A Novel IS Fiction

By Maeve Maddox

I’ve noticed that some people talk about “fiction novels.”

A novel IS fiction.

One can talk about writing a novel OR about writing fiction. To combine the two is to wear a belt with suspenders. (Another example of reluctance to let the word do the work.)

In writing terms, fiction is any non-factual narrative composition.

It may be short or long.

It may contain historical or scientific facts, and it may describe characters named for historical personages, but the conversations and treatment of events are understood to have been made up by the author.

Fiction may be written in various lengths. Here are some guidelines.

A short story is a fictional narrative of no longer than 20,000 words and no shorter than 1,000. Most short stories run between 3,000 and 10,000 words so that they may be read at a single sitting.

A novelette is a fictional narrative of from 7,500 to 17,500 words in length.

A novella is a fictional narrative between 17,500 and 40,000 words.

A recent fad called “flash fiction” concerns itself with the writing of extremely short narratives. People disagree as to the length of flash fiction. The only point of agreement is that it is shorter than the traditional short story, no longer than 2,000 words. Most flash fiction is between 250 and 1,000 words.

Various terms for these very short narratives are in use. The oldest is “short short story.” More recently one hears “postcard fiction,” “micro-fiction,” “micro-story,” and “sudden fiction.”

Some websites now feature what are called “one sentence stories.” The ones I’ve read don’t appear to be anything more than well-crafted sentences one would expect to find in a conventional story. They tend to be descriptive and anecdotal, but not true stories.

Finally there is the novel, a long fictional narrative that can be from 60,000-100,000 words.

For some authors 100,000 words are not enough:

James Joyce, Ulysses: 250,000 words (It only seems longer.)

Victor Hugo, Les Miserables: 513,000 words.

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace: 460,000 words in the original; 560,000 words in English translation.

Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged: 645,000 words.

Samuel Richardson, Clarissa: 969,000 words. (English majors have to read this early example of an epistolary novel–a story told as a collection of letters.)

AND THE WINNER IS…

Marcel Proust, A la recherche du temps perdu (In English Remembrance of Things Past/In Search of Lost Time): 1.5 million words published in 13 volumes.

NOTE: the above Wikipedia quotation has since been corrected to read “…1.5 million words published in 7 volumes.” Proust was still working on this 7-volume monument when he died. The first English translation, by Scott Moncrief, was published in 12 volumes.

Publishing history of A la recherche du temps perdu.

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13 Responses to “A Novel IS Fiction”

  • Mari Adkins

    Victory Hugo?

  • Maeve

    Good grief.

  • Mari Adkins

    It made me giggle.

  • Rhett Soveran

    I think you are forgetting creative non-fiction. Which is a bit of a contradiction, for some. But I believe you would label them a novel. Thus you may need to distinguish between fiction and non-fiction.

  • Maeve

    Rhett,
    A work of “creative non-fiction” is still non-fiction. I don’t care for the term myself. All it seems to mean is non-fiction rather more interestingly written than the usual type of factual writing. It employs literary devices to stir the emotions, but it is still, presumably, factual writing.

    You might find Lee Gutkind’s remarks of interest: http://www.creativenonfiction.org/thejournal/whatiscnf.htm

  • Deborah H

    “wear a belt with suspenders.”

    This made me laugh because I haven’t heard it in a long time. My flying instructor said it all the time. In his context, it meant that redundancy in a pilot is a good thing. Check everything twice. File a flight plan (and its other half: close your flight plan).

  • Eva G.

    Just a librarian’s clarification: Maeve you are absolutely correct. Under no circumstance is a novel ever found on the non-fiction floor, unless you’re talking about questionable materials like James Frey’s Million Little Pieces and such (thank goodness he’s finally writing fiction.) Novels are always fiction.

    At the library, when we ask a patron if the book they seek is fiction or non-fiction, we get confused looks. It’s like we asked them to figure out the meaning of life or something.

  • Maeve

    Eva,
    Your meaning of life comment makes me laugh. English teachers try sooo hard!

    Thanks for the professional input.

  • Lai Ka Yau

    Does The Old Man and the Sea really qualify for a novella, and does The Call of the Wild qualify for a novel? I’ve heard these books being classified as above, but they both seem a little short.
    And in what category do A Christmas Carol and The Invisible Man fall in?

  • Lai Ka Yau

    According to Wikipedia, A la recherche du temps perdu was published in 7 volumes.

  • Maeve

    Lai Ka Yau
    Seven volumes is right.

    When I wrote this post, I was quoting from the following paragraph that I found in a Wikipedia article:

    Longest conventionally-read novel. 9,609,000 characters, nearly 1.5 million words. Holds the Guinness Book of Records title as Longest Novel. Published in 13 volumes from 1913 to 1927. English translation is titled Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time.

    That should remind me to go back to the original when possible. I’ll be correcting the article.

    Thanks,
    Maeve

  • guy

    You guys shouldn’t really be using Wikipedia as a reliable source.

  • Valerie

    Thanks for this. I am so tired of this conversation:
    What do you write?
    I’m working on a novel.
    Oh – you mean a fiction novel?
    Nuff said.

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