The novel is the most difficult literary form to define. Most critics settle for a simple definition based on length. But many works called short stories are also called novellas and many novellas are also called novels.
The novel is new. The youngest of the major forms of literary expression, it is only about 200 years old. It is a distant cousin to the ancient epic poems of Greece, and a closer cousin to the prose-poem romances of the Middle Ages. But further back, the oral narrative, which was mainly poetic, set patterns that evolved into the novel we read today.
The prime purpose of the novel, as distinguished from other forms of narrative, is to depict reality, even when the novel is confined to subjective worlds. This (in addition to prose and length) is the hallmark of the novel. The novel is a sort of long newspaper story; the very world “Novel” comes from an Italian word meaning “a little new thing”, and is related to the French word that gives us “news”. It is no accident that many novelists have been newspapermen: Defoe, Dickens, Crane, Dreiser, Joyce, Hemingway, Camus – the list could be almost infinitely extended. And this connection with reportage perhaps helps to account for the relatively low esteem in which the novel is occasionally held: a course in the novel does not seem quite up to a course in poetry, and people who read novels but not poetry are not likely to claim an interest in “Literature”. Poetry is, allegedly, about beautiful thoughts, but novels are just about people.
contributed by Gifford, Katya
17 April 2002