Rethinking the Novel

12 books that will make you reconsider what fiction can be.

It seems like an obvious question to answer: what, exactly, is a novel? Turns out the answer’s one of the slippery concepts that as soon as you try to define, you begin to qualify and edit and revise, and then qualify some more, until little by little, the number of amendments to the original statement are so great and their permissibility so near total that, hell, the damn definition itself could be considered a novel. How many pages or words differentiate a novel from a novella? What form must it take? Must it always have plot? Characters? And what of typography? Any rules on that front? Would a hand-written novel in a dollar-store journal of a friend of yours feel like a novel the same way a published novel by that same friend would? And I mean the word feel in a literal sense. How that journal simply didn’t have those features—of texture, mechanics, and design—that typically evoke the referent novel in a person’s mind but which actually have more to do with fiction’s commodification than with its aesthetics. A novel, then, is mostly a commercial distinction, as in, e.g., How do we sell this book? The answer to this, as everyone knows, is never nuance. It’s short and sweet. It’s simplicity and catchiness, something a potential consumer can see, comprehend, and remember after a brief exposure. So something like “autofictional memoir blended with criticism and journalism”? Nobody’s gonna get that, let alone remember it. As these generic terms get stamped on books for better marketability, the divisions between the various categories get more and more distinct and less forgiving to cross, and like all fences they keep out just as much as they keep in, and soon the gaps have grown so vast that certain writers who seem able to nimbly and indiscriminately hop over them are viewed with as much perplexity as esteem. And so well if it’s not the page it’s printed on or its length, and if it’s not inherently plot-driven or character-filled, and if it’s the seeming pervasiveness of an understood definition is merely the result of repeated and successful branding on the part of publishers, then what the hell is it? A novel is a useful umbrella for the many torrents of fictional art. But when it rains it pours, and under harsh duress, the umbrella breaks like any of us. Read these.


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About Jonathan Russell Clark

Jonathan Russell Clark

JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK is a literary critic. He is a staff writer for Literary Hub , and a regular contributor to The Georgia Review and The Millions. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Tin House, The Atlantic, The New Republic, LA Review of Books, The Rumpus, Chautauqua, PANK, and numerous others. His essays have been mentioned in The Guardian, NPR.org, BBC.com, Bookforum.com, Electric Literature, Word Riot, Poets & Writers, and as one of Katie Couric’s Katie’s FYI. Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma and raised in Columbus, Ohio, Clark was educated at the University of Oxford, the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, UMass Boston, and the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

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