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.
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).