Everyone Knows What a Story/Novel Is

One definition of a novel is “a long narrative work of fiction with some realism, often in prose form, and published as a single book.” Another is “any extended fictional narrative in prose that represents character, either in a static condition or developed as the result of events or actions.” A Glossary of Literary Terms provides a five page definition, which I’m not about to quote.

As a writer, I’ve learned that every reader has his or her own definition of what a “satisfactory” novel is, and what aspects are absolutely necessary for that reader.

There are readers for whom action is what is absolutely necessary, and any aspect of a book that slows the action makes it less pleasurable for those readers. There are readers who don’t like graphic sex and violence, and readers who don’t like books written in anything but third person past tense. There are even readers who are stopped cold in their reading by the slightest of typographical errors.

When I started writing, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I wrote poetry. Along the way, I discovered that the traditional definition and forms of poetry were falling out of favor. I liked those forms… and I persevered, and found my publication opportunities pretty much limited to VERY small literary magazines, and not many of those, at that. That was my first encounter with reader/editor rejection based on what one might call “popular form preconception.”

Then, after I began to write science fiction, I was just trying to tell a story. This was in the post-pulp, “Golden Age,” pre-New Wave (or whatever) where authors just wrote… or so I thought. Most of what was printed back then was presented in straight-forward narrative, usually in third person past tense with predominantly male protagonists… and, although there were a few exceptions (very few), most SF novels had vaguely similar structures, and everyone reading SF “knew” what a novel was. Except what I was writing was on the fringe of that conception, and I was rejected by every major F&SF house until one enterprising editor [David Hartwell] decided to buy my work, first for one start-up ][Timescape] and then, after Timescape was folded, for Tor.

Those days are long gone, for which I’m thankful, but most readers, from what I’ve seen, have a subconscious idea or model of what they think a novel should be, and many of them tend to be disappointed when a favorite author departs from the model or type of novel that first hooked that reader. That’s one of the reasons why many newer writers use different pen names when they write different kinds of books. It’s why I have readers who only read my fantasy or my SF, although there are many who read both.

What I don’t understand, and probably never will, is why some readers keep buying the work of authors they seemingly don’t like because the author doesn’t fit their mental model… and then complain about it. I try quite a number of authors who write well, but whose approach or style don’t click with me. That’s fine. I’ve tried them, and unless it’s clear that a later work is very different, I probably won’t try them again, but I don’t badmouth them because they’re not to my taste. And even if their approach is, and they do it badly, in my opinion, I still don’t. I’d rather talk about the books that intrigued me.

Today, especially with Indie publishing, the range of what’s being published is wider than it’s ever been… and there should be authors out there who appeal to readers with different views of what a novel is and should be.

4 thoughts on “Everyone Knows What a Story/Novel Is”

  1. Lourain says:

    I seldom comment on an author’s work. Rather, I vote with my pocketbook.
    If I like an author’s book, I’ll buy the next one. This continues until there is a string of books I dislike. For example, one book where the protagonist is a sadistic SOB can be an interesting character study. Multiple books along the same line says some unfortunate things about the author, and I have better ways to spend my reading time.
    There are certain authors who reliably turn out good books. I will buy their books without reading the description. Seldom am I disappointed. (You are one of them. Lois McMaster Bujold is another.)

  2. M. Kilian says:

    I’ve never referred to books as novels myself. Both non-fiction and fiction can be used to educate or to entertain, depending on why or what you’re reading. It is a privilege in today’s world that we don’t just have dry or dainty to pick from, but everything inbetween as well. Criticisms should focus on literary technique and story building rather than on style. Are children’s books horrible because they’re not my cup of tea? Of course not.

  3. R. Hamilton says:

    Perhaps people read for different reasons. Some may like to be challenged, but perhaps not to an uneconomical (to them) level of effort for entertainment. Others may favor something easier, or more comfortable or relaxing, or who knows what else.

    If an author writes perhaps mostly in what manner sells best, but also challenges him(or her-)self by sometimes writing in other styles, they may cause a measure of discomfort for those of their readers that expect everything to remain within their comfort zone. Some people’s comfort zones are narrower or at least different shapes than other’s.

    Not that I’m referring to anyone in particular, of course. 🙂

    1. Tim says:

      Exactly. I remember as a student being annoyed when David Bowie completely changed style 🙂

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