04 August 2011

Word Choice: The First of a Saga

At some point I am going to have to wake up to the reality that I am not going to earn a living selling poems. I am pretty sure the only people who do are the people who translate the Greeks and then sell the books to college literature surveys. This harsh reality has led me to ponder what an English degree can do well that other degrees cannot, besides being able to lick hundreds of manuscript queries a week without getting a single tongue paper cut. The conclusion? Pick words for people and charge for it.

This series is not meant to be a treatise on people confusing their and they're. If you still need help with that you have probably already stopped reading because nothing on this page has exploded yet. Rather, I hope to point out that I can word things better than many people who actually get paid to do it. This blog started as something devoted to the way people misuse a particular word. It quickly had to leave its original calling because the misuse of the word, though flagrant, was not as commonplace as I had at first guessed. Beyond that, the name sounds cool and suggests that I am out to change something. Which I am and now, full circle being reached, we have gotten back to words.

For this first installment I will go with probably the two most abhorrent words I can think of. These two are fine by themselves but together they are like Sid and Nacy: bad for each other and everyone involved.

"a Novel"

I like novels, I know people who write novels and I mean them no harm and so forth but these words have got to go or need to make new friends. Both would be good. 

The problem as I see it is that the words "a Novel" are a threat to my intelligence. 

"Ok, um, err, it's a big thick papery thing at Borders  it's either a novel or a book on tape in a box that looks like a novel." 

Seriously, you don't need to tell me I will figure it out. 

Or is it that you are concerned we will mistake your "novel" for something else? A steaming pile of misogynistic bovine leavings? 

Next: A Novel


I just leaned over to my book shelf and checked, yes, a good friend of mine has the words "a Novel" in the title of his novel. I do not blame him but I do sort of blame his publisher. I imagine it was their fault. It is an endemic epidemic really and I doubt that any one person will change it soon and maybe the words themselves do not need to disappear but they could stand some company.

Allow me to widely misquote something if you will. Futurama did a series of straight-to-DVD movies after their first cancellation. The second in this series, The Beast with a Billion Backs was styled after 1950's monster films. The liner notes had a mini "movie poster" that featured the tagline "A MONSTER OF DUBIOUS MORALITY!!!" Which is hysterical, but moving on. Such a tag would go well after "a Novel." Caleb Ross's Stranger Will would do well with that actually. Stranger Will: a Novel of Dubious Morality

 The Beast with a Billion Backs

Like I said, I do not think its Caleb's fault that his title has the words novel in it and even if it is I can still chalk that one up to Caleb being a writer of our times. I do not think a writer wants to put "a Novel" after his or her work though. Much the way I do not title my poems "D.B. Cooper, a Poem." I suppose I could start, just to even out the score. I worry that people would be offended by it though. After all I do not need to remind people that it is a poem when

the lines look
like this
and there are
inanimate objects
are carnivorously
and such.

I think "a Novel" is entirely a product of The Marketing Department. I did some very un-academic, non-scientific looking into and reached the conclusion that the newer the book the more likely it is to be called "a Novel." Additionally, product descriptions make those words more important than the author/publisher did. Don DeLillo is a fine example of both points.

White Noise: (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)
This is his novel from the 1980's
Underworld: A Novel
This is from 2003

We see "a Novel" has been added to the title of the newer book, yet the subtitle is roughly a quarter the size of the main title. Now look at this picture.

The two parts of the title are now the same size. The latter picture is from a website trying to sell you the book.

J.D Salinger raises another point.

The Catcher in the Rye

His says "a novel by" which is more of a description than a footnote to the title which is nice. However his "buy now" page on the same website does not remind you that it is a novel. One could argue that it should. DeLillo got the "a Novel" treatment and his was only a tiny blip at the end why is Salinger immune? Is it because we all know that Catcher was a novel and but cannot say the same for Underworld because it is new? Was DeLillo's "a Novel" really part of his title and therefore on the by page whereas perhaps Salinger did not write that it was simply added to the cover? Who knows.

That is sort of my point with this whole thing. Who invited these guys? Perhaps they are of value but I err on the side that they are not. The naked words, usually followed by a colon which indicates description, "a Novel" are a distraction from the art in hand. A title may be the only words you ever read by a given author. It would be nice if those words freely and clearly expressed exactly what the author wants you to know without having to lug around a dangling marketing appendage. 

For those who were holding out for an explosion: here is a simulation of the moon colliding with a theorized sister moon. Read the story in the journal Nature 


  1. But of course, the cover, the title page, the copyright page, the sub-title page, the About the Author page, the author photograph, the price point, the title placed in usually at least five places (cover, spine, reverse cover, main title page, secondary title page) were also not "choices of the writer" and are--of course--equally as insulting to the intelligence.

    Briefly before moving on, it should be pointed out that short story collections exist, books of lyric essays, memoirs, non-fiction titles, as well as many sub-categorizations that individual authors might not like to call "a novel" whether the object "looks like a novel or not".It's kind of a danger to assume that novels are so easy to distinguish and that while it may mean nothing to some, it could very well carry a good deal of meaning that something be specifically labeled and identified as such.

    On a related point, I think cover art is one of greatest kicks to the nuts of novels and novelists--don't get me started on "cover art" which is a wonderful thing but wholly incidental to "the writing", you know? It insult's me (this isn't something you said, but rather that I am adding...though in fairness you did imply it) that covers should be considered any part of the writing (part of the identity of The Novel), either by way of "enticing one to read" or even suggesting them a necessary aspect, something the author should be expected to even consider. One might suggest, for fun, that the suggested necessity of good Cover Art (or even the commentary on the particulars of a cover when speaking about the novel) is analogous to wanting "an explosion" to hold ones attention, or draw ones attention.

    On another less tangential point,of course if "the title {is} the only words you read by an author" you would be hard pressed to know if "those words freely and clearly expressed exactly what the author wants you to know" yes?

  2. Oh bah, I meant to actually ask a question and all I did was rant about some nonsense.

    Do you consider all books novels? Or do you, personally, have a kind of criteria. For example, does there have to be an aspect to the writing beyond a strict narrative, something that form, structure, omission, etc. might be necessary to address? I think often someone write something like, say, a Dean Koontz thriller or something and calls is "a novel" when I wouldn't say that it is. Hence the word "novel." Jelenek writes novels, but...Nora Roberts, not so much, you know?

    So, to tie it into putting it "on the cover" or "in the title" I would not want someone picking up certain books I wrote--very much novels--thinking they were just "books" and so dismissing them as "bad novels" because they were abstract or the meanings weren't straight forward etc. etc.

  3. First, thanks for your comments and questions. Very good things to think about!

    If I implied that authors must consider their cover art when writing it was perhaps because so many already do. A friend who just put out a collection of flash fiction designed his own cover (later to have it torn to shreds by the publisher) as did Caleb for Stranger Will. Yeah the cover "art" thing is a huge can of worms. The old phrase is "don't judge a book by its cover" but that it exactly what they want us to do. Of course, it may not be the authors who are interested in our perception of the cover.

    Your point that many things look like novels that actually are not is part of the only faintly touched upon caveat that I had to this whole thing. Can't we add a more tactile description to follow "novel" "poems" "a collection of essays"? I have a collection that I picked up at a book fair two years ago called "Not About Vampires" its subtitle, what might have ordinarily been "a collection of short fiction," is "Fiction about Anything Else." Which is cool. It lets you know this small press really doesn't care for the popularity of Twilight. Now, we could get into trends and anti trends at another time. I like that the title does something other than reflect a sales department.

    Though I prefer short hair and showers I am a big egalitarian, pinko hippie when it comes to literature. I want everything to have an equal chance as art and I want to annihilate preconceptions. We like to classify things for some reason, but how fair is that to the writer? Thomas Pynchon is a favorite of mine and he always seems to be in a strange place as far as classification goes. He purportedly writes novels but his books also have songs, poems, other devices that border on drama. It's hard to classify what he is doing sometimes yet we/they try. Wouldn't it be nice if we could just say he is writing? I do not mind the classifications of "prose" and "poetry." Sometimes you want one or the other. But now with narrative poems and flash fiction its hard to say where even those two are distinct anymore.

  4. My point about the title being the only words one may ever read is that the "system" is so ingrained with marketing that it is hard to tell whose words are whose and that, as it stands, we have no way of knowing what the cover of a book is really supposed to mean or who wants it to mean that, man.

    How I would define a novel is a tough question. J.D. Salinger's collection of short stories really could be read as short novels but it is assumed that he would prefer them read as individual stories. Pynchon is problematic in that way too. Gravity's Rainbow has lots of implied overlap in its varied sections that seem to form a single novel but these could also be short stories. I would actually say that this is something more akin to a PhD dissertation than a simple literary discussion. What is a novel? Good question. Of course it is hard to say where any line is very clearly drawn. Silvia Plath and Ted Hughes is a big one. As are the Shelleys (Mary and Percy Bysche). There is significant evidence that those couples did not merely influence their spouses but actually rewrote their work. Should "The Bell Jar" be a novel by Plath and Hughes? There already is an edition of Frankenstein that is "authored" by Percy and Mary.

    So, back from my own tangent, how can we attempt to distinguish novel from short fiction from autobiography? One may write two novels, claiming they are separate but the reader may, and likely will, find plot or character synergies between the two. I can then see two possibilities for this disputed appellation. Either The Marketing Department wants to make it clear that said book is distinct for an earlier one or the author does. Delineating a creative separateness between two works is a legitimate use but as with our writing couples a bit of a ruse. How distinct can two works by the same author really be?

    Perhaps there is use for "a Novel" but at the same time there are good reasons not to use it. I would say the reasons to use it are for the artist (I am erring on the side of he or she having total control) to convey a closer to exact perception of his or her work. Reasons not to use it is that critics and readers will find their own classifications anyway and should be allowed to.

    You do not consider the Koontz style thrillers to be novels and I do not consider the work of James Hynes to be a novel. The artists in question sure would like us to believe otherwise.

  5. Responding to both of your excellent responses. (2 posts, 1 I guess is too long for blogger?)

    Well, first I should admit that I have very similar thoughts in my head to your initial post—usually wheeling me into debates about how woeful I think the totality of “novel” (book, collection, whatever, the object) has become, a commodity, something that I do not believe is meant to have a “multiple” or “communal” nature now very much has one. It’s all rich for discussion. Ah, but I was admitting that, for example, I put “a novel” down even in my scribbles, but, though I design my own covers, it doesn’t always wind up on the cover and when it does, I don’t know, because it’s so 100% my choice and a choice built only of momentary aesthetic thought (thinking of the cover just as a cover, a poster, what would “look nice” there) I just give it a shrug—same time, when M. night Shaymalan (spelling?) puts his name above and as part of the film title it drives me nuts, when any director/artist does it…but that’s a different kettle.


    I suppose what I was mostly driving at (in my slap dash responses between moments I should be doing my real job) is that, marketing department or no (because I feel the same way, sadly) the presence of things like “a novel” or “stories”—even with the additional qualifications/descriptions (unless they get into farcical Rocky and Bullwinkle tones, wherein if the thing isn’t a joke it suddenly seems like one)—I see as hardly communicating anything about the book, the writing, to a reader, but more that the marketing dept (or whoever) just kind of said yeah, put that there, no harm no foul.

    Thing that drives me crazy (this is to point, sorry for the hop, 15 minute break between last paragraph and this due to the aforementioned job) is blurbs…blurbs are fucking insulting to the intelligence, to the form, to the author (whether they choose them to be there or not) and I just don’t understand them. “In Praise of” sections are ugly, all of that (under the guise of showing the books “place in the world” or whatever is the equivalent to placing advertisements in the magazine for pages before the table of contents—indeed, suggesting, even loosely, that the opinion of someone else--another writer or no, another writer I even like or no--will have any stamp of bearing on mine or should inform the work is ludicrous. Used to be (touching on old designs of book, which I dig) that a book was likely to contain an actual Foreword or Introduction and whole paragraphs from it would be printed on the cover—nice, usually rather superlative-free discussion of the piece—or else just passages from the book would be printed. That blurbs are considered not only “part of the cover” these days but “part of the novel” by way of the component pieces having to touch together to form a “book-as-commodity” is, to return to the use of the original leitmotif here, a towering, jabbering insult.

    So, I think all that’s connected, sort it out at your leisure haha.

  6. (con't from previous) Oh, the “what is a novel” question, yeah it’s the stuff of higher thought than I am capable of, really, get Walter Benjamin in here, right? Jesus. I just was touching on the fact that—based kind of on someone I know—there could very much be a need to label meaningfully, especially as form gets looser, “experimental” even (you mention Pynchon) I think the (my) “actual definition” of novel needs to be more and more separated from “book, ” especially here in the US. Going way back (layman take on this, I assure you) novels, early novels, Tom Jones early and for a long time (I mean Diderot etc. etc.), read as more experimental and meta and freeform (and frankly glorious) than even the most “experimental” thing today and so the term “novel” seems to nicely apply—you wouldn’t pick it up expecting something where the point is “what happens in the imaginary lives of imaginary folks” or whatever, but something with a distinct thrust toward turning the reader inward and then out at the world. Of course narrative that seems straight (the Brontes, Austen) comes into it (and much more, I just named those on impulse because of what you say) where the stamp of “novel” becomes important, because a soap opera kind of book, based on intentionality, is not a “novel” and if a reader were to take it as such that is a separate, distinct, and important thing on the “part of the reader”—the intention, so to speak, in this case does label it though (I guess…hmn…). To clarify, Agnes Grey is a novel, meant and written as more than a superficial jaunt through imaginary lives while a Harelquin romance set in the same period and even ostensible, superficially “about the same thing” is not because there was no (in creation) presence of elements not textually, immediately, escapistly evident.

    I have had experience wherein I thought labeling something “a novel” would “save it” from such interpretation of “these characters aren’t so developed, this story doesn’t really go anywhere” because to me “Novel!” is a clear indicator that the “thing is not to be read for those reasons” and so when I said it gets grating that someone, willy nilly using the word, would label it a “bad novel” versus a “book they didn’t like” or even a “bad book” gets depressing.

    Novels, for example, I don’t think they need praise or likes, dislikes, they don’t need opinions, just reactions, they are “works of art” not commodities desirous of judgment, so putting the word there, even on the cover, I wish it would be a bold, meaningful statement—This Is Art!—but in the US book scene, yeah, it’s just a design tick.

    Sorry, stopping now. Cheers, mate.

  7. The "blurbs" thing is next on the slate for this little bit I am starting. I read a book once that said "It's the real thing" -Some Obscure Early Reviewer. What is that supposed to mean? There is a doozy on the back of Against the Day but I am saving that one.

    I like the idea of paragraphs on the jacket cover. I tend to hate introductions though. Too often they are "scholars" of the book or the artist "explaing" to you what the book means or revealing intricacies of the events in their relation to historical happenings. Isn't that my job to figure out? I just hate being told what to think about a book. I read Kerouac's "On the Road" for the first time a year ago and the introduction/forewards are longer than the freaking text of the book. Here is this literary adventure of hedonism, drugs and running off into the wild with no direction being explained to me like it's an eighth grade book report. I think I ended up reading the introduction AFTER the actual text. Which was actually really great.

    I think its interesting that you say we should just declare novels "works of art" and then disregard all praise or criticism. We probably should do that but we don't. How many authors starve for review of their books? In the end, the review written at the time of the book never really get it. It usually takes a couple of years for a novel to settle in and for all of it's potency to register with the community. Yet we gobble them up on first sight and spit them out like, as you put it, commodities. Bummer.