Novel: A lengthy fictional prose narrative. The novel is distinguished from the novella, a shorter fictional prose work that ranges from roughly fifty to one hundred pages in length. The greater length of the novel, especially as compared with even briefer prose works such as the short story and the tale, permits authors to develop one or more characters, to establish their motivation, and to construct intricate plots. Some authors and critics maintain that it is possible to write a nonfiction novel; novelist Norman Mailer has used the word faction to refer to such works. However, the stories recounted in novels are usually and perhaps essentially products of the imagination, despite the presence in many novels of historical facts, events, and figures.
Scholars disagree about when the novel first appeared on the literary scene. Some bestow this distinction on The Tale of Genji (c. A.D. 1000), a long story by Shikibu Murasaki, a Japanese court lady, about the life, particularly the love life, of a young prince. Others argue for one of two works published in 1678: French writer Madame de Lafayette’s La princesse de Clèves, which contains many of the elements characteristic of the novel form as it was established in the eighteenth century, particularly in England; or Englishwoman Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, which was billed as a true account of an African prince sold into slavery.
Of all the candidates, however, Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote de la Mancha (part 1, 1605; part 2, 1615) is cited most often, at least in the Western world. Certainly, it was the most famous and influential of the picaresque narratives often viewed as transitional works linking the prose tale and the novel in Western literary history. Picaresque narratives can be seen as a framed set of tales; episodic in structure, they recount a series of events linked by the presence of a single, usually roguish, protagonist, or main character. Although picaresque works, Don Quixote included, lack the sustained focus on characterization typical of later novels, they undeniably played a special role in the development of the novel (especially the realistic novel) by debunking the idealized forms of the romance and by legitimizing a fairly systematic examination of a specific theme or problem.
Scholars have identified a number of influences on the development of the novel. Some trace the genre’s roots to classical times, to narrative epics written in verse that tell a sustained story and feature a single protagonist. Others have emphasized prototypical ancient Greek romances, which are fairly lengthy works that typically center on a pair of lovers who have to overcome various obstacles before living happily ever after. Still other scholars point to medieval romances and romances written during the Renaissance, which exhibit the length characteristic of the novel as well as an intricate plot typically featuring stories of adventure involving quests, chivalry, and the fantastic or supernatural. Although early examples of the medieval romance (such as French poet Chrétien de Troye’s twelfth-century Lancelot) were composed in verse, later examples (such as Englishman Thomas Malory’s fifteenth-century Le morte d’Arthur) were written in prose.
The novella, though distinct from the novel, is widely viewed as an influential forerunner and is the form on which English writers most often drew for their subject matter. Indeed, whereas the French word for novel (roman) associates the form with the romance, the English word novel derives from the Italian novella, itself taken from the Latin novella narrātiō, meaning a “new kind of story.” Although novella is now used to refer to any fictional prose work ranging from about fifty to one hundred pages in length, it has traditionally been used to refer to realistic, often ribald or satiric Italian and French tales written between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries — such as those included in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (1348—53) and Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptaméron (1548).
Whatever its origins, the novel was established definitively as a genre in English-language works in early-eighteenth-century England with the work of Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, and Henry Fielding. Defoe’s novels Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Moll Flanders (1722), though largely episodic in structure, differ both from picaresque and romance narratives and from Italian and French novellas because of the convincing solidity of their characters. Nonetheless, Defoe still emphasized action and plot. Richardson, by contrast, established what we have come to call the psychological novel in epistolary works such as Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740) and Clarissa Harlowe (1747—48) by focusing on motivation and character development. Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742) and Tom Jones (1749) combined adventurous action with detailed characterization and are philosophically undergirded by the tenets of neoclassicism, whose proponents believed that the proper subject of art is humanity in the broadest sense and that literature should both instruct and delight. (“I describe not men, but manners,” says the narrator of Joseph Andrews, “not an individual, but a species.”)
A tremendous growth in literacy — and a related explosion in novel publication — occurred between 1750 and 1900. Reflecting evolving concerns and tastes, new generations of novelists wrote about new subjects using innovative styles and structures and published their works in new media designed to reach a growing audience. (These media included three-volume editions developed for lending libraries and the installment style of publication typical of literary periodicals and popular magazines.) Notably, the novel allowed women to break into the literary profession, which historically had been almost exclusively a male domain. Several of the best women novelists, however, fearing that their work would not be taken seriously, assumed masculine pen names, or noms de plume.
A number of new forms emerged during the second half of the eighteenth century. In works such as Peregrine Pickle (1751), Tobias Smollett was instrumental in developing the picaresque novel, in which a physically vigorous but morally imperfect hero gets into a series of hair-raising adventures. Through works such as Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1796), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe helped usher in another new form: the bildungsroman, a novel that recounts the psychological and sometimes spiritual development of an individual from childhood or adolescence to maturity. The sentimental novel — as exemplified by Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey (1768) — exalted the emotions, particularly those of sympathy and generosity, and portrayed their expression as the most reliable marks of human virtue. The Gothic novel — as exemplified by Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story (1764) and Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian (1797) — played on suspense, horror, and fear, featuring a mysterious, gloomy setting, typically a medieval castle full of secret passageways and supernatural phenomena, and characters with dark histories and secrets of their own.
Traditionally, literary historians have distinguished two overarching categories of novelistic prose fiction: the realistic novel (sometimes called the novel proper) and the romance novel. Realistic novelists strive for verisimilitude in their depictions of ordinary characters, situations, and settings; in other words, they seek to construct believable, plausible stories. Romance novelists, by contrast, generally focus on adventure, involve heroes and villains who are larger than life, and often feature improbable, though imaginative, situations.
The nineteenth century has often been called the age of the realistic novel. Writers whose works broadly exemplify the tenets of realism, which emphasizes the objective presentation of ordinary places and events, include Honoré de Balzac, Anthony Trollope, George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), Gustave Flaubert, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, William Dean Howells, and Henry James. Well-known examples of the realistic novel include Balzac’s Le père Goriot (Father Goriot) (1835), Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866), and James’s The Portrait of a Lady (1881). Moreover, within the general category of realism, particular types of realistic fiction were developed. These include local color writing, which depicts the distinctive characteristics (dialect, dress, mannerisms, etc.) of a particular region; the roman à clef, a type of novel in which real people are represented in the guise of novelistic characters bearing fictional names; and the historical novel, which incorporates historical figures and events into a fictitious narrative. George Washington Cable’s The Grandissimes: A Story of Creole Life (1880) is an example of local color writing. George Meredith’s roman à clef Diana of the Crossways (1885) depicts the English prime minister Lord Melbourne as a character named Lord Dannisburgh. An example of the nineteenth-century historical novel is William Makepeace Thackeray’s The History of Henry Esmond (1852), in which Queen Anne, the Pretender, and noted essayists Joseph Addison and Richard Steele appear.
Not all nineteenth-century fiction writers were realists, however. François-René de Chateaubriand, author of Atala (1801) and René (1805), is commonly classified as a romantic. Sir Walter Scott, the author of Waverley (1814) and Ivanhoe (1819), built so many romance elements into his historical settings that, despite his reputation for being the first historical novelist, scholars more commonly associate him with the romance novel than with the realistic novel. (The same may be said of Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers  and The Count of Monte Cristo .) Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), though steeped in colonial American history, was originally subtitled A Romance. James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer (1841), like Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) and Billy Budd (written in 1891, published posthumously in 1924), are also generally viewed as examples of the romance novel.
Some of the most acclaimed and influential novelists of the nineteenth century, however, cannot be clearly identified with either the romance novel or the realistic novel. Some of these writers, such as the Brontë sisters, combined romantic and realistic elements in their works; Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is a noted example. Others produced novels associated with a major genre (comedy, tragedy, or satire) or mode (e.g., irony or parody) that predates realism and, indeed, the novel itself. Charles Dickens was as much a satirist as a realistic novelist; comic and autobiographical early novels were followed by major works, such as Bleak House (1852—53) and Our Mutual Friend (1864—65), that contain far more caricature, symbolism, and allegory — and also more absurd, fantastic, and grotesque elements — than are common in realistic works. While Jane Austen focused on presentation of everyday life, she also regularly used irony to critique social norms and values, as in Pride and Prejudice (1813), which begins, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Other novelists wrote works that contributed to the development of naturalism, a literary movement whose adherents pessimistically depicted pathetic protagonists with little if any control over their destinies. For example, Thomas Hardy consistently employed tragedy but adapted it in a naturalistic manner in novels such as The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891), and Jude the Obscure (1896). Other, purer examples of the naturalistic novel include Émile Zola’s Germinal (1885), Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), Frank Norris’s McTeague (1899), and several novels published early in the twentieth century by Theodore Dreiser.
With the advent of the twentieth century and, shortly thereafter, the rise of modernism, the novel became ever more diverse in its development and increasingly difficult (if not impossible) to fit into the general categories of romance and realism. To be sure, the romance form did not die out — Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938) is a twentieth-century romance classic — nor did realism. Modern writers including E. M. Forster, F. Scott Fitzgerald, D. H. Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway, and Graham Greene adapted the conventions of realism to represent new literary subjects ranging from colonial India (Forster, A Passage to India ) to the “Roaring Twenties” (Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby ) to sexual relationships (Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover ) to World War I (Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms ) to postcolonial Mexico (Greene, The Power and the Glory ). In works such as Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1947), African American authors wrote with psychological realism about the black experience in the United States.
The writers most closely associated with modernism, however, ignored both romance conventions and realism’s emphasis on objectivity to carry out radical experiments with style, structure, and subject matter. In Swann’s Way (1913), Ulysses (1922), To the Lighthouse (1927), and As I Lay Dying (1930), Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner, respectively, experimented with stream of consciousness, a literary technique reflecting a character’s jumbled flow of perceptions, thoughts, memories, and feelings. Joyce also turned to myth in order both to contrast his age with heroic times past and to suggest the timeless, universal qualities of certain situations, problems, and truths. Other twentieth-century novelists used mythical contexts and structures differently; in works ranging from the novella Death in Venice (1912) to his novel The Magic Mountain (1924), Thomas Mann used mythology to reveal disturbed psychic conditions within his characters.
Following the Modern Period, fiction writers associated with postmodernism experimented even more radically with conventional literary forms and styles. While preserving the spirit and even some of the themes of modernist literature (such as the alienation of humanity and historical discontinuity), they rejected the order that a number of modernists attempted to instill in their work via mythology and other patterns of allusion and symbol. Postmodernists include William Burroughs, Donald Barthelme, John Barth, Kathy Acker, Thomas Pynchon, and Don DeLillo. Examples of postmodernist novels include Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (1962), Pynchon’s V (1963) and Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School (1984), and DeLillo’s White Noise (1985) and Zero K (2016). Other examples are Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1995), David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996), and Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000).
Within postmodernist fiction, a special type of novel developed: the nouveau roman, which arose in France in the mid-twentieth century and is often called the new novel or antinovel in English. “New” or “anti” novelists employed detailed physical description and largely dispensed with standard novelistic elements such as characterization and plot, forcing the reader to struggle to make sense of a seemingly fragmented text. They also aimed to depict reality without recourse to a moral frame of reference and to avoid the kind of subjective narrative evaluation that creeps into realistic, naturalistic, and modernist works. Nathalie Sarraute’s Tropismes (Tropisms) (1939) and John Hawkes’s The Blood Oranges (1971) are commonly cited as examples of the nouveau roman and antinovel, respectively. Other practitioners of the nouveau roman include Alain Robbe-Grillet, Philippe Sollers, and Marguerite Duras.
Magic realism, another innovation often associated with postmodernism, also emerged, most prominently in Latin America in the late 1940s before gaining popularity worldwide. Novels employing magic realism are characterized by a mixture of realistic and fantastic elements; they are set in the real world but treat the magical or supernatural as an inherent part of reality and often incorporate dreamlike sequences, folklore, and myths into complex, tangled plots featuring abrupt chronological shifts and distortions. Gabriel García Márquez’s Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude) (1967) is an example of magic realism; Isabel Allende blended magic realism and political realism in her novel La casa de los espiritus (The House of the Spirits) (1982).
Postmodernism notwithstanding, most novelists writing in English during the second half of the twentieth century followed fairly established paths. An eclectic list might include Margaret Atwood, James Baldwin, Julian Barnes, Saul Bellow, A. S. Byatt, Truman Capote, Sandra Cisneros, J. M. Coetzee, Robertson Davies, Anita Desai, Margaret Drabble, Buchi Emecheta, Louise Erdrich, Ernest Gaines, William Golding, Graham Greene, John Irving, Kazuo Ishiguro, Barbara Kingsolver, Doris Lessing, Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud, Cormac McCarthy, Ian McEwan, Rohinton Mistry, Toni Morrison, Iris Murdoch, Vladimir Nabokov, V. S. Naipaul, Joyce Carol Oates, Salman Rushdie, Philip Roth, J. D. Salinger, Jane Smiley, Muriel Spark, Wallace Stegner, Amy Tan, Anne Tyler, John Updike, Alice Walker, and Herman Wouk.
Widely read novelists whose works have generally been classified as “popular” rather than “literary” include David Baldacci, James Clavell, Pat Conroy, Ken Follett, John Grisham, Alice Hoffman, Stephen King, Colleen McCullough, James Michener, Jodi Picoult, Anne Rice, Nora Roberts, Anne Rivers Siddons, and Danielle Steel. Noted authors who are particularly associated with well-defined subgenres of popular fiction include Piers Anthony, Terry Brooks, Ursula Le Guin, George R. R. Martin, Anne McCaffrey, and J. R. R. Tolkien (fantasy fiction); Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Octavia Butler, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, and LeGuin (science fiction); and John Le Carré, Tom Clancy, Len Deighton, Ian Fleming, and Robert Ludlum (spy fiction). Authors of detective fiction in the classic tradition of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers include writers such as Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell; authors in the hard-boiled tradition of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett include Sue Grafton, Tony Hillerman, Ross Macdonald, Walter Mosley, Sara Paretsky, and Robert B. Parker.
Noted contemporary writers in English whose novelistic careers began near the end of the twentieth century or in the twenty-first century include Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Julia Alvarez, Geraldine Brooks, Michael Chabon, Teju Cole, Jennifer Egan, Dave Eggers, Jonathan Franzen, Khaled Hosseini, Ha Jin, Helen Oyeyemi, Edward P. Jones, Ann Patchett, E. Annie Proulx, Zadie Smith, Sarah Waters, and Colson Whitehead.