February 19, 2019

Wait, Why do novels have to say “A Novel” on the cover?


In a recent post for The Goods (by Vox), Eliza Brooke explores this rather interesting question of why novels still feature the simple-to-the-point-of-foolish “reading line” (the industry term for information on the cover that is not the title or author’s name—this could also be something like Pulitzer Prize Winner): “A Novel.”

She embarks on her hunt thinking that perhaps there isn’t much to be learned, maybe the practice is a little redundant: after all, don’t you find novels in the fiction section? Or see them rather clearly categorized as such by online retailers?

To that, at least, we can respond with the hypothetical scenario of finding a book on a stoop with absolutely no context. In that case, we might be grateful for the extra info.

After more digging, though, Brooke points out that the need for utter clarity may be a specifically American neurosis. After all, Sally Rooney’s latest book Normal People carries the “novel” label on its U.S. edition, but not it’s U.K. edition.

She finds that the roots of this practice extend as far back as the 17th and 18th centuries in which much of literature was so firmly grounded in daily experience that it was important to identify a particular story as fictionalized.

With the rise of modernism, labeling novels continued, but for almost the opposite reason: the content of these new books might strike readers as so new, so alien, that it was helpful to situate it within the familiar context of the novel. This had the happy effect of expanding what the novel could be.

These days, we often see the practice used to help protect the author from those who might try to pick apart their experience, or ridicule what they’ve written.

The novel of today also favors long and poetic titles (which may require clarification) or, groovier still, non-fiction sounding titles that intentionally play with the concept of the novel.  Think of our own The Book of Formation, which reads like a collection of interviews that could certainly take place within our concrete realty–but don’t–and therefore needs a reading line to help it find its home.

Consider also the less experimental example of Ways to Hide in Winter, a title that borrows some syntactical cues from non-fiction, but is very much a novel (and a very good one).






Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.