What Even is a Novel?

A Novel is a book in most people’s minds. Saying “I wrote a novel,” and “I wrote a book” are synonymous with most of the population. Thus, saying “I wrote a novella” indulges in jargon, and jargon always sounds mildly pretentious to those outside of the group that invented it. Also, it sounds like “lesser novel”, which is what it is. Which is why I may start describing my novellas as “literary doodles”. It sounds more fun.

Dictionary.com ontologizes it as “a fictitious prose narrative of book length, typically representing character and action with some degree of realism.” I’m a bit skeptical of the last bit, as that seems to be a trait of the literary or social novel. But then how much realism is “some”?

And the “of book length” seems to ask as many questions as it answers. How long is a book? If a book isn’t long enough, does it cease to be a book? Did Dr. Seuss write bookellas?

The word “novel” derives from the Latin for “new”, which suggests a focus on current things. This may be the reason Sir Walter Scott distinguished the novel from the romance, which was supposed to be about matters marvellous in nature. This would mean that The Lord of the Rings would properly be termed a “romance”, which would no doubt please Tolkien. However, other european languages, such as French, use the word “roman” (or its equivalent) to mean “novel.”

So we’re back to Long Prose Fictional Narrative. Which is what most people mean. I love it when a plan comes together.

My Pynchon Problem

A recent viewing of the film Inherent Vice led me to try to finish The Crying of Lot 49, which I abandoned out of frustration some time ago. I’ve made a small amount of headway, but am bored again.

Action is not being built. The plot is not going anywhere. The woman with the ridiculous name is having conversations with other people with ridiculous names about random nonsense that’s supposed to be relevatory but is entirely unconnected with what she’s ostensibly doing. I struggle to care.

It’s baffling to me that I can be so close to the end of a book this short and feel no desire to continue. This seems to be a problem I have with literature from this era. The Beats, Burroughs, Joyce, Waiting for Godot, it all seems so enamored of itself for frustrating readers as to form a kind of anti-literature. It’s less like reading a book than joining a Hermetic cult.

Call it the need for status, for differentiation from the semi-literate masses, but the need to set up a hyper-literacy, from the New Criticism on down, strikes me as largely self-defeating. No wonder all our cultural battles are fought over popcorn movies.

Lit Fic is a Genre

At least, that’s the takeaway I have from this Sarah Hoyt Post at Mad Genius Club.

Look, most twentieth century literature we were forced to read — particularly late 20th century literature — was written to be “what university professors like.” A dash of unearned superiority, a bit of social critique and always, always, every character being a worthless bastard or bitch, not worth the paper they were described on. Oh, and the entire thing always ended in a morass of bitterness and disillusionment.

The word for this Human Stain plot-template is trope.  Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, and all that cal. Broken people behave brokenly. I just had this experience with Manhattan Beach. It was a fun little story, with a mystery sewn into it, but I didn’t finish before it had to go back to the library, and now I’m not sure if I’m going to bother to. The mystery wasn’t going to be that mysterious. Whatever the most disillusioning solution would be, that was going to be the one that did it.

Bad things happen and that’s the end. That’s literary fiction for most of the time I’ve been alive. Really, since before that, if you go back to A Farewell to Arms and The Great Gatsby, where these things became obligatory. And that’s fine. But it’s a trope as simple and pure as Space Lords and Barbarian Kings. They comfort the worldview of the a certain segment of the population, by “challenging” it, according to a process of peripeteia and catharsis that was already old when Aristotle wrote about it. The rest is wankery trying vainly to disguise what they’re doing.

Back when I was going through literature courses I cured every professor who hit me with the “genre is just bad literature” by introducing them to Bradbury then hitting them with Phillip K. Dick while they were down.  Not one retained their opinion of genre, and some of them I left converted to science fiction.  (You could trace my progress through Portuguese educational institutions by the teachers/professors who not only read but rhapsodized over science fiction.


How many of the Top Twenty Books People Claim to have Read, Have you actually Read?

From the Telegraph. (h/t Moe Lane)

  1. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland – Lewis Carroll – Read it as a child, I think? Parts of it, anyway.
  2. 1984 – George Orwell – Read it in high school. Reread several times.
  3. The Lord Of The Rings trilogy – JRR Tolkien – Read it in middle school. Dad made me read The Hobbit first. Reread several times.
  4. War And Peace – Leo Tolstoy – Started to read it, couldn’t get into it.
  5. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy – No.
  6. The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle – Recieved it as a gift as a child. Read most of it.
  7. To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee – Read it in high school.
  8. David Copperfield – Charles Dickens – No. 
  9. Crime And Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky – Every now and again I try to read The Brothers Karamazov and fail. Never touched this one.
  10. Pride And Prejudice – Jane Austen – Nope.
  11. Bleak House – Charles Dickens – Nope.
  12. Harry Potter (series) – JK Rowling – No, and you can’t make me!
  13. Great Expectations – Charles Dickens – In High School. Reread once since.
  14. The Diary Of Anne Frank – Anne Frank – I think I was supposed to read this in high school, like it was on a summer reading list, and didn’t. 
  15. Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens – Nope.
  16. Fifty Shades trilogy – EL James – Who would claim to read this, who has not? Anyway, no.
  17. And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie – Read in high school. Reread several times.
  18. The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald – Read in High school. Reread several times.
  19. Catch 22 – Joseph Heller – Nope. The ubiquity of the title as a catchphrase has made it seem unecessary.
  20. The Catcher In The Rye – JD Salinger – Tried to read it a few years ago. Found it dull. Tried reading some of his short works and found them also dull. I sort of get what the big deal is, but I do not share it.


Read – 7

Not Read – 9

Mostly Read – 1

Tried to read and could not – 2

Let’s count the Mostly Read as Read and the Tried to Read as Not Read, and say I’ve read 8/20. Insufficient exposure to Dickens really brought my numbers down.