What is a novel? This is a question I am continually asking myself as I work on my second one.
The learning curve for writing novels is quite steep. Someone once said that writing your first novel is toughest because not only do you have to write your novel, you have to teach yourself how to write a novel as well. Well, from my experience, writing the second novel is just as tough because you're teaching yourself how to write a different novel. That's really just a way of saying I eschew formulaicism.
One of my ways of keeping focused on the task is to keep a theoretic framework in mind. A map, if you will, of the territory ahead.
So, what is a novel? Is it more than, say, a fictional narrative in prose of a certain length? Is it one genre among others in the category of longish fiction? Some good discussion on the Web has been going on recently. Here's Dan Green at The Reading Experience. Here's Richard Crary at The Existence Machine. Go there. You'll find me in their Comments pimping for WoW.
Maurice Z. Shroder, in an influential 1963 article entitled "The Novel as a Genre" in The Theory of the Novel edited by Philip Stevick, remarks the breadth and flexibility of the form prevents easy definition. Some things, though, can be set out:
"Like any narrative, the novel has a typical action, with thematic value, which is peculiarly its own.Further:
The matter of the novel—the theme that has informed the genre from Don Quixote onward—is relatively uncomplicated. The novel records the passage from a state of innocence to a state of experience, from that ignorance which is bliss to a mature recognition of the actual way of the world. In the less loaded terms of Lionel Trilling, the novel deals with a distinction between appearance and reality. It is not necessarily a question of ontological subtleties: the reality to which the novel appeals is that to which it is historically connected, the reality of bourgeois life, of business, and of the modern city. The first Falstaff, as he stands on the field of Shrewsbury, the thought of money metaphorically coloring his speech—as he questions the value of such aristocratic absolutes as chivalric honor and resolves to be a live coward—Falstaff embodies the sensibility that will make the novel possible. The great expectations of the young Hotspur find ironic responses in the lost illusions of the old Sir John. The protagonist of the novel follows the same pattern of disillusionment—which Harry Levin sees as a major part of what we call realism—from potential fulfillment to actual accomplishment, from a hopeful naivete to a resigned wisdom.
Thematically, then, the novel distinguishes itself from the romance, in which the protagonist proves himself a hero, actually fulfills his heroic potentiality. ... The protagonist of a novel is likely to be an 'anti-hero,' an 'unheroic hero," ...who is able to elaborate his dreams of glory only by ignoring the material realities of his station and his times." (14-15)
"The action of the novel...is essentially a reworking of the basic action of the romance...the 'monomyth'...the 'quest.'... In the novel, the 'going forth' may be metaphorical rather than actual; but the voyage often provides the novelistic framework, and the protagonist's movement is always from a narrow environment to a broader one. He may move in space...he may move rather in time. The goal of the quest...may or may not be achieved; but the protagonist of the novel is likely to discover, with Falstaff, that there is no future for heroism, that he himself is a perfectly ordinary man, with the experience and the knowledge that suit his station. ... [P]rotagonists succeed only because they have let fall their illusions and their pride. Such a fall, in a novel, is a happy one, since it represents the completion of that educational process with which the novel deals, an education into the realities of the material world and of human life in society." (15-16)According to Shroder, "The novel would then seem to be an essentially ironic fictional form, occupying a middle position between the non-ironic romance and the philosophical tale, which is ironic, but in ways often different from those of the novel." (20)
To recap: the novel is essentially urban, middle class, and anti-romantic, marking the passage from ignorance to knowledge, innocence to experience, appearance to reality. It is ironic in attitude; disillusioned in stance. According to Shroder, these are the hallmarks of the novel, properly so called.
"Romance is essentially escapist literature; it appeals to the emotions and imagination of the reader, invites him to marvel at an enchanted world of triumphant adventure—and the triumph may be the slaying of a dragon or the unmasking of a corrupt sheriff. The novel...leads the reader back to reality by questioning the basis of romance; and the more sophisticated, the more subtle, or the more devastating the process becomes...the less 'popular' the novel is likely to be, the more limited the audience that savors the novelist's irony." (21)So, for the novelist, the novel is, essentially, novelistic: the better the novel you write, the less it will sell/the harder it will be to get it accepted for publication. How ironic.