The Books of My Numberless Dreams

What’s a novel?

Posted on: April 20, 2007

As I read another LRB issue I found myself exclaiming at David Trotter’s valiant attempt to state what makes certain kinds of fiction not a novel:

[E.M.] Forster explicitly includes, alongside Emma and the rest of the Great Tradition, texts as unlike each other, and as unlike Emma, as Pilgrim’s Progress and W.H. Hudson’s Green Mansions. No one’s arguing about Emma. But Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegorical dream-vision; while Green Mansions (a story set in the forests of western Guyana featuring a female spirit-presence, a lost tribe, and enough spiders, centipedes and moths to stock a decent-sized natural history museum) is an adventure story of the kind Rider Haggard devised in King Solomon’s Mines and She, as an alternative to the English novel’s stuffy domestic preoccupations. Green Mansions is an eco-romance: She with added insect ecology (Haggard wouldn’t have got out of bed to describe anything smaller than a wildebeest). Well-understood generic convention organises Pilgrim’s Progress and Green Mansions in such a way as to distinguish them sharply from each other, and from whatever kind of book it is that Emma is.

That said, there is no list of formal narrative features that would enable us finally to confirm Emma‘s credentials as a novel, and discard the other two altogether. Both Pilgrim’s Progress and Green Mansions have a plot, a protagonist, incidents which reveal character, incidents which don’t reveal character, character which reveals itself without incident, and so on. But they feel different, to a degree that makes Forster’s breezy inclusiveness untenable. For a start, both are high-minded in ways that even the most genteel of novels is not. They have palpable didactic designs on the reader. Both mean to sweep you off your feet: in one case, into godliness; in the other, into a vague feeling that ordinary experience leaves a lot to be desired.

This reflection merely acts as a jump start for the bulk of the article, “Into the Future”, a review of a two volume set that charts the historical and global development of the novel with no pretence to modify definitions. I may be unfair then in describing his feelings as the lamest challenge ever to Forster’s definition. If a book is really high-minded, really didactic, written with the intention to really, really sweep us off our feet, it can’t be a novel? “Allegorical dream visions” and stories with lots of insects deserve their own category?

Any such determination would have to more rhetorically grounded in form rather than content. So I say.

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3 Responses to "What’s a novel?"

I know genre definitions and distinctions are useful and necessary at times, but my tendancy is to resist them and to be as inclusive and fuzzy about it as possible — so yeah, Pilgrim’s Progress feels different than Emma, but where does that get us, really?

I probably wouldn’t count Pilgrim’s Progress as a novel myself. Unfortunately, I can’t quite articulate why at the moment (of course, I’ll be thinking about it now). But I agree with Dorothy, not counting it as a novel doesn’t really get me anywhere except, maybe, Vanity Fair.

Dorothy that’s why if, given a choice, I’d settle with Forster’s definition because it is inclusive, otherwise we’d be left trying to think up new “genres” for every narrative fiction work that wasn’t conventional and “genteel”.

Ian I think of it more as a “graphic novel” except that a) it’s only because I had an awesome illustrated edition at the time and b) it’s a made-up marketing term.

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