pages, it was not in fact merely a novella. On the other hand, 166 pages might well be a good length for a children’s or teenage novel. 

  • Original A straight retelling of something else would not usually be considered to be a novel. Rosemary Sutcliffe’s Dragon Slayer is a retelling of Beowulf, not a novel in its own right. TH White’s The Sword in the Stone, on the other hand, is a novel in that it entirely remakes the story of King Arthur. The most common form of retelling current today is the novelisation of a film or TV series. In some cases the borderline is blurred. George Lucas’s book Star Wars contains elements and explanations not in the film, and the genesis of the book probably grew with the creation of the film.  
  • Fictional Fiction is not just a made-up story. Fiction is a made-up story presented in the style of truth. This, of course, is truth in its own context. The Lord of the Rings is clearly full of things which did not happen and could not possibly have happened. However, its events are presented with an attention to detail which gives the impression — while you are reading it — that the things actually happened. You always know what the weather is, and what the characters last had for dinner, and how long ago it was. Alice in Wonderland, though, is presented as a topsy-turvy world of mock logic and impossibility, which is consistently challenged by the main character.  Something written in novel form which is entirely factual is either a memoir (or autobiography), a biography, a history, or some other documentary form. Again, there are crossover forms, such as the ‘fictionalised account of…’, and the roman à clef, such as Primary Colors, where the novel form is used to fictionalise and reflect events and characters which might otherwise be difficult to discuss. Roman à clef means literally ‘novel with a key’, the idea being that once you have worked out which character represents which real person, then you can work out how all the rest is supposed to represent real events and people.
  • Prose Do novels have to be in prose? The novel as we know it really begins with Gulliver’s Travels or Robinson Crusoe. Poetry had already gone out of fashion as a means for recounting a long narrative by these times. But prior to these, Milton’s Paradise Lost and Spenser’s Faerie Queen fulfilled some of the roles which the novel fulfils. Both of these are usually referred to as epic poems, not novels. The medieval Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has many of the elements of the novel, but is a poem. It’s usually referred to as a romance. Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad are both long poems, and are sometimes referred to as novels. But there are other reasons why we might struggle to see them as novels. 
  • Narrative A novel has to have a narrator. This can be the first person ‘I’ narrator, such as in Robinson Crusoe, or the limited point of view narrator written in the third person but seeing no more than the ‘I’ narrator would see. For example, in the Harry Potter series, we never see any part of the action that Harry does not see himself. There is also the ‘omniscient narrator’, who represents exactly the author’s voice and knows everything the author knows. The omniscient narrator can follow the fortunes of different characters, such as in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, or can pontificate about wider issues and address the reader directly, as the narrator often does in the books of Charles Dickens. Until the end of the nineteenth century, narrators were generally regarded as honest and reliable, at least in the context of the world they are in. Since the twentieth century, though, the unreliable narrator, such as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn or in J D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, has come to the fore. The unreliable narrator may be too naïve to understand what is going on, as in these two examples, or may be (in the world of the book) trying to justify or cover-up what really happened. In The Spire, William Golding’s narrator’s naïvity and medical condition make him a completely unreliable narrator, while in his Pincher Martin the twist ending leaves real questions about who the narrator is, and whether the account is supernatural, allegorical, hallucinatory, representing the last moments before death, or representing the dreams of an entirely different character. In Jerome K Jerome’s Three men in a boat the unwillingness of the narrator to be entirely honest is used for comic effect.Where there is no narrator, then we are essentially looking at a film script, or a play, or a graphic novel, or some other form. Occasionally a novel will be written in the form of a series of letters, but in this case we are actually looking at oscillating narration, with one person telling the story, and the other person then picking it up. The narratorial voice can be very simple: the form of “he said…” is the voice of a narrator. One attempt to get away from the narratorial voice is the ‘stream of consciousness’ approach, which is the apparently random stringing together of thoughts. However, they are still the thoughts of a single person. Although the form of stream of consciousness appears to be non-narratorial, nothing binds us closer to the narrator’s view of the world than that approach.
  • Written to be read A play is performed, a poem benefits from being read aloud, a children’s book may be written for group reading, but the true novel is written to be read privately, rather than heard publicly. The classic Chinese Outlaws of the Marsh at first appears to be a collection of oral folk-tales, until the reader notices that each chapter ends with “If you would know [how something happened], then read our next chapter”. The notion of private, silent reading may seem a trivial one, but it has a profound effect on how the reader relates to the work — not least in terms of length. A typical Dickens novel runs to more than 800 pages, something which would challenge even the most ardent of out-loud readers. Dickens, as it happens, gave many public readings of his essays and short stories, and excerpts from his novels, but he did not read out entire novels. This is not to say — especially in these days of audio-books —  that novels do not benefit from being heard read aloud. But the author cannot rely on the reader listening at a speed set by another reader. The length of the chapter is also set by the expected reading speed and attention span, although this applies to children’s novels more than to adult novels.
  • Character Can there be a novel without characters, describing only things and scenes? A film can certainly operate purely at the visual level, moving silently from figure to figure across the landscape. It can be argued that many novels have figures rather than characters. For example, much science-fiction, and other genre fiction, has figures who represent the type of the scientist, or the hero, or the detective. However, to call them figures rather than characters is a value judgement. In terms of their role in the novel, they are characters.The novel is unique among all forms of literature in its ability to represent and explore characters. Shakespeare’s plays employ the device of the soliloquy for the characters to express their thoughts in public, and television and film occasionally represent thought by having the character speak without moving their lips. However, the relentless availability of intimate description of thought and perception, and the complete control of time, scene and movement mean that the author of the novel can represent character more completely than in any other art-form.
  • Plot There has to be a story of some kind for the novel to function. Journalism functions on the basic questions of “who, what, why, when, where, how”, but the novel has to add to these “what happens next?” It’s been argued that there are only seven basic plots — though if you read the book of the same name by Christopher Booker you may come to the conclusion that there are so many sub-types of plot and combinations of plots that the figure seven is no better than plucked out of the air. Plot devices can be as simple as the consequences of a broken condition, or a letter that is not delivered, or as majestic as the entire Napoleonic war in Russia — the fundamental plot device of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. A plot is basically a framework or story that has enough shape and focus for the reader to know what is going on and why they are at the point in the story that they are. The plot of a detective story can be as simple as: a man frames a woman for the murder of her lover, but a detective convinced of her innocence follows all the clues until he catches the killer and frees the woman (Dorothy L Sayers, Strong Poison) or as complicated as the nest of motivations and deceptions in Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles
  • Context A radio play can be performed as just a pair of voices with no context whatsoever. A novel, though, requires context. Context can be provided through what the characters tell us or through the development of the plot, but most novelists also revel in the use of description. The first chapter of Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native is entirely given over to a cinematic (though before the invention of cinema) account of the heath which dominates the book. In fact, many critics have suggested that the greatest weakness of the book is that none of the characters ever capture our imagination in the way the heath does.
  • Unified and organically satisfying Although novels often rely on the element of surprise and the surprising, to be completely satisfying, they must eventually tie up their loose ends so that everything comes together as a whole. Many novels exploit the notion of fate or destiny, which not only adds a whiff of the supernatural, but also disguises the hand of the author, making the unity more compelling. Life as we experience it is messy, disorganised, with information and explanation often arriving at just the wrong time. By the end of the novel, the reader who has been surprised and excited at every turn should be feeling that, given what they now know about the characters and the context, the plot was more or less inevitable. This organic unity is not unique to the novel — in fact, unity is one of the characteristics of all great art. However, the novelist is particularly vulnerable. Films can easily get away with poor plotting, non-credible characters and sketchy context because everything that we see ‘seems’ so real. The illusion that the novel creates — the space in which fiction operates — is destroyed if, at the end, we are left with too many unanswered questions, or, worse, if we reread and discover that, after all, none of it actually made sense.
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