You know what a novel is, right?
Of course you do. It’s any one of those fat books on the shelves at Barnes & Noble that isn’t divided into short stories or something. What a silly question.
Most people use a working definition of the word “novel” which is pretty similar to the one above, but scholars most certainly do not. In fact a good way to amuse oneself if one were to be trapped in a college of literary pretensions during a hurricane would be to ask a random professor to define the term for you in the presence of other professors. It is very important to be prepared for the little disagreements this will generate: bandages, iodine, and possibly a fully-equipped trauma ward would be good things to have handy.
Just as an example of how hard the novel is to pin down, the book that started the mental process towards this article, (Philip Stevick’s The Theory of the Novel) is divided into sections that analyze the novel from different angles (Generic Identity; Narrative Technique; Point of View; Plot; Structure and Proportion; Style; Character; Time and Place; Symbol; and Life and Art), each filled with essays written by such luminaries as Conrad or Cervantes.
It’s quite an impressive piece of name dropping–and an extremely interesting, albeit somewhat dry read–but it would be hard-pressed to fit with the popular perception of what a novel is.
So let’s put that popular perception into words quickly, in order to have a rough working definition moving forward:
Novel: Any work of prose fiction longer than about a hundred and fifty pages or so that tells a story, and which has a beginning, middle, and end.
This clearly isn’t an academic definition, but it gives us the gist – the novel is longer than a short story or a novella, it tells one story, as opposed to being a collection of shorter works, and at the end of the thing, the reader knows how it turns out for the people involved – even if what happens next may be a bit open-ended as in more modern work. Most people would agree with this definition.
Most scholars would probably move to have anyone proposing such tripe burned at the stake. Even Wikipedia, that supposedly democratic collection of worldly wisdom has a long, rambling article about novels that touches on every possible inclusion and ancestor, and even has a handy little chart on reading habits in England in the 18th century (and a bonus discussion on Dan Brown discussing whether The Da Vinci Code is an anti-Christian novel. Don’t believe that? See for yourself).
This is one of those cases where a rigorous definition of the subject matter, and the obsession of academics of going beyond popular knowledge is counter-productive. Sadly, however, it is clear that, other than Sociology, there are few branches of study quite as dominated by obsessive people who wouldn’t be able to survive in any other discipline than literary criticism. Anyone who has ever heard of critical race theory and is aware that some people consider it a valid approach to literary criticism should be enough to convince you of the unfortunate state of literary criticism. If that doesn’t convince you, simply pick up or browse your chosen newspaper – you will see that books are not judged based on their literary or artistic merit, but by the politics of their authors (try it, it’s fun – The Guardian is particularly unsubtle about it, which is sad because their cultural section is otherwise among the world’s best).
But if none of the above convinces you, here’s XKCD. XKCD cannot be argued with.
(As always, you can see the original – with the mouse-over, at their site. Plus, buy their t-shirts and stuff – anyone producing material of that quality and not charging others to use it deserves to be supported.)
But if you really want to start a fight, ask one of your captive professors what the first novel was. You won’t even need the trauma room, as survivors are unlikely.