Notes from An Alien

~ Explorations In Reading, Writing & Publishing ~

What Is a Novel?

The question that forms the title of this post may seem simple to answer; yet, is it?

Image Courtesy of Julia Freeman-Woolpert ~

I can imagine a few answers from certain folks:


“A thick book with a story in it.”

“A continuous narrative of at least 50,000 words.”

“What a dumb question—everybody knows what a novel is.”


The only problem is that many novelists would disagree with those answers; and, many other answers to the question.

Ursula K. Le Guin, in her book, Words Are My Matter, said this:

“Readers, I think, are often led astray by the widespread belief that a novel springs from a single originating ‘idea’, and then are kept astray by the critical practice of discussing fiction as completely accessible to intellect, a rational presentation of ideas by means of an essentially ornamental narrative.”

The “ornamental narrative” of that quote is, sadly, what many “experts” of “literary” fiction think they’re dealing with when they reduce the art of the novelist into their simplistic “explanations” of what the novel “means”…

Le Guin also says:

“If fiction is how it says what it says, then useful criticism is what shows you how fiction says what it says.”


Another rendition of her words might be:

Fiction isn’t just what it says—isn’t just the bare words on the page. It’s how those words shape the ideas of the story and add feeling to the narrative.

So then, the honest critic has to work to show how the novel takes mere words and fashions them into the artistic presentation of ideas and feelings.

And, that presentation is not capable of being reduced to a coldly rational train of thoughts…

Well, not capable of being reduced if it is, in fact, a novel; since, I’m sure there are books out there, with many words in them, which are not richly artistic novels; but, merely books that are “completely accessible to intellect, a rational presentation of ideas by means of an essentially ornamental narrative.”

Care to share your thoughts and feelings in the comments?

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16 responses to “What Is a Novel?

  1. Sonia G Medeiros June 19, 2017 at 5:58 pm

    To me a novel is story that’s larger in scope and size than a short story or novella. I’d say a novel is at least 250 paperback pages, but that’s pretty arbitrary. I’d also say a novel must encompass a complete story arc, even if it’s part of a series and there’s an overarching arc. Ideally, a novel should feel like a whole by itself. It should have a certain beauty and symmetry.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Jessica Bakkers June 20, 2017 at 5:07 am

    To me, a novel is a journey. Someone starts at point a) and on their journey to point b) they grow, they learn, they face obstacles, challenges, loss, and grief. A novel is a snapshot into the life of the character(s).
    Good topic to pull apart. I’m going to reblog this one 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jessica Bakkers June 20, 2017 at 5:08 am

    Reblogged this on Jessica Bakkers and commented:
    REBLOGGING Alexander’s interesting post about just what IS a novel. What do you think a novel is? A collection of words and chapters that tell a tale? Or a look into someone else’s very life?


  4. juliecroundblog June 20, 2017 at 7:02 am

    A novel is a long imaginative story. maybe it would be easier to say “What is NOT a novel.” That would help clarify things.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Adam June 20, 2017 at 11:46 pm

    This reminds me of an article I once read which discussed how many powerful pieces of music are designed in such a way that some notes are not on the page, not played by the musicians, and yet the audience still hears them.

    Sometimes I wonder about art; how the artist(s) have a vision, an idea, and from that they create a physical “something” that is stable and endures. Audiences experience this “something”, and start developing their own ideas about what it means.
    In many cases the ideas of the artist and the ideas of the audience bear some resemblance, but they also usually have some fairly striking differences.

    I think a lot depends on what you consider to be a story. In many ways I tend to think of a short story as a narrative that focuses on one character’s small transformation over a short span of time. A novel then would probably be a more extensive look at one or more characters as they transform in a more extensive way.

    In many ways I feel like a novel is a series of short stories, strung together by their beginning and ending. Where a short story closes with a sense of finality, a novel ends each short story with a pause that hints at more to come, while the opening of the next short story picks up after that short pause.


    • Alexander M Zoltai June 21, 2017 at 12:46 am

      Thank you, Adam, for your thought-provoking comments…

      I do know one thing I can add…

      Sounds can produce what are called beat tones—two tones at certain intervals produce another tone—the instruments of an orchestra could produce these…

      I can imagine that two word meanings used in an artful manner could produce “beat” meanings………

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Jane Watson June 21, 2017 at 3:41 am

    I feel that my thoughts about the novel have changed somewhat over the years. Perhaps to me a short story encompasses a small moment and development in time that has a wider meaning. A novel may encompass many moments in time and by the end of the novel you feel that you have flown around the universe and seen the stars, whereas at the end of a story you realize that walking around the house has been beautiful and instructive. The shortest novel I have ever read is “Le Silence de la Mer” by Vercors. It is 53 pages long. Sometimes it is referred to as one of Vercors’ stories but usually it is called a novel…. So I really like Julie’s comment “What is NOT a novel?” and my answer would be ‘nothing’ – perhaps anything can be a novel depending on what it does and where it takes you ;-)

    Liked by 1 person

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