Part One: What is a Novel?
“When you understand the laws, you can see how they apply in different areas. Seemingly diverse theories and practices suddenly fit into a pattern that makes sense. A new paradigm.”
Kimo, Chapter 73, A Moment of Time
I saw a discussion recently in a writers’ forum; one writer posed a question along the lines of: “Should fiction writers attempt to raise awareness of social problems through their writing, or should they just focus on telling a good story?” Another writer responded (I’m paraphrasing): “Telling a story is what fiction is all about. If you have a message to deliver, send a telegram.”
Fiction, by definition, is not presented as a factual account of true events. (Factual accounts are usually labeled biography, history, journalism, et cetera.) But must a novel “just” tell a story? What of stories about slavery (Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1852) or the workhouse (Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, 1839) or by authors who espouse a particular philosophy or ideology (e.g., criticism of capitalism (Upton Sinclair); support of capitalism (Ayn Rand); support of feminist principles (Erica Jong); opposition to women’s independence (Jean-Jacques Rousseau)?
Stories are entertaining and the popular ones persist for generations. In ancient times, epic tales such as Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, and the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh were committed to memory in verse and sung by bards. As literacy spread, tales about King Arthur and heroic feats by knights, as well as fairy tales, folk lore and legends, were written down, and rewritten as literary forms evolved. In addition to entertainment value, stories often contained a moral or a message. The public was made aware of acts considered heroic and worthy of praise (and possibly emulation), as well as the consequences of misdeeds.
When printed works became widely available, a new market opened for books that addressed the interests of the general population (rather than scholars or priests). Stories could be enjoyed in private by a reader who no longer depended upon a public performance (much as motion pictures can now be seen without going to a public theater).
Modern novels do more than tell stories; they present a world as it is viewed through the eyes of one or more characters. The selection of facts and themes, the development of characters, the situations the characters find themselves in and the actions they take all introduce and depict a particular set of circumstances. Choices are influenced by values and needs, expectations and assumptions.
Instead of asking whether writers ought to attempt to raise awareness of social issues, a more interesting question might be: Do writers (and filmmakers and others whose works find widespread distribution) bear any responsibility for their contributions to society? Upton Sinclair’s writings about the meatpacking industry (The Jungle, 1906) led to public awareness that resulted in legislation (the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906). But what of a story that glorifies depravity and leads to an outbreak of horrific crimes that are fueled by the popularity of a fictional work with a cult-like following? I’m not advocating censorship (though I urge control over what children are exposed to), but each of us must consider the effect of our words and behavior—whether our business requires us to dump toxic waste or we are dumping equivalent sludge into the stream of collective thought.
Undoubtedly, some writers are aiming for a popular market while others possess the talent to create literature worthy of being called art. I’ve met writers whose sole objective is to capitalize on a trend and make a lot of money—their output has about as much depth as a television commercial. I also know writers whose works are a labor of love; they devote countless hours to improving their craft and expressing their vision as effectively as possible. Some writers focus on character development or ornate descriptions and eloquent prose; some eschew details and write stories that are plot-driven; some rely on a unique concept or introduce a new form, style or technique. Some writers have within them a story they just have to tell; others master a genre and churn out stories that all follow a predictable plot and utilize stock characters. All are classed as fiction; all fit within the form we call a novel.
Let’s consider the Oxford Dictionaries definition for novel: “a fictitious prose narrative of book length, typically representing character and action with some degree of realism”
“prose narrative”: As noted above, early epic stories were memorized and delivered in verse; theatrical performances developed their own conventions. Today, poetry, songwriting, playwriting, and screenwriting serve distinct purposes (i.e., a play is meant to be performed, a film is meant to be produced, and a song is meant to be sung); even if the story essentials are the same, the form varies. Ideas and characters that first appear in a novella or short story can be developed into a full length play or film script; stories that are popular as motion pictures can be turned into stage plays; songs and even song titles provide ideas for writers who create other stories. A novel typically includes dialogue and may include songs or poems, but its narrative uses prose.
“book length”: A novel is longer and more complex than a short story or novella; these distinctions may affect purchase price and eligibility for awards. A reader glancing through titles at a bookstore or library can easily see the size of a volume and page count and adjust his or her expectations accordingly; perhaps savvy readers of ebooks learn to consider “word count” in their choices about reading material. Sometimes we may want a quick read, and need to set aside a weekend to appreciate a thought-provoking classic.
A novel that is poorly written may seem incomplete, regardless of length, and the ease of self-publishing has resulted in a wide array of stories being produced by writers with varying levels of experience; just because a writer attaches the label “novel” to an ebook does not mean the story meets any standards for use of the term. A person might scribble ideas for a story and divide the notes into “chapters”—some of the notes might be bits of dialogue, others may have descriptions of setting, and others include the writer’s thoughts about themes or metaphors he intends to develop—but if this collection is put into book form, it does not magically become a novel, simply by nature of its length and the inclusion of characters and some narrative prose, nor could it be classed as a short story or any other recognizable form of literature.
“some degree of realism”: In order for a story to make any sense, such that a reader (or listener, if the story is being read aloud) can follow along and comprehend it, it must have some basis in reality—the characters’ thoughts and words must be understandable (unless the character is hindered in some way and the obstacle is part of the point), the situations must be comparable to those that readers have encountered or can easily imagine based upon the descriptions. But which parts of the book must be “fictitious” and how much “realism” is required? Must the characters be made up by the author? What of a dramatization that is based on a real person’s life, but takes liberties with the way events happened, or consolidates several (real) people into one character or changes the order of actual events for the sake of the story or economy?
Historical figures often appear in fictional stories—consider The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory (Mary and Anne Boleyn at the Tudor Court of Henry VIII) or I, Claudius by Robert Graves (the fictional autobiography of the Roman Emperor) and many others. Some authors draw upon their imagination in recreating historical events; other writers invent situations that did not occur, but might have. But, then, many historical accounts are notoriously biased and even when the historian aims for objectivity he or she cannot eliminate personal viewpoints entirely; as with any account, the peculiar slant one writer brings will differ from the perspective of another. The reporter who writes about soldiers on the battleground will tell a different story than the journalist who interviews military strategists at headquarters, even when they write about the same battle. At times and places where officially sanctioned views are the only ones that are freely disseminated, novelists often describe true conditions with far greater accuracy, in the guise of fiction, than accounts that gloss over problems and paint a rosy picture for the public or outsiders—for to openly identify “real” circumstances and people would invite imprisonment and perhaps torture and death.
Debate about the value of fiction is not new; when prose fiction started to address serious subjects and moral dilemmas, public discussion about the merits of individual works began to appear, paving the way for universities to interpret and study literature as a legitimate field of specialization. Writers are free to write whatever they choose, and for their own reasons. The value—commercial or literary—that anyone else places upon the writing is (mostly) beyond the writer’s control, and often changes over time. (I say “mostly” because a writer with means can invest a lot of time, effort and money in creating a “brand” and image that may succeed in generating the attention he or she desires—regardless of the merit of the work itself.) The novel form is broad enough to encompass such diverse works as Fifty Shades of Gray and War and Peace.
Traditionalists will say that the novelist aims to create an emotional identification with the characters, so that the reader vicariously experiences the ups and downs, successes and failures of the main character(s) and is taken on a journey that evokes vivid images, feelings and sensations. According to this view, the story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end; it will include a character or story arc (and in some workshops you will be told on exactly what page the turning point should come); and it is centered around needs and conflict. The conflict may be between characters, or between a character and a group, or it can be an internal conflict or ethical dilemma.
When writing screenplays as well as prose fiction, writers are free to experiment with any or all aspects of the form. The story may begin in the middle, rather than at the beginning. The story may lack a main character and instead consider the interconnections among a diverse cast of characters. Perhaps the main character is killed a third of the way through the story, and the loss of the person is experienced through the eyes of the other characters. The ending may be left open, the conflict unresolved. Or perhaps the writer creates characters that see the conflict through different eyes, each representing a different approach to the nature of a problem and its solution. (For a comparison of philosophy and literature, read James Ryerson’s essay, “The Philosophical Novel”)
Fictional works that appeal more to the mind than the emotions are concerned with how characters’ lives are impacted by their beliefs or exposure to new ideas—for characters will respond differently to ideas as well as to experiences. The information included in most novels is there to serve the story; descriptions of procedures for detonating a bomb, or characteristics of different types of dinosaurs, or unsolved mysteries from historical events are included in a work of fiction because they relate to the plot. When the story concerns the shift in consciousness of the main character(s), arguably,whatever their conscious awareness is focused upon is fair game. Occasionally, a novel such as The Celestine Prophecy or a film such as MindWalk—a feature film with three characters but not much “action”—strikes a chord with a segment of the population, even though it violates many of the “rules” taught in writing courses. The literary (or cinematic) value may not be superior by critical standards, but the writer succeeds in getting across his ideas—and the ideas are, to some readers and viewers, new and exciting.
For any given genre, contemporary readers come to expect a novel to contain certain elements or follow certain formats, but that does not mean that all novels must or even should follow the formula—or that novels have always been defined by the same terms we use now. (Common perceptions about fiction and the imaginative realm help explain the email I received from an acquaintance who, knowing my background, tried to persuade me to publicize a perceived injustice he encountered in his profession. When I declined, saying, “I’m not a journalist. I write novels.” he responded (I’m paraphrasing again): “How convenient to live in a fantasy world of your own invention and not have to deal with the garbage that goes on in the real world.” Such a view ignores the widespread impact that novels can and do have in shaping public opinion and behavior in “the real world.”)
I submit that “what” a novel “is” has changed and may continue to change; no external authority exists as a final arbiter on what a novel “can” or “should” be. It is a broad term capable of further differentiation: the historical novel, the legal thriller, and so on. Specific communities may reach consensus about what their members will consider a novel. Academics and critics can elucidate standards for what fictional works are worthy of their study and acclaim. Publishers can state criteria for what kinds of submissions they will consider for publication. And readers will have their preferences about the kinds of novels they wish to read. Writers will push boundaries—some will claim their work is nonfiction and be publicly reprimanded for violating standards of trust, thereby fostering debate about acceptable practices and truth in advertising. But one who says the novel form must be limited to certain kinds of topics or that only some styles are legitimate holds a rigid view that, if widely adopted, would stifle innovation.
The novel is, after all, a human invention; humans made up the rules, and humans can change them. “Marriage” once described the union of a man and a woman; now, the term is applied more broadly. In these days of mashup songs, intersex, and genetically modified foods, parts of words and names are combined with parts of other words and names to create something new (Ben and Jennifer become a couple known as Bennifer; Watergate spawns Monicagate and numerous other –gate scandals); the lines separating one gender or food from another are not so clearly drawn. This blurring of boundaries adds complexity, but also creates new options.
Styles change; forms evolve. Printed books are being replaced by electronic readers. If a “book” is defined as a bound volume, then writing the entire contents in chalk on city streets is not writing a book—even if the contents are the same. Oliver Twist, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Jungle Fever were first published in serial form; the installments were later compiled and published as novels. A perceptual shift was required to include “ebook” within the consensual understanding of what a “book” is.
Categories—like paradigms—are useful; shared concepts permit communication without the need for elaborate discussions and explanations in every instance when agreed-upon terms are based on uniform assumptions and expectations. However, as I will discuss further in my next post, familiar terms and concepts may need to be reimagined when the limitations of old views are revealed by new discoveries.–Jilaine Tarisa