Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Novel as a Fictional Essay

Richard Crary, in a long and provocative post at The Existence Machine wonders why we need to call all our efforts at long fiction "novels."

Dan Green responds.

This is a question that's troubled me for some time. From a comment I left on The Reading Experience:

I begin my composition classes by asking my freshman students why Montaigne called his writings "essays." I like to compare what I want them to do in an essay to a "try out" for a sports team. That leads to interesting questions: what or who is "trying out?" Who or what is the judge of success? My aim is to make the idea-as-writing central. Yes, I will have to give them grades, but in their writing, they are not what is being judged, and though I don't pretend that we are equals in this effort, for them to succeed, they must learn how to both let the writing be a genuine exploration of an idea--to take risks, to write without knowing where the words will lead them, and to themselves become the first judge of their success. They are not in class to perform for my benefit, but the writing is to perform for us together as readers. Only then can we discuss what constitutes success.

I too am troubled by "novel" as a necessary lable. I called my first effort, The Magic Slate, a semi-comic literary fiction in seven movements, which seemed more accurate, given the priviledge of its loosly musical structure over the narrative. Why not, I wonder, go back to Montaigne? By acknowledging the experimental quality in the name, the essay has continued to evolve and branch out such that nothing else would capture its essence but that open ended designation--an essay, an exploration, a "try-out."

Why not...
Fictional Essays?

I like that... "essay" as Montaigne used the word in its French sense.

A much better description of the "novel" I've been working on...

Ari Figue's Cat: a Fictional Essay in 72 chapters.


  1. I read this book recently:

    John Hughes - Someone Else: Fictional Essays

  2. I am totally ignorant of literary theory (as you've probably guessed) but Fictional Essays sounds a bit leaden to my shallow ears

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. An essay, as Montaigne conceived of it, and as the word in French confirms, is a thought experiment in words. Exactly what conventional imitation 19th C realist fiction is not.

    I would like to go back to calling all imaginative writing 'poetry. --that is, writing that aspires to what we think of as 'literature.' Why not, when only a handful of reactionaries identify poetry with versification, when it's impossible to offer a meaningful description of the difference, and when what the most innovative and robust fiction and poetry have in common is greater than whatever distinctions we might want to saddle them with?

    The problem with 'novel' is not that it is too inclusive, but that where it is, it is misleadingly inclusive (here we can blame the influence of the market), an inclusive breadth that is really about "use," and becomes, in fact, a form of exclusion--marginalizing whatever doesn't conform. Naming confers legitimacy; a thing with no name has no existence. I would prefer to have a truly inclusive label (all imaginative writing is poetry), or terms that make us think about the difference between market templates and what Montaigne was doing... imaginative thought experiments in language. For that, I don't think there's a better word, given what has developed in that genre, than "essay."

    Let's give it a try... un essai