Wednesday, February 16, 2011

What Is A Novel?

I know what you're thinking: "What kind of a question is that? Everyone knows what a novel is."

That's not entirely true though, especially considering that the form of the novel has changed over the past 1,000 years from the publication of its earliest antecedents: the Sanskrit "novel" Dashakumaracharita by Dandin (6th/7th Century), the 7th Century tale Kādambari by Bāṇabhaṭṭa, and the 11th Century story The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu.

We know that a "novel" in its current form is defined as a lengthy fictional narrative written in prose. How long that narrative is comes under debate depending on publishing house, who you listen to, the phases of the moon, etc. Everyone does agree that the novel must be fictional, and it must be written in the prose style -- if it's written in poetic form then it becomes an extraordinarily long poem.

Of course, then you get into novels that include sections written in verse (Byron's Don Juan is a good example) and things start getting sticky. Despite this though, the novel became almost solely written in prose because of the simple nature of translating prose from one language to another. And the fact that it's easier to read a prose story in silence rather than one in verse ... well you can see why prose became the preference.

There were also a few works, such as Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, that we'd consider a short story collection today rather than a novel. However, since the "novel" was still a new concept in England when Chaucer was writing, then we can excuse the Tales for not following convention.

A rather lengthy article at Wikipedia on this selfsame topic goes into exhaustive detail about the history and development of the novel, more than I'm going to go into here simply because I'm sure y'all are getting bored by now. To be honest, this topic sort of got away from me. So I'm turning it around to you: is there any novel you've read recently that you felt didn't classify as a novel?


K. Marie Criddle said...

Although not necessarily a novel, I did read an incredibly lengthy "poem" (although I don't think it even qualified as that) composed entirely of footnotes. With, naturally, no actual text to accompany the footnotes.

What would that even be? A footnovella? Nevertheless, it was pretty dang awesome.

dolorah said...

Hmm, I've always felt true crime novels were more about histories than fiction. The author may take some creative leeway with the actual "character's" perspectives and motivations, but the story does not deviate from the media or courtroom accounts.

I've always thought "prose" was bad for fiction. Unless you're writing a historical, or epic fantasy.

The concept of prose brings to mind lengthy descriptions, not good for the current preference of quick action novels.

Care to elaborate on this concept?


Matthew Delman said...

M-dawg -- Years ago I heard of a book called "Thanks a Million" that just had the word "Thanks" written a million times over and over again. Loved that concept.

Donna -- "Prose" refers to the fact that the story/work is written in the natural flow of speech and natural grammatical structure; i.e. without the rhythmic format of a poem.

Every story that's not a poem is prose. It's kind of an either/or situation: Poets write in verse and Novelists write in prose. So the fast-paced novels of today are in fact prose as well. People just don't tend to use the word much outside of academic discussions.

(Anyone reading this is free to correct me if I'm horribly wrong, of course.)

Queen 'Bina said...

I recently read Kipling's The Jungle Books, which is two books: The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book. Each of those is a compilation of short stories.

But I guess since it's a classic, we'll over look all that. We always forgive the classics, don't we?

dolorah said...

Thanks Matt; that makes sense.