Richard Crary finds the term "novel" too confining, and wonders:
Why should contemporary prose works necessarily be treated as novels? Why do we insist that of course a given work is a novel, just not the kind of novel some readers expect? Why, indeed, should adventurous or exploratory or so-called experimental prose writing be subject to the same expectations as a novel? Why called a novel at all? (As always, I am ignoring the needs of the publishing industry.) Are Thomas Bernhard's works novels? Or might it be better to call them, simply, "prose works"? What about Blanchot's récit? Is Josipovici's Everything Passes a novel? David Markson's This Is Not A Novel was titled, so I understand, in response to a what one reviewer reportedly actually wrote in dismissing Reader's Block, his previous work. But what if we just saw the title as simply accurate and then worked from there?
There's no doubt that life could be made easier, for both writers and critics, if the identifying tag "novel" were confined to that plot- and character-heavy sort of narrative into which the novel evolved between 1850 and 1950 and which a majority of readers still steadfastly associate with the term. Devotees of "exploratory" prose would not have to contend, or would have to contend less, with objections that a particular work of experimental fiction is not "really" a novel, because it would indeed not be such and could perhaps be more honestly assessed according to criteria appropriate to what it is rather than what it is not. Many of the currently contentious critical debates about the purpose and proper form of the novel would presumably disappear, and those who insist it continue to be what it's always been and appeal to the widest possible audience would have the field to themselves.
Such a dispensation would have the added benefit of eliminating obtrusive discussions of "art" where the novel is concerned, since whatever art it would still be granted would be confined to minor variations on pre-established methods, and everyone still reading novels would be able to concentrate their attention on the "ideas" they supposedly express, the political efficacy they're claimed to have, the sociological observations they're said to make, or just the nice stories they're counted on to tell, all of which, as far as I can tell, are of much greater interest to readers of conventional novels than aesthetic values or formal ingenuity. "Style" might remain a relevant consideration, as long as it's used to identify especially pretty prose. Otherwise "art" can be safely relegated to the "experimental prose writing" Richard invokes, along with the latter's contrarian habit of representing experience in ways that aren't appropriately "realistic."
I confess I find this potential reinforcement of boundaries, and subsequent realignment of the literary sphere, initially attractive and possibly liberating. The reduction of the novel to its simplist form--or at least its most readily accessible--would allow adventurous writers to follow their creative bliss in whatever directions they wished (to the extent that they, too, are finally willing to "ignore the needs of the publishing industry") and critics to extend their horizons beyond the already known. Yet I think I would ulimately resist abandoning the classification "novel" as an umbrella term naming a still-evolving literary form. For one thing, a hardening of the boundary defining the novel would surely give whatever lies outside it a bracing freedom to explore new territory, but eventually it seems likely that either new boundaries would be erected around certain kinds of "prose works," boundaries that could prove just as restrictive, or that something like literary anarchy would ensue. Perhaps this anarchy would still be tolerable, depending on the quality of what some writers manage to produce, but such a state of affairs would make it more difficult to maintain a critical perspective on new writing, which might in turn make it more difficult for "prose writers" to gather an audience.
In addition, although I am clearly enough a partisan of experimental fiction, my appreciation of the experimental in literature is still pretty firmly rooted in literary history itself, and I am hesitant to conclude that those impulses that motivated writers to begin writing what we now call novels, and that has guided the development of fiction in general, are entirely spent. Fiction, at least in the modern literary tradition, began as an experiment itself, an offshoot of "narrative poetry" that began to test out the possibilities of extended narratives written in prose. Indeed, many of the early works of prose fiction, Gulliver's Travels, Robinson Crusoe, Jacques the Fatalist, could be described as "prose works" seeking their own conventions rather than novels per se. The history of the novel, in my view, is the continued search for subjects, strategies, and techniques that would redeem the artistic potential both of the form and of prose itself as a literary medium. Many people seem to think that this search effectively ended in the late 19th/early 20th centuries, when novelists discovered realism, enhanced by modernist experiments in "psychological realism," and thus added these approaches to the earlier emphasis on storytelling, but I think that such an arbitrary circumscription of the novel's further development is effectively a renunciation of the form's own history as an "exploratory" practice.
Perhaps, given both the adamacy with which the gatekeepers of the "novel" in its ossfied version insist on its right to the designation and the sheer abundance of alternatives to this version offered up over the last sixty years (including those written by the authors Richard mentions), we ought just to accept this renunciation and get on with writing and reading whatever fresh "prose works" continue to appear. Maybe this is the price to be paid for the novel's brief period of popularity as a mass entertainment before the arrival of movies and television to usurp that role: the "book business" expropriated the label "novel" as a marketing device and has continued to force all subsequent efforts at expanding the form back into its slim container. (Although in light of what seems to be the imminent implosion of this "industry," it may no longer be able to devote many resources to any but the most gaudily commercial novels at all.) The novel has effectively been severed from its place in the unfolding of literary history and tied instead to the imperatives of capitalism.
But would we have to discard as well the more elastic term "fiction" while we're giving up on "novel" as hopelessly constraining? "Fiction" doesn't just mean "something made up"; it's a signal that, as a prose composition that shouldn't be judged by its conformity to the prescripts of "reality," the work at hand is free to distort, embellish, pare away, redirect, transmute, or transcribe the "real" in whatever way provides the work its integrity, at whatever length, and in whatever style or form. Or at least it could mean this if we didn't insist that "fiction" is synonymous with "story." Much of the "experimental prose writing" of the past few decades has, in fact, moved fiction closer to the practices of poetry (back, as it were, to the origin of prose fiction in poetry), away from narrative toward various other arrangements and rearrangements of language. If this tendency were to result in some hybrid form somewhere between poetry and prose narrative, and were to inspire a new name to solidify its status, I myself wouldn't complain, but I'm content to stick to "fiction" and to challenging unnecessarily narrow conceptions of its scope.