The Novel as Genre #
When we read we eradicate the illusion of our separateness. George Saunders
Early forms of literature evolved from imitative re-enactments, to dance, to Epic tales to full fledged drama, Poetry and common Tales. Epic literature demands a detached awe, Poetry engagement of all senses, drama evokes pathos to feel sympathy, while the novel appeals to engagement for empathy.
Martin Amis points out that over two millennia humans first told stories of Gods, then Kings, then Epic Heroes, then ordinary people, then anti-heroes, then villains, then demons and finally themselves.
The novel is a recent genre; its genesis dates from the 17 (th) Century. Certainly there were tales and narratives before but as a shaping of text with embellishments, narrative technique, complications, suspense and complex plot developments, the craftsmanship took a long time to evolve.
The idea of the Novel required a fertile seedbed to come of age. The most important was the rise of a leisured class while the second was the invention of the printing press, because while other genres such as poetry, plays and the tale were largely aural and communal, the novel is literary and individual or intimate requiring solitude, time for deep prolonged thinking with the printed page.
A definition of literature could consider some characteristics commonly considered “literary”:
- the elegant and adventurous use of language,
- engagement with themes of universal significance,
- inventiveness of style,
- defiance of genre classification.
As an art form, Novels tend to re-create society by creating characters in situations where they face complications and have to make decisions under stressful circumstances. Novelists tend to obey Aristotle’s guidelines of “revelation”; that most of the ideas and issues should be revealed not by the author telling us, rather by the actions, reactions, words and thoughts of the characters. Don’t tell us – show us.
We the responders feel more dignified when we figure it out rather than when we are told directly.
We must remember that character creation is a construct; an artefact and central ones do not necessarily represent the author. Characters are either portrayed sympathetically or unsympathetically. The former are called protagonists, heroes or good guys while the latter are antagonists, villains or bad guys. Sometimes main characters are picaresque – likeable but harmless rogues, larrikins or scoundrels –“loveable rogues”.
Jane Gardam writes: “In life, there are no minor characters”. She writes about unremarkable people confined to a straitjacket existence of correct behaviour. When life delivers a seismic shock, Gardam shows how little these people have known themselves or been known.
Mary Balogh, First Comes Marriage
“It was so much more comfortable to be able to divide people into heroes and villains and expect them to play their allotted part.”
“You learn eventually that, while there are no villains, there are no heroes either. And until you make the final discovery that there are only human beings, who are therefore all the more fascinating, you are liable to miss something.”
Alfred de Vigny, Stello
“I have a private theory, Sir, that there are no heroes and no monsters in this world. Only children should be allowed to use these words”
Mark Twain defines heroes as follows:
“Unconsciously we all have a standard by which we measure other men, and if we examine closely we find that this standard is a very simple one, and is this: we admire them, we envy them, for great qualities we ourselves lack. Hero worship consists in just that. Our heroes are men who do things which we recognize, with regret, and sometimes with a secret shame, that we cannot do. We find not much in ourselves to admire, we are always privately wanting to be like somebody else. If everybody was satisfied with himself, there would be no heroes.”
“Men have to have heroes, but no man can ever be as big as their need, and so a legend grows around a grain of truth, like a pearl.”
“Real heroes are men who fall and fail and are flawed, but win out in the end because they’ve stayed true to their ideals and beliefs and commitments.”
“All the heroes of tomorrow are the heretics of today.”
Mike Alsford, Heroes and Villains
“To be heroic may mean nothing more than this then, to stand in the face of the status quo, in the face of an easy collapse into the madness of an increasingly chaotic world and represent another way.”
If literature is about empathy – learning what it is like to be another person, then writers should write as deeply and completely about characters who are real people but who are not themselves; They should create different characters so our imagination is expanded into understanding what’s it’s to be a character who is not you - especially the evil ones. By reading, we can see what we have in common with the “others” and find our central self. Everyone imagines themselves the hero of their own stories.
“It is hard to be cruel once you permit yourself to enter the mind of your victim. Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.”
These apply to his fiction, imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself. McEwan believes “*in a particular broad sense the novel is a deeply moral form. Especially in the novel as we understand it, that has characters moving through time and situations. In other words, it doesn’t tell us directly how to live, but it does give us a very strong understanding at its best of what it means to be someone other than ourselves." Jason Stegar, SMH Spectrum Sept. 20 - 21, 2014
Besides Character creation, narration is paramount. Good novels tell absorbing, gripping, compelling stories transporting us into new worlds and presenting universal views of life from a different perspective. It is through the experiences of others that we can make sense of life in a global world and gain understanding that goes beyond our narrow experience. We seek clarity though vicarious fiction. A good story can illuminate complex issues for us. Joseph Lelyveld, editor of the New York Times, defined narrative as:
“A hungry beast that can seldom be commanded: inherently unstable and on the lookout for prey…always foraging.”
Meaning can be derived from the patterns or designs of a series of events called the “plot”. Novels are about the progression of time. Aristotle advising linear progression from beginning, middle and end point. Plato suggested starting in “Media Res”, the most engaging point, then flashbacks to fill in the backdrop. Post moderns attempt to ignore timelines.
This should give us fresh insights into character, environment, social milieu morals, spiritual values, social forces and many other aspects of life, death and the universe.
Novels are incredibly difficult to bed down. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn reverts to the banality of Tom Sawyer, Dickens’ Great Expectations has alternate endings. Hemingway rewrote the conclusion to A Farewell to Arms many times. Among the gems of the Hemingway Collection are the 44 pages of manuscript containing a score of different endings—which are often used today by visiting English teachers to provide their students with a glimpse of Hemingway the writer at work.
Plot and character come first and issues, themes, concerns or values can only be gleaned through experiences of empathy. The idea that reading can help people navigate the world is an old one. Eminent philosophers Martha Nussbaum and Gilbert Ryle, among others, have argued that reading fiction is an ethical activity, one that enlarges the scope of our empathy.
Zadie Smithmade a similar point in her 2003 Orange Word Lecture:
“When we read with fine attention, we find ourselves caring about people who are various, muddled, uncertain and not quite like us (and this is good).” Reading, in her estimation, can make us broader, more understanding, more sympathetic. Better.
“Now and again, an exquisite minor work can make a master feel thoroughly ashamed of himself”.
“the old verities and truths of the heart
– love and honour and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice”
‘A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.’
Amit Kalantri* *
“You can survive without artistry, but you cannot live without artistry.”
Novel Forms or genres can vary according to purpose and target audience:
a) Social satire
c) The Western
e) Science Fiction
f) Historical biographical
i) Children’s Lit
j) Teen chick lit
k) Detective - Mysteries - Who dunnits
l) Other Off beat Literary genres: - Dictionary.com
The Bildungsroman explores the education, development and coming of age of a young protagonist. The term comes from the German Bildung + Roman literally meaning “formational novel.” Examples of this genre: The History of Tom Jones, Jane Eyre, and Black Boy.
Popular in Victorian times, the cheaply made penny dreadful featured serialized tales of adventure, crime and horror. Also called dime novels, these sensationalized stories could be purchased with loose pocket change. Characters from this genre: Sweeney Todd, Buffalo Bill, and Deadwood Dick.
The picaresque genre showcases humorous tales of adventure, focusing on the antics of knavish-yet-attractive heroes. This genre, originally developed in Spain, comes from the Spanish picaro meaning “rogue.” Examples of this genre: Kim, Tropic of Cancer, and Under the Net, Huckleberry Finn.
Often set in futuristic industrial dystopias, the sci-fi subgenre cyberpunk highlights stories of computing, hacking and large corrupt corporations. The earliest recorded use of this term is in Bruce Bethke’s short story “Cyberpunk,” published in 1983. Examples of this genre: Neuromancer, Gravity’s Rainbow, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Sagas are medieval narratives hailing from Iceland or Norway. They chronicle the history of Vikings, kings and families of the time. The term saga derives from the Icelandic and Old Norse term meaning “story” or “history.” Examples of this genre: The Laxdaela Saga and The Grettis Saga Oscar and Lucinda.
The term epistolary entered English in the 1600s from the Greek term meaning “message” or “letter.” An epistolary novel is a story told exclusively through letters, emails, newspaper articles and other primary sources. The form experienced a popularity surge in the mid-1700s, and has since structured some of the most beloved books in the English language, like Pamela or Virtue Rewarded, Frankenstein, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
The range of the novels we deal with will continue over time.