what’s in a novel

"...by any other name would smell as sweet"

"...by any other name would smell as sweet"

In a 1921 New York Times article entitled, “What is a Novel, Anyhow?”, Henry Kitchell Webster, writes “A novel is defined in the Concise Oxford Dictionary as a fictitious prose narrative of sufficient length to fill one or more volumes.  Well, do you know, that is just about what I thought it was.”

Michael Ondaatje calls Divisadero, published in 2007, a novel.  The book is divided into three narratives.  The writing is beautiful.  As a novel, though, I found it unsatisfying.  I wonder if this dissatisfaction goes to my expectation (founded or unfounded) of what a novel is.  But I’m not the only one who had issues with the form.

Erica Wagner, the literary editor of The Times of London, wrote in a New York Times article, “’Divisadero’ is a series of narratives that calls itself, perhaps for convenience’ sake, a novel. I’m not sure that it is, in fact, a novel; but then I wouldn’t be happy calling it a book of linked stories, either. Ondaatje is a writer who likes to blur form….He is a poet as much as (or even more than) he is a novelist, and the crosscurrents of his writing flow and ripple against each other as poems might. Sequences of images set themselves out in their individual beauty and lucidity; sometimes how they fit into the whole is almost beside the point.

I have to disagree with her last sentence.  I’m not sure that if a book is going to call itself a novel, that how the parts fit together can be beside the point.  For an excellent and succinct review of Divisadero that puts the form issue in perspective, take a look at “‘Divisadero’: Where narrative splinters.

In an audio NPR interview on June 2, 2007 (worth listening to just to hear the author’s voice), the first question to Michael Ondaatje  was “What makes this a novel?”  His answer was that each section by itself was unfinished, that the only way he knew to finish the first story was by another story.  He does admit that it is an “odd structure.”

A better approach would, perhaps, have been the one recently taken by Elizabeth Strout.  The cover of her book Olive Kitteridge merely says fiction, leaving it to the reader to ascertain the form of the work.

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2 thoughts on “what’s in a novel

  1. I was just handed ‘Divisadero’ last night, and am looking forward to reading it on the plane to and from SF.
    It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? What is a novel?
    I look forward to reading it and to continuing this discussion!

    –p

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