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The Three Criteria of The Novel: What Makes Novels Novels and Other Books Something Else..

Thoughts on what constitutes a novel and how to write one.


A view of the novel:

Thoughts on what constitutes a novel and how to write one.


            As a novelist, there are numerous ways to view my craft. Novels are stories. That’s one way. The novel is an extended artistic expression. The novel, as all forms of writing, is a performance.

            Each of these perspectives accurately describes the craft of novel writing. This variety of perspectives on the novel shows how open a field the form really is. Yet, somehow, despite the great diversity within the field of the novel, there is a formal connection that unites them all and which is marked by the marriage of the three views mentioned above: Novels tell stories, involve an extended artistic expression, and constitute a transcendent performance of language, poetry and ideas.


            We have to see the novel in light of these contexts in order to connect the dots between novels of disparate styles on the book shelves. If we did not use the description of novel as performance then we could hardly see Faulkner’s passionate, energetic prose as being involved in the same business as Hemingway’s subtle posing and acting on the page.

            The writing styles and story types are so vastly divergent that only a philosophy of the novel as performance can connect them.

            If we were limited to viewing the novel as a single story or set of stories then Huckleberry Finn would be counted as a novel while Moby Dick was left out, necessarily entering another realm of books outside the range of the novel.

            And if we were to view the novel with the sole underpinning of “artistic expression” then any book length work of non-fiction would be a novel. As stellar as it is, Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet is not a novel; neither is Flannery O’Connor’s Everything that Rises Must Converge. Though these latter books are brilliant works of art, they are not considered novels because they do not perform transcendence as novels perform it, interweaving the telling of a story over in an extended expression.

Cover of The Book of Disquiet


            We do not confuse pop songs with opera and the reason is not as simple as style, it is formal too. An aria can be as short as a pop number, just as a short novel like Heart of Darkness can be as short as a long “short story” like “The Bear” (Faulkner). The difference, recognized almost universally, between these modes is a formal difference.

              To draw an analogy from the mythologist Joseph Campbell, we can say that the novel is a transparent form. It is transparent to transcendence.

            The novel approaches a totality that allows for a reader to feel that an expression is being made that articulates the relationships between man and his world, man and his society, between the mind and the dreamy substance in which it lives.

            Short stories and poetry are “closed” to transcendence. They are condensed. A reader may gain great insights from poems, but the poem remains only a symbol, a cipher, expressing a truth such that it must be expanded, multiplied, ballooned and swelled up via interpretation in order to begin to approximate the “total existentiality” of truth which the novel presents (without immediate need of interpretation).


            The performance of ideas, language, and poetry presented in the novel make this form so great and so difficult. Many books on the shelves at Barnes and Noble are works of fiction that do not rise to the level of the novel. Perhaps you will say that the distinction I mean to make is really between “literature” and fiction.

            I disagree.

            If we see the novel as artistic expression, then not all stories will qualify. Not all writers are artists. Not all writers consider themselves artists.

            So, if the novel is necessarily related to artistic expression, then a number of the young adult fiction, the fantasy fiction, and the main stream fiction books will properly fit into the category of “works of fiction” and not the artistic category of the novel.

            Then, when we go the next step and ask of these books if they perform a dance of poetry, language and ideas that, in novels, emerge from the page and from the writing as corn rises from the soil, organically, as the fruits of artistic temperament and artistic perseverance, many more “works of fiction” will fall short.

            Compare a Van Gogh painting to a decorative painting you find in TJ Max and you will see what I mean by the emergent dance of ideas. Van Gogh did more than depict objects. He allowed the paintings to “open up to transcendence” and put on display the series of human relationships that define the mysteries of living.

            Now let’s take Dan Brown. (It’s ok if you like his work to admit that his work is not high literature and does not put on display the poetry of the mysteries of living. His work discusses mystery but not in a way that actually renders the experience of those mysteries transparent to transcendence.) Compare Dan Brown to the work of James Baldwin. Both writers work on subjects of taboo, yet only one of them grapples with the soul like Jacob wrestling with god in the desert wilderness. Only one puts forward a poetry of ideas that emerges from the articulation of emotion, persona, and intellect through the medium of prose. And it’s not Dan Brown.


            I recognize that my argument could be read as one of quality and, therefore, subjectivity. I want to be careful to say that Heart of Darkness and Gravity’s Rainbow both have more in common than quality prose and the presence of a poetry of ideas that rises through and above the stories they tell. Despite the vast discrepancy of page counts between these books, with Conrad’s short novel measuring a hundred pages and Pynchon’s numbering toward one thousand, these books make a similar attempt. They each engage in an identical process: where the stories are part of an artistic expression extended into a comprehensive utterance through language that contains ideas discovered in and articulated through the characters and the stories.

            I do not mean to say that The DaVinci Code is simply not as good as Gravity’s Rainbow and so should not be considered a novel. Gravity’s Rainbow is a far better book, of course, but the primary difference is in the formal intentions of each work. Dan Brown was probably not attempting to articulate the series of relationships of man to his world, man to society, and the mind to the dreamy substance in which it lives.

            He was trying to tell a story about a mystery cult, not a story about the mystery of what it means to be alive, living, as a human on earth.


            The most common failure of novels, the ones that manage to become novels but do not manage to become good novels, comes in the category of performance.

            Hemingway’s great success came from his ability to put on a very subtle persona. He acted a part in his writing, presented himself in a way that felt real to the reader despite the fact that it was an utter fabrication. His was the art of exaggerating personal truth into a role. In doing this, Hemingway develops a craftsman’s relationship to the English language similar to the one that Brando developed with his body, able to draw on personal experience and filter it through a fictional character.

            This “persona” facility on Hemingway’s part meant that he could, on the first page, begin to explore ideas beyond his story while simultaneously telling the story. He was gifted in this way.

            Faulkner is a natural counterpoint to Hemingway, with his style of writing setting him at the opposite end of the prose spectrum. Faulkner was florid where Hemingway was sparse. Faulkner was vivid and bombastic where Hemingway was subdued and subtle.

            Faulkner’s prose was equal to any of Hemingway’s performances.

            Instead of using character as a screen, mask, or persona, Faulkner used “the book” as a platform of exploration where his sentences scraped the very edges of consciousness to create a rendering of human existence that went beyond individual experience. His prose performed the leap, the great leap between knowledge gained through material experience and knowledge gained through transcendent experience. The work vibrates with meaning and with the struggle to open his discovered little seed of transcendent knowledge up to man’s worldly eye (in prose). Another way to put it: To read his work is to look at the world we live in through the proverbial third eye.

            He achieved this by writing pulsing, acrobatic prose.

            When a novel fails, it does so because it does not have a sense of mission like Faulkner or the artistic facility to act a part like Hemingway. A novel fails when it is wrapped up in the story and in creating an extended artistic expression without gaining enough speed or power to also rise above these things and enter the realm of emergent ideas. A novel fails to be good when it fails to transcend itself.

            To be a good novel, the prose must access the emergent truth of living as it is present in the book. If it does not learn its own language and turn that language into a poetry of ideas, the novel has failed.

            At least, that’s where my novels have failed, so far.


            There is a requisite technical skill as precondition to the achievement of quality performance in writing as in all the arts. But once you gain the skills, you have to keep pushing, pushing, pushing, until you find a way to get that seed of transcendence inside you to open up.

             I believe that the pursuit of “one’s authorial voice” has a lot to do with this personal seed. When I write stories with plot being central, I end up very far away from my own little non-narrative seed. For me, it’s been necessary to be more honest as to the workings of my mind. My voice will be the one that gives the most direct access to my thoughts and the most direct expression of those thoughts on the page.

            A slog through narrative bogs has been necessary too, to teach me that no novel can be a novel without a story. There must be a balance. Finally, there has to be a breakthrough, a point where gravity ceases to hold you down, a point where the prose lifts you instead of you lifting it, and sprouts a life of its own.       

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2 Responses to “The Three Criteria of The Novel: What Makes Novels Novels and Other Books Something Else..”
  • Jojo Skeene
    December 9th, 2009 at 8:07 am

    Each time I read a book, my thought always question me…what makes this novel into print? Was it the style or the effort?

  • poeticwax
    December 12th, 2009 at 12:16 pm

    I think I know what you mean. Another question is, “Did this book make it into print because it will not be an effort to read?”
    In otherwords, how much preference is there for easy reading?

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