Novel Derived from Italian novella, ‘tale, piece of news’, and now applied to a wide variety of writings whose only common attribute is that they are extended pieces of prose fiction. But ‘extended’ begs a number of questions. The length of novels varies greatly and there has been much debate on how long a novel is or should be – to the reductio ad absurdum of when is a novel not a novel or a long short story or a short novel or a novella (q.v.). There seem to be fewer and fewer rules, but it would probably be generally agreed that, in contemporary practice, a novel will be between 60,000 words and, say, 200,000.
The actual term ‘novel’ has had a variety of meanings and implications at different stages. From roughly the 16th to the 18th c. its meaning tended to derive from the Italian novella and the Spanish novela (the French term nouvelle, q.v., is closely related) and the term (often used in a plural sense) denoted short stories or tales of the kind one finds in Boccaccio’s Decameron (c. 1349–51), Marguerite of Navarre’s Heptameron (c. 1530), George Pettie’s A Petite Palace of Pettie his Pleasure (1576) and Cervantes’s Novelas ejem-plares (1613).
Nowadays we would classify all the contents of the above as short stories. Broadly speaking, the term denoted a prose narrative about characters and their actions in what was recognizably everyday life and usually in the present, with the emphasis on things being ‘new’ or a ‘novelty’. And it was used in contradistinction to ‘romance’ (q.v.). In the 19th c. the concept of ‘novel’ was enlarged.
As to the quiddity of the novel there has been as much debate. However, without performing contortions to be comprehensive we may hazard that it is a form of story or prose narrative containing characters, action and inci-dent, and, perhaps, a plot (q.v.). In fact it is very difficult to write a story without there being some sort of plot, however vague and tenuous. So well developed is the average reader’s need for a plot (at its simplest the desire to know what is going to happen next) that the reader will look for and find a plot where, perhaps, none is intended. Moreover, as soon as the reader is sufficiently interested in one or more of the characters (one can hardly envis-age a novel without a character of some kind) to want to know what is going to happen to them next and to ask why, when and where – then there is a plot.
The subject matter of the novel eludes classification. No other literary form has proved so pliable and adaptable to a seemingly endless variety of topics and themes. No other literary form has attracted more writers (or more people who are not writers), and it continues to do so despite the oft-repeated cry (seldom raised by novelists themselves) that the novel is dead. If prolifera-tion is a sign of incipient death then the demise of the novel must be imminent.
At the moment it seems unlikely. Apart from dramatic comedy (q.v.) no other form has been so susceptible to change and development and the liter-ary taxonomist is at once confronted with a wide range of subspecies or categories. For example, we have the epistolary novel, the sentimental novel, the novel of sensation, the condition of England novel, the campus novel, the Gothic novel and the historical novel; we have the propaganda, regional, thesis (or sociological), psychological, proletarian, documentary and time novel; we have the novel of the soil and the saga (or chronicle) novel, the picaresque novel, the key novel or livre à clef and the anti-novel; not to mention the detective novel, the thriller, the crime novel, the police proce-dural, the spy novel, the novel of adventure and the novelette (qq.v.).
In French we have various kinds of roman, especially the roman-fleuve, the roman à tiroirs, the roman-feuilleton, the récit, the roman policier (the equiva-lent of the detective novel), the nouveau roman (the equivalent of the anti-novel) and the roman à clef. In German we find the Bildungsroman, the Künstlerroman, the Ritter- und Räuberroman (the picaresque), the Brief-roman (epistolary), the Zeitroman (qq.v.), the Schauerroman (‘shudder novel’) and the Schlüsselroman (key novel).
A number of these classifications shade off into each other.
We should also note that in other literatures and languages similar classifications have been established.
The absolute origins of the genre are obscure, but it seems clear that in the time of the XIIth Dynasty Middle Kingdom (c. 1200 bc) Egyptians were writing fiction of a kind which one would describe as a novel today. But it is not until towards the end of the first millennium that we find work more recognizably like the novels we have become accustomed to in the last two hundred or so years. These works are in Japanese.
Until the 14th c. most of the literature of entertainment (and the novel is usually intended as an entertainment) was confined to narrative verse (q.v.), particularly the epic (q.v.) and the romance. Romance eventually yielded the word roman, which is the term for novel in most European languages. In some ways the novel is a descendant of the medieval romances, which, in the first place, like the epic, were written in verse and then in prose (e.g. Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, 1485).
Spain was ahead of the rest of Europe in the development of the novel form. The greatest of all Spanish novels is Cervantes’s Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615), which satirized chivalry and a number of the earlier novels. After the death of Cervantes the Spanish novel, having begun so promisingly, went into decline until the 19th c.
In England, early in the 18th c. Defoe published his story of adventure – Robinson Crusoe (1719). From now on the novel comes of age and within another seventy years is a major and matured form.
In the early years of the 19th c. two figures dominate English fiction: Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austen. The middle years of the 19th c. witnessed the most astonishingly prolific output of fiction, especially from Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Thackeray and George Eliot, and it is noticeable that much of this fiction has lasted.
The development of the novel as a popular form in the 19th c. was a Euro-pean phenomenon, and one of the most remarkable features of its history is the speed with which it matured. From nowhere, so it seemed, great novelists sprang up and produced novels which became and remained classics.
In the 20th c., Dorothy Richardson was the first English novelist to intro-duce the stream of consciousness technique (q.v.). In 1916 James Joyce published A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in which he also employed the stream of consciousness technique. He perfected this in Ulysses (1922), and in Finnegans Wake (1939) he pushed it to its probable limits. After Joyce the novel was never quite the same again.
From the mid-1950s – the period when some people began to claim that the novel was ‘dead’ – until now the novel in Britain and elsewhere continued to show remarkable diversity and resilience, and the form has continued to attract large numbers of gifted writers. Since then, so many excellent books using the techniques of realism, modernism, postmodernism and magic realism (qq.v.) have been written by so many gifted writers. The novels of Kurt Vonnegut, John Bart, Thomas Pynchon, William Burroughs and Umberto Eco are some of the well-known examples of postmodern fiction in the period from the 1960s to the late 1980s. More recent writers such as Neil Gaiman, Dave Eggers and Zadie Smith have taken the postmodern novel in new directions. Following decolonization in the 1950s, a number of African, Asian, Caribbean, African-American and other writers have used the novel to ‘write back’ to colonial and racist representations. Since the 1990s, we also witness a number of rewritings of the Victorian period and the rise of the so-called ‘neo-Victorian novel’. Authors such as Sarah Waters, Marga-ret Atwood, A. S. Byatt and Peter Ackroyd have all used the conventions of the Gothic novel in new ways. In the late 20th and early 21st c., a number of novelists have responded to contemporary events such as migration, cul-tural hybridity, the impact of technology and the media, and the 9/11 attacks.
Even these few recent examples show the great variety of thematic concerns, genres and styles in the contemporary novel. A ‘short’ short-list would contain the names of over a hundred novels. See also epistolary novel; novel of sensation; reflexive novel; regional novel; verse-novel.