The novel A definition of the novel

Opened book
What set apart
a novel from a short story is above all the obvious fact that a novel is longer–in Aspects of the Novel (1927) by E.M. Forster it is said that a novel is a “fictitious prose work over 50,000 words“. As a middle ground between short stories and novels, the novelette and novella are sometimes used as terms. It doesn’t exist any formal threshold in exact word counts there a short novelette turns into a novella and a novella turns into a novel, although suggestions of that sort occur.

The word count is not the only aspect that divides a short story from a novel. It could be added that a short story often differentiates by its concentrated structure. A more in-depth answer to his question could be found in this essay.

Some classic literary fiction, such as the Iliad and Odyssey by Homer is however not to be classified as novels, these works are called epics. Epics are long narratives, but differ from novels by being written as a poem in verses.

Neither are the works of Shakespeare, such as Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth, to be considered as novels, but plays. The things that distinguish plays from novels is that a play almost solely contains dialogue preceded by some concise scene conditions.


Genres in literature

It is not always obvious which genre a book belongs to, if it even belongs to one specific. Literature is often a mixture of genres. For example, sometimes the borderline between reality and fiction is thin. Memoirs can, for example, include portions of fiction and novels are often including autobiographical pieces.

The term belles-lettres has been used to distinguish literature striving for art from writings of facts or speculative nature like philosophy. Where is of course plenty of different genres in both these categories.

The story is as old as the human.

Before the paper was invented, our ancestors told stories with their mouths. The stories would be memorized by next generations and thus survive. Contemporary stories are often packaged as novels, and often so because of the commercial factor. But regardless which, the lust for both telling and receive stories are something that the human calls for deep inside.

Interpretation of literature

When literature and interpretation is mentioned together, many would probably think of poetry primarily. It is true that poetry is directly combined with interpretation as a form of text that often holds an inherent message. Yet, prose can be an object for interpretation as well. Whereas the plot itself generally doesn’t need to be analyzed, the meaning behind the plot could be an object for an interpretation. In older novels, the context is often partly lost for readers of today. Matters of political and culture sort that would be lit up by the knowledge of history. In older poems and prose references to mythology is common, the Greek primarily. But this is a knowledge what not always belongs to the readers of today and could hinder the understanding of the text.

In modern prose works, interpretations could concern political, social, gender and other issues. A novel could further on be interpreted from a biographical perspective, an intertextual perspective and many others.

Sometimes a novel can include symbols or as a whole be a symbol for something, and sometimes a certain passage in a book is extra important for its interpretations, for the latter case this is called a crux. 1

The birth of the novel

For a long time, verse would dominate the literature through poems and epos. Exceptions exist, such as the Antique  Satyricon by Petronius and other ancient works from India and Japan could be seen as predecessors to the novel. In the early Renaissance the Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio would create The Decameron (Decamerone), a collection of short stories, or novellas, which were written in prose instead of verse. In the 17th century the Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes became the author of Don Quixote which is regarded as one of the first modern novels. 

The (supposed) death of the novel

It has been talked about the death or the decline of the novel (or the book in general, but that’s another discussion) many times–already E.M. Foster seemed insecure in his Aspect’s of the Novel (1927): “will it be killed by the cinema“, he asked. Today, we know that we cinema didn’t do it nor other technological inventions. The whole matter seems to be the obvious fact that we like to read books.

Today, more books are sold than ever before. The novel is clearly the dominant genre. It could be claimed that lyrics and drama have been marginalized, but if music that contains lyrics is counted, this could not be more wrong. The same can be said about drama which has partly moved into new forms such as the movie and is thriving as well.

Essentially, it may be a question about quality. The best books are truly great efforts made by great intellects. The best non-fiction books are made by enormous research and knowledge in the subject, whereas the best fiction books are made by wonderful creativity and ability to tell a story.

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1. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Chris Baldick. 2001, p. 55