Saturday, May 9, 2009

A Novel

This is a re-post of something I wrote last summer. I had taken it down to fiddle with it. Actually I had taken a couple of things down because I had a bout of blog paranoia where I thought everyone was going to steal my ideas. I'm quite over it now.

A hot and sweaty bike ride landed me at the local Borders Books. It seems most of my hot and sweaty times are spent with books these days.

I wandered around, my eyes adjusting from blazing sunlight to cool fluorescent, my legs slowing down from frantic pedaling to a stroll, and when the sunspots cleared I was happy to find myself in the section they call "Fiction/Literature."

On an end cap were a collection of Chuck Palahniuk novels, so I gave them a look. Each one had a different cover, but all very Palahniuk. Directly above Chuck was a collection of novels by a Ms. Jodi Picoult, which were not so fun to behold. Each had a cover photo of girls' dresses or a set of feminine arms or a pair of feminine shoulders (synecdoche is all the rage, you know -- or is it metonymy? no one knows). I tire so much of this kind of cover art. And even worse, at the bottom of each cover, in very small lettering, was the label "A NOVEL."

This is the label one finds on almost every new piece of work in the "Fiction/Literature" section. Most of what Americans read today can be classified as novels, yet publishers, authors, or whoever it is that thinks such a label is necessary, seem to think a book's being "a novel" is not something self-evident. We must label it, or they won't know what it is.

Without the label, one picks up a book with a lyrical title, opens the cover to find no extensive table of contents, perhaps a forward, a page titled "Chapter One." Flipping through the book confirms that there are at least twenty more of these chapters, full of long passages of prose and many sections punctuated by quotation marks. I think one would assume one has picked up a novel.

This identification process would take less than ten seconds, assuming one has not already made up their minds that the shelf is full of novels and has no doubt about the format of the book -- it being lodged between Kerouac and Kesey in the Fiction/Literature section might be a clue.

"But," argues the label-happy publisher, "writers who write novels also write poetry, criticism, plays, they create anthologies! We need to be clear!" Not to worry. These things are all safely removed from the novel area and housed in their own special stacks. The only infiltrators into the novel shelves are books of short stories and collections of essays. These have always been labeled. So the novels do not need to be labeled. I think our readers can use the process of elimination and a bit of common sense to figure out which are the novels.

"But," argues the publisher, "someone might buy the book and start reading it, and still not know it's a novel!" Good point, publisher. Some readers who are not very well-read may be thrown by what they find inside the cover of something they assumed to be a novel. If the format becomes unfamiliar, the narrator gives over to more and more narrators, the narrative distance changes, the chapters are interspersed with poetry -- these are all things which might cause a novice reader to ask "Is this a novel?" (trans. "Should I be reading this?")

So people don't want to get in over their heads. As we've said, the average American reads novels, not plays or poetry, and certainly not essays or criticism. The label may assuage any fears they have after being jarred by a novel that takes the form of a narrative essay, bursts into poetry, or blurs the lines between narrator/author/God. The timid reader checks the cover and exhales, "Phew. It says, 'A Novel.'" Perhaps it is this quality of the novel, its refusal to be defined or formatted, that puts the publisher into a labeling panic.

I wonder if a novelist refused such a label if she would be denied a book deal. Such "a novelist" would probably call herself "a writer." Anyhow, Mr. Random House or Mr. Penguin would stare blankly at her: "How the hell will anyone know what they're reading!"

Scanning the shelf of McSo-and-Sos I find a woman writer who has kept the stamp off of her work. Colleen McCullough writes books; maybe they're novels. We don't know. Especially because the cover art is actual artwork and not photos of sad little girls. Doesn't she know the conventions? Perhaps she already had her foot in the door when the labeling party began, so when they asked her where they should stick it she told them where they should "Stick it." They found a way though. Two of her works have starbursts on the spine containing those words in one way or another: "One of the most beloved novels of all time!" "A New York Times Bestselling Novel." Sorry Colleen.

Almost all of these books have it in some form. "A NOVEL" "a novel" "a novel" Some in tiny letters at the bottom, some vying for attention with the title, some with design elements specifically for containing the phrase "A Novel" (a little cameo shape under the title is most popular.) But a few who have gold seals to sell their books were spared, like Pulitzer Prize winner Cormac McCarthy. On the whole, men are better at dodging the label than women. But we've always had trouble dodging labels.

Maybe someone in publishing knows more than I do. Is the modern novel having an identity crisis? Are we trying to help it find itself?

I fear the day may come when the new editions of old favorites sport that contemplative phrase "a novel." (They just think they're so stylish when they italicize it.) Will the publishers do it because they simply end up going too far in a world where people don't mind having their intelligence insulted? Because they don't remember the days when books had no cover art, just a title on the spine? Or perhaps they will do it because twenty years from now our children truly won't know whether Wuthering Heights, War and Peace, and Middlemarch are novels, movies or social networking websites.

I have a short novel in progress -- "a novella" they would call it. If I were ever to publish "a novel" or "a novella," I would kindly ask my publisher to forgo the label "a novel." Instead I would ask that he place the label "A BOOK" in very large type directly underneath the title -- or maybe directly above. I wouldn't want my readers to be confused.


  1. as much as i enjoy the smooth reading of your prose, i frankly don't share your critical frustration to labeling a volume of (generally) 150 or more pages, representing a self-contained literary entity, as "a novel". granted, such apathy might well be the expected reaction/non-reaction from the crusted-over cavity in my chest.
    i certainly relate with your inclination to detach hair from follicle regarding the lack of critical thought that some people invest in what they read (do, say, or, for that matter, think); nevertheless, i don't think omitting the "novel" label will remedy this.
    i do like, though, your idea of giving the author control over what the paratext says. perhaps if i had written a novel, i would want to title it _A Novel_ and label it "the last three hours of life too long lived" (or something like that).
    hmm. as i consider this, perhaps that's what you're (in part) saying--that publishers oughtn't have authorial control of text? in this case, i might well fight someday for the right to dictate what that label says, and upon winning (it's my fantasy, dammit) choose the words "a novel". after all, i really don't mind the words; it's someone else telling me what to do with my work that makes me wanna turn some tables.

  2. Hey Justin,

    I don't think we disagree all that much! I guess there are two issues here, and you delineate them better than 2008 Robyn did:

    1) readers' lack of knowledge or care about things worth reading
    2) publishers' control over paratext.

    I think I'm equally concerned with both (even in 2013), and to answer your non-objection to #2, "the novel" as a label, I think it's totally fine if you or an author wants to put that on his book. But the fact that EVERY book says that nowadays makes it seem like it's an industry standard rather than any author's decision. And authors should control the paratext!

    Furthermore, something about the way "a novel" looks on new books still bugs me. It is so self assured. "There are poignant things in here, you know..." That's what the little cameo with the italicized label seems to be saying. But that's just me being a design curmudgeon. I also hate visual synecdoche on covers. (Here's where I complained about that in 2010: )

    Also, like Max brought up at the Narrative School, there is the weirdness of labeling really old works that no one would have called novels with "a novel." Not that the common reader needs to have a complete understanding of the history of the novel, or what makes a "romance" or whatever, but it's misleading to use the term anachronistically. I think of old stories like Gulliver's Travels and other 17th-18th C works that had those hilarious full-page frontispieces explaining what the hell the book is. It may say "a novel" in there somewhere, in some cases, but it says a lot of other stuff too. I may opt for one of those if I ever publish a book!

  3. I think I now better understand your point about, as you elucidate, the "industry standard", both in content and form of the paratext. That f*#$ing Man!

    And yeah, Max's comment about the dilemma of either the paratext becoming anachronistic insightful.

    I really hope you write a novel; I would read it, of course, but I'd be primarily interested in judging it by its cover. ;-)


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