Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Novel: History, Genres, and Personal Passion

To me, the phrase 'getting lost in a good book' refers specifically to entering the world of a fascinating novel.  After all, it's only in novels that a reader can experience an entire world, whether it's one existing only in the imagination of the author, or inspired by our 'everyday' world. 

The novel has a very definite history -- a fairly recent one, as a matter of fact.  In ancient times, there were other fictional styles, such as the epic poem.  The novel as it is known and enjoyed in our present time has been evolving for several centuries. 

The first book to use the term 'novel' was Palace of  Pleasure well furnished with pleasant Histories and excellent Novelles, a volume of tales published in 1566 by William Painter, an English author who was also a clerk of the ordnance in the Tower of London.

The term 'novel' competed for a long time with the term 'romance'.  It eventually became the accepted word for longer prose fiction -- at least, in English and Spanish.  The Spanish word is 'novela', which is interesting, considering that the word 'novella' is used in English to denote a work that is too long to be a short story, but not long enough to be considered a full-length novel, which traditionally has come to contain at least 50,000 words.

Longer fictional narratives had appeared before the 18th century.  Examples include Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron (1351 - 1353), Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (c. 1469), considered to be the first English novel, and  Don Quixote (1605, 1615), also classified as a novel, by the Spanish Miguel de Cervantes.  For many scholars, however, it was the 18th century that gave birth to the modern novel.  The English printer Samuel Richardson published Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, circa 1740 to 1742. 

The growth of the middle class was the greatest factor contributing to the rise of the novel.  More people were not only able to read, but to purchase books, as well.   In England, this led to the flowering of great literature, with such classics as Henry Fielding's Tom Jones ((1749) and Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility (1811), and Pride and Prejudice (1813).   The 19th century was particularly rich in English masterpieces, with the publishing of Jane Eyre (1847), by Charlotte Bronte, Wuthering Heights (1847), by Emily Bronte, David Copperfield (1849 - 1850) and Great Expectations (1860 - 1861), by Charles Dickens, Vanity Fair (1848) by William Makepeace Thackeray,  Middlemarch (1871 - 1872) by George Eliot, and Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891) by Thomas Hardy.

Many great writers from various countries of the world, like James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Joseph Conrad, Leo Tolstoy, Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann, Fyodor Dostoyevski, Victor Hugo, and Marcel Proust have a firm place in the history of the novel.  These are writers of what is often termed literary fiction.  I have a passion for such fiction.  It not only totally enthralls me, but also carries me away into worlds that, while close to what we term 'reality', are not entirely real, because characters become immortalized in the reader's mind, and the plot's symbolic elements derive from the world of the archetypes.

The novel has evolved into many genres.  Besides that of literary fiction, I also greatly enjoy reading fantasy, science fiction, romance -- I especially like paranormal and historical romance -- Christian fiction, and young adult novels.  Some of these genres overlap.  As far as paranormal romance goes, I do prefer to read the young adult versions, since they are much cleaner.  (Obviously, I've never been a fan of D.H. Lawrence, who first started the fad for using profanity and graphic sex in novels.) 

Aside from The Twilight Saga, which I absolutely adore, I also love a particular book, not very widely known, which I read years ago, and have never forgotten.  Titled Tryst, it tells the story of a young girl, Sabrina, who falls in love with a ghost.  The book was written by American novelist Elswyth Thane,  and published in 1939. 

The fantasy and science fiction genres have contributed works as great as any in the literary fiction category.  Writers such as Robert Heinlein, whose Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) has long been a favorite of mine, and J.R.R. Tolkien, whose The Lord of the Rings trilogy (1954 - 1955) I consider one of my most precious treasures, have proven that novels in other genres can, and do, attain the literary stature of the more highly-regarded literary fiction, in spite of what many literary critics may say. 

Other important works in the science fiction and fantasy genres include Fahrenheit 451 (1951), by Ray Bradbury, Ender's Game (1985), by Orson Scott Card, and The Chronicles of Narnia (1949 - 1954), by C.S. Lewis.

In very recent years, the incredibly widespread popularity of The Twilight Saga, by Stephenie Meyer, and the Harry Potter books, by J.K. Rowling, has, quite literally (pun intended) put the young adult genre on the map.  While these books are disdained by most critics of 'high literature', it's undeniably true that they have touched the hearts and minds -- not to mention the souls -- of millions of readers.  They have also ignited an increased love of reading among teens and young adults.

In Christian fiction, which I am admittedly least familiar with -- a situation I fully intend to remedy -- I can point to two great classics, written by the American minister/novelist Lloyd C. Douglas.  The first is Magnificent Obsession, published in 1929; the second, The Robe, published in 1942.  It's a historical novel about the crucifixion of Jesus.  Suffice it to say that the movie version, starring Richard Burton, does not do it justice at all, since it distorts the character of the protagonist, Marcellus, so that it's a mere caricature of the original in the book.

Although I do sometimes read short-story anthologies, it is novels, with their greater length, that I most enjoy.  As I stated above, a novel can completely absorb the reader in a fictional world, and characters have more room to develop.  The experience of being so totally immersed in a novel that one suddenly looks up, dazed, realizing that there's a world out there, beyond the pages of the book, and that hours have somehow passed in the blink of an eye, is a delightfully disconcerting one!  It's also a stimulating, yet, in a way, relaxing experience for the human brain. 

I am surrounded by books at home.  In fact, no one can currently sit on our living room couch, because it's loaded with stacks and stacks of books!  There are also five floor-to-ceiling shelves in the living room, plus three in our bedroom, plus my night table.... (My husband's night table is taken up with one of his several laptops.)  I don't know how many of the books I own are novels, but I would venture to say that a large proportion of them are.  So I am, and happily so, totally surrounded by other worlds, other realities, which I can enter by simply opening the gates of one of these novels, and beginning the journey with the turn of a page...

I wonder if the delight of the novel is known in other parts of our vast universe.  Do other intelligent species enjoy the wonders of this beautiful art form?  If such a species indeed exists (are you out there, Mr. Spock?), I believe they must, sooner or later, develop something that closely resembles the novel.  Any being endowed with human-like intelligence cannot fail to invent and develop fiction, and especially, the longer form of narrative.  It is, after all, fiction that makes 'the real world' more tolerable, more meaningful, and, ultimately, more humane.


  1. Wow-- very in-depth, thought-provoking post, Maria! :) You always make me want to read more classic books. (Besides classic fantasy, I mean ;)

    I've heard before that the first novel was The Tale of Genji (Japanese novel about court life in feudal Japan in the 11th century), but I guess its author didn't actually call her book a novel. It is strange to think that novels took so long to take hold in the literary world.

  2. Hi, Kat!! Thank you for being such a loyal follower!! You ROCK, girl!! And thanks for the nice comment, too!

    I'm very glad that my posts make you want to read more classics. You can't go wrong with a classic, unless, of course, you end up hating it, like I hate "Wuthering Heights"!

    Thanks again!!! : )

  3. Oh, Kat, I'd also like to thank you for mentioning "The Tale of Genji". I'm not too familiar with it, but I do believe I've seen it classified as a novel. I'll have to look up when it was written.


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