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The Novel as a Genre

 The term "novel" is now applied to a great variety of writings that have in common only the attribute of being extended works of fiction written in prose.  As an extended narrative, the novel is distinguished from the short story and from the work of middle length called the novelette; its magnitude permits a greater variety of characters, greater complication of plot (or plots), ampler development of milieu, and more sustained exploration of character and motives than do the shorter, more concentrated modes.

Magic Realism

 The term magic realism, originally applied in the 1920s to a school of painters, is used to describe the prose fiction of Jorge Luis Borges in Argentina, as well as the work of writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez in Colombia, Gunter Grass in Germany, and John Fowles in England.  These writers interweave, in an ever-shifting pattern, a sharply etched realism in representing ordinary events and descriptive details together with fantastic and dreamlike elements, as well as with materials derived from myth and fairy tales.  Robert Scholes has popularized metafiction as an overall term for the large and growing class of novels which depart drastically from the traditional categories either of realism or romance, and also the term fabulation for the current mode of free-wheeling narrative invention.  These novels violate, in various ways, standard novelistic expectations by drastic--and sometimes highly effective--experiments with subject matter, form, style, temporal sequence, and fusions of the everyday, the fantastic, the mythical, and the nightmarish, in renderings that blur traditional distinctions between what is serious or trivial, horrible or ludicrous, tragic or comic.


 In an essay on "Discourse in the Novel" (1934-35), Soviet critic Mikhail Bakhtin develops his view that the novel is a literary form that is constituted by a multiplicity of divergent and contending social voices that achieve their full significance only in the sustained process of their dialogic interaction both with each other and with the voice of the narrator.  Bakhtin explicitly sets his theory against Aristotle's Poetics, which proposed that the primary component in narrative forms is a plot that evolve coherently from a beginning to an end in which all complications are resolved.  Instead, Bakhtin elevates discourse (equivalent to Aristotle's subordinate element of diction) into the primary component of a narrative work; and he describes discourse as a medley of voices, social attitudes, and values that are not only opposed, but irreconcilable, with the result that the work remains unresolved and open-ended.
 Among current students of literature, those who are identified specifically as "dialogic critics" follow Bakhtin's example by proposing that the primary component in the constitution of narrative works, or of literature generally--and of general culture as well--is a plurality of contending and mutually qualifying social voices, with no possibility of a decisive resolution into a "monologic" truth.

 --Adapted from M.H. Abrams' A Glossary of Literary Terms, 6th ed. (Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1993).