Have you all noticed this: some of my students — and these are grad students, some of whom are adults returning to school while already having jobs and families — seem not to know what the word “novel” means. Novel, in their use, has come to mean “book.” So a biography may be referred to as a “novel,” indeed any nonfiction book, no matter how totally free of any fictional elements, still gets that designation. I wonder why? Is it that so much of the K-12 book reading is either fiction (novel) or textbook that “novel” comes to mean any author-driven book that stands alone and is not an assigned textbook? If that is so, the word slip is a sociological indication of how bad it is in the schools — the degree to which we have lost any sense that nonfiction is a form of literature, written by authors, in their own individual styles and voices. Or is it just a general sloppiness, a slippage in how we use words? For example, in every class someone uses the invented term “relatable” — when did that misconjugation enter the scene? I understand that it is important to know if readers will be able to relate to the stories and characters in a book, but you cannot shorten that to, “the book is ‘relatable'” How, I always ask my students, would you conjugate that? It is is relatable to? Huh?
If the problem were just word slippage I’d be less concerned — the misuse of “novel” for nonfiction would just be part of a general trend. But I think there is a Freudian as well as a sociological element here — a sense in which “novel” = good, well written, engaging, story-driven, appealing read. If that is what the misuse is revealing it shows that not only have the schools totally marginalized nonfiction books, but readers themselves have on some deep internal level come to believe that if a book is a good read it is fiction. In other words it is not that they are ignorant — assuming any genre of book can be called a “novel” — but rather in their blur they are revealing a deep belief: if it is worth reading, it is fiction.
To get a sense of how odd this all is, imagine what the world would be like if the case were reversed: if people always said “biography” when they meant “novel.” We would find it really weird — “I read a new biography by Stephanie Meyer, it was great” — you’d immediately say, what is she writing biographies now? of Vlad the Impaler? That is because going from nonfiction to fiction the distinction is clear, going the other way it has blurred.
Speaking of thought experiments, Roger objected several posts ago that we NF authors just wanted reviewers in our pockets, to see our books through our ego-aglow-eyes. But as egocentric as I may be, I don’t think he’s got that quite right. Here is what I mean: if an author writes a novel set in a historical period where the content — the knowledge of the period — is relatively standard but the form in which she tells the story is fresh, innovative, a breakthrough in use of language, art, design — reviewers will certainly notice it. Out of The Dust; Storm in the Barn, for example. But if an author writes a NF book in which the innovation is in research, in uncovering new insights into the past itself — and the form, the language, the expression is more familiar, reviewers — who are not as familiar with the history, the sources, or the innovation — are far less likely to feature and praise the innovation. They may well say — oh, this will be new to young readers and even some adults — but that is half praise. It is not crediting work in NF discovery with the same value as innovation in language use and style. I don’t think it is self-serving of NF authors to want reviewers to be as alert to their breakthroughs in content as those same critics are to fiction writers’ breakthroughs in form.