Saturday, March 09, 2013

DISCUSSION: What is the Novel and Should it be Redefined?

Every genre of art - music, painting, novel, poetry - has unique characteristics that define it. For instance, the basic requirement of a sonnet is that it should have fourteen lines - octet and sestet or vice versa; a haiku should have three lines (Long-Short-Long, traditional Japanese format), seventeen syllables (in the traditional Japanese format), one enjambment and one stand-alone line. So too has the novel. There should always be the plot, which builds up gradually, gets to a climax and then the denouement. Thus, a novel should rise, peak, and fall. Besides, a novel should have a central character or characters whose story is told - there is always a protagonist. We know who the protagonist is in Things Fall Apart and that this very novel follows the rise, the climax and the fall.

But what if a story does not follow this format? Does it cease to be a novel or should the novel expand to include it, just as poetry has expanded to include free-verse or blank-verse. Veronique Tadjo's As the Crow Flies is a story difficult to review, to talk about and to define. It's a mosaic of numerous vistas of life from several angles. Each chapter is somewhat independent from the other. It's like poetry and like prose. A chapter can be as long as a line. It has no single character running through it. Is it therefore not a novel? Writers like Ayi Kwei Armah do their own thing. In Two Thousand Seasons, there is no unique character whom one could say the story is about. The story is about an idea, an idea to find a path and the character - as in the personality not the person - required to find this path. Most critiques have said this book is not a novel because it doesn't follow the novelistic format. It almost starts and ends the same way. There is no building of tension and a resolution of that tension. Another writer who breaks out of the mould is Kojo Laing. All his books are unique. His first 'novel' Search Sweet Country starts and ends without any huge tension and denouement, though he delivers a huge punch at the end of the book. The story is almost horizontal. There are several characters and none is the main character unless you make the country a character. And to some extent, similar statements could be said of Bessie Head's A Question of Power; even Toni Morrison's Beloved has similar characteristics, though it focused on one woman.

How therefore should such a book be referred to? If they are not amenable to the requirements of a novel, do they still become a novel? Or they should be referred to as something new? Or the novel should be redefined? What is your take on this? 


  1. An interesting post. I don't think that just because the novel ceases to fall into the same for format as other novels that it can no longer be classified as a novel. I have never read beloved, but I have heard about the confusing nature of the book because of the time jumping aspect. Beloved is still considered a novel. I honestly don't know if a new category should be added or not. It is a good question though.

    1. I agree. However, Critics and Academicians who love to compartmentalise do make these distinctions. Armah's Two Thousand Seasons have been criticised as not being a novel. Should the story be made to fit the form or should the writer be free to do what he or she wants?

  2. Hi Fredua,
    In my opinion, they are still novels; however, of different genres.

    More genres and sub-subgenres of novel should probably be redefined. If it is not yet done.

  3. I call it all story telling... these classifications are for those who are interested in conventions.


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