A novel is a type of book. Like most new artforms, literary and otherwise, it is a difficult object to define comprehensively, but most typically it can be taken to be a long piece of narrative fiction. Written prose, historically turned towards folk tales, myths, hagiographies and epics, is now being used to tell all sorts of stories about ourselves, the heavens, and everything in between. It may be helpful to think of the novel as a loose genre encompassing all those mentioned above, but also one that allows for stories outside the realm of the fantastical. Stories, to put it simply, about us.
The qualifications (or requirements) of the novel are quite porous. We may say that the novel must contain a single narrative, ruling out collections of short stories, but the novel has been known to break out of this restriction in countless ways. We may demand the novel be fiction, but many authors have woven reality and history into their novels for many reasons. We may ask that a novel be a prose narrative, but novels exists that contain rhythmic structure, either interspersed with prose text or in lieu of it. But in general the novel is a book, between one hundred and one thousand pages long, that tells a single story.
The best way to form a sense of what the novel is is to read one. Through varied exposure to novels you will begin to understand the shape of them, the thrust of their ambitions. You will forgive their indefinite nature, and come to appreciate the surprises offered by such creative freedom.
Types of Novels
The “coming-of-age” novel is not a category you will find in any bookshop, but nevertheless remains one of the most popular and enduring genres of literature written. The growth of a protagonist from youth to adulthood is the essence of human storytelling.e.g. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce
The Crime Novel
Crime novels are concerned with the act in all its forms; its execution, its detection, and its punishment. Many of the television programmes you watch today have their roots in crime novels, where long ago we discovered our fascination with the detective and the criminal mind. Murder is the ultimate, most satisfying puzzle.e.g. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, by Agatha Christie
The Historical Novel
Historical context is crucial to many stories. The historical novel is concerned with known figures or events, either directly or tangentially. Many novels are set in past ages, however, and can be culturally illuminating even if the events portrayed are entirely or partially fictional.e.g. I, Claudius, by Robert Graves
These novels—not to be confused with classical romance novels, a genre concerning heroic literature of the Medieval ages—have been hugely in-demand since the popularisation of the novel in the 18th century. They focus on romantic love between protagonists, with a general lilt towards the positive and satisfying aspects of these unions. Most bookshops will have a romance section available.e.g. Pride & Prejudice, by Jane Austen
This peculiar category became massively popular during the last century. At its most basic, it could be considered a reversion to the telling of myths and epics, but unconstrained by historical and geographical boundaries. Most fantasy novels take place in entirely fictional worlds, in which folk legends such as magic and dragons are reality.e.g. Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R Tolkien
Popularised during a vibrant magazine industry that published short stories in the mid-20th century, the science fiction genre has become a diverse and steadily popular category of novel. It deals with the future, hypothesising humans travelling to other planets, alien encounters, and a myriad of offshoots from this central theme. The genre is often used allegorically to explain our own world and time.e.g. Dune, by Frank Herbert
The novel will typically take between eight and thirty hours to read, although your speed may improve as you become more familiar with the medium. This is both the novel's great advantage and its handicap. Its length, and omnipotent narrator, allows for an unparalleled immersive experience, but the investment required is substantial.
One counterbalance to this investment is that the experience of reading the novel is not much damaged by frequent interruption, so you can read a few pages when and wherever you find the time to do so. Unlike most narrative mediums, the novel can be comfortably read for ten minutes on the bus, or for an unbroken three hours on a quiet evening. Your brain's ability to pick up from where you left off will astonish you.
I advise starting with something relatively short —between one hundred and two hundred pages—with a premise you find arresting. After letting a short, sharp novel carry you through to its conclusion, you will immediately begin to appreciate its merits, and the hours used to read it will seem trivial.
How to Find a Novel
Novels are available in almost all bookshops, usually filed under “Fiction”. Other sections of the bookshop will also contain novels, including, but not limited to: “Classics”, “Science Fiction” and “Young Adult”. Many novels have “A Novel” written somewhere on the book cover, but this is by no means the rule. Use the clues provided in this document to help find the shelves containing novels; usually they are filed together. If you are having trouble identifying a book, just ask one of the shopkeepers. Most people working in bookshops are quite familiar with novels.