For centuries, the word “novel” has described fictional works of literature. Despite this, people in modern culture use the word to describe nearly any book, whether it be fiction or nonfiction, poetry or prose. Naturally, this has led to some confusion regarding the term.

All novels are fictional works written in prose, containing over 40,000 words. People used the term when referencing innovative fictitious literary works, and it evolved to mean “fictional prose.” Today, the term is often used interchangeably with “book,” but, by definition, novels are fictional.

This article discusses the definition and etymology of the word “novel,” whether a novel can be nonfiction and the debate regarding the term. We’ll also discuss whether fantasy books fit into the “novel” definition. Read on to learn more.

What Is a Novel?

Before diving into whether all novels are fictional, let’s take a look at a couple of standard definitions of the word:

  • Cambridge University defines a “novel” as “a long printed story about imaginary characters and events.”
  • Britannica states explicitly that a novel is “a genre of fiction.”

To further delve into the meaning, let’s examine the origins of the word “novel.”

Novel Etymology

“Novel” dates back to the mid-15th century, derived from the Old French word “novel” or “nouvel,” meaning “new,” and the Latin word “Novellus,” of the same meaning.

By the 1560s, people used the word to reference fictional prose narratives. “Novella storia” in Italian originally meant “new story,” while today, it means “short story.” By the 1630s, people used the word to describe a “long prose fiction narrative.”

In essence, novels were a “new” way of telling stories. Over time, the word entered the mainstream to mean “new fictional story,” which is especially true when mass-produced printed books became a thing.

Can a Novel Be Nonfiction?

A novel cannot be nonfiction, because a novel is technically fictional prose involving contrived characters and events. However, many people use the term interchangeably with “book” or “text,” whether fiction or nonfiction.

Since the true definition of “novel” means fictional works, why do so many people insist on referring to any form of literature as a novel? Why does the term “nonfiction novel” even exist?

It all began with Truman Capote. 

When the American author wrote “In Cold Blood,” he essentially performed a literary experiment. He referred to the book as a “nonfiction novel.” Capote, therefore, is credited with coining the term “nonfiction novel,” still in use today. Yet by definition, a novel can never primarily be a true story.

While based on fact, Capote wrote the book with informative, accurate details, but carefully edited the facts to tell the story in a compelling manner. It used real people, accurate locations, and actual historical elements, but also incorporated contrived conversations and drama often seen in fictitious works.

Literary experts still debate whether the book is a true novel, journalistic, or a work of creative nonfiction.

Novel vs. Creative Fiction

As discussed earlier, “novel” can be defined using terms such as imaginary, fictitious prose, and fictional work. Again, Britannica specifically states that a novel is fiction.

According to CreativeNonfiction.org, creative nonfiction makes up a variety of literary works. The genre makes up true stories with dramatic elements often seen in fiction, or, according to the website, “a true story well told.”

With that said, creative nonfiction may be applied to:

  • Essays
  • Memoirs
  • Biographies/Autobiographies

…and practically everything in between. 

The website also implies that novels are fiction. As such, novels are not creative nonfiction. In fact, the “nonfiction novel” definition aligns much better with creative nonfiction.

The “Novel” Debate

Many educators believe it’s crucial to preserve the true definition of the word “novel” and recognize that it means something. You can’t just slap it on any type of literature and assume that it works.

According to experts, novels are fictitious prose. Novels represent characters with some degree of realism but are not entirely realistic in the sense that it becomes nonfiction.

A collection of short stories exceeding 40,000 words is not a novel. Plays are not novels. “A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking is not a novel, although Stephen Hawking was an author.

Novels let the reader experience imaginative characters, places, events, and conversations through a realistic expression of different people’s thoughts, feelings, and senses.

With that said, language changes generation by generation.

The Changing Definition of “Novel” in Regards to Literature

According to the University of Pennsylvania, language changes constantly. People create new words, pronunciations change, and “the meaning of old words [drift]….” That doesn’t mean that terminology today is useless since it meant something different years ago. 

It just means that things change. Language changes. Definitions change.

That seems to be what’s happening with the word “novel.” And, interestingly, it seems that among college students, using the word interchangeably with “book” has become the norm.

Are Fantasy Books Considered Novels?

Fantasy books, as long as they’re at least 40,000 words in length, are considered novels. They use fictional characters, situations, and other elements that play out through the eyes of one character or many. These books often utilize magic and the supernatural.

For example, “Harry Potter” is a series of fantasy novels written by J.K. Rowling, and “The Lord of the Rings” is an epic fantasy novel written by J.R.R. Tolkien. Another example is “Under Heaven” by Guy Gavriel Kay. This fantasy novel incorporates inspiration from the Tang Dynasty but remains wholly fictional despite there being some element of historical truth to the work.

Examples of Novels

To conclude, let’s look at some examples of novels and what they have in common:

  • “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville: Sailor Ishmael sets out on a quest to find Moby Dick, a giant whale that injured captain Ahab during a previous voyage.
  • “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott: The story follows four young women from childhood to adulthood. The book is loosely based on the author’s life.
  • “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley: Most of us are familiar with “Frankenstein,” the story of Dr. Frankenstein, who designed a living creature after an unusual science experiment.
  • “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain: Referred to as one of America’s greatest novels, the book follows Huck Finn and his runaway friends on their adventures.
  • “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald: The novel follows Nick Carraway and his meetings with Jay Gatsby, a millionaire looking to reunite with a former flame.

The aforementioned works of literature have a few things in common:

  • They’re works of literary prose. 
  • They contain contrived characters, events, and other fictitious elements.
  • The books have over 40,000 words.

As such, these books are true novels.

Conclusion

While the word “novel” describes fictional prose, it appears that with time, the word may no longer be used exclusively for fictional works. People continue to use the term loosely to mean “book,” with little care as to what type of literary work they’re referencing. 

As it stands now, however, novels remain fictitious works containing over 40,000 words.

Categories: Fiction

Ol Adams

Letter Review is currently edited by Ol Adams, who is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing, casual academic, and guest lecturer at the University of New South Wales. Ol Adams has had short stories published in leading literary journals such as Overland, Southerly, Seizure, and TEXT. Ol has had novels long listed for major awards such as the KYDUMA, has received government funding to produce plays from Create NSW and screenplays from Screen NSW, and has performed / produced professional work at major theatrical venues such as the Sydney Opera House.