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  Novel (from Italian novella (storia), ‘new history’) is a relatively new name (16th century) for an old literary form. Novels—that is to say works of prose fiction, of book length, telling a continuous story through a wide variety of character, location and incident, and drawing out philosophical and moral themes as they do so—go back at least 2,000 years, to such classical European works as Apuleius\' The Golden Ass and Petronius\' Satyricon. The ancestry of the novel can be traced still further back, even though such older works are written in verse. For example, Homer\'s Odyssey, of some 3,000 years ago, conforms precisely to the specifications of a novel as later perceived. (However, similar epics from other countries, and indeed Homer\'s own Iliad, are quite distinct from the ‘novel’ form, being less unified, less concerned with (human) character, and less interested in using the specific narrative to develop and expound more general themes.)

Murasaki\'s The Tale of Genji, a story in 52 chapters of chivalry and romance in medieval Japan, was written in the 10th century and is generally held to be the first ‘genuine’ novel in world literature. It is also thought to have been composed in imitation of Chinese models, which no longer survive. The word ‘novel’ itself was first used in 16th-century English translations of the stories of Boccaccio\'s Decameron (called novelle in Italian), and came thereafter to be used for longer fiction, replacing the term ‘romance’ which had been used previously for works by such writers as Chrétien de Troyes, Sir Thomas Malory (with his retelling of the Arthurian legends), Cervantes (Don Quixote) and Rabelais (Gargantua and Pantagruel).

In Europe, though not in any other culture, the novel developed in the 18th century into the major form of prose fiction, literature\'s equivalent of the symphony (which was making equal strides in European art music at the same time). Writers in the 18th century favoured three kinds of novel above all: epistolary novels, using letters to tell a developing story from several different points of view; the picaresque novel, telling a series of colourful adventures in a lively and often satirical style; the formation novel or Bildungsroman, showing cultural, geographical and social influences at work in the maturing of the central character. In 19th-century Europe, epistolary and picaresque novels became less common, and the Bildungsroman took its place beside what might be called the ‘novel of manners’, using extended anecdotes about particular groups of people in specially selected situations to show the customs and attitudes of specific sections of society (particularly the emerging bourgeois society of the time, and the ‘underclass’ of the sprawling new industrial cities).

By the 20th century, the writing of novels had spread to non-European cultures, and writers now drew on all the established forms of the novel to produce new work. At about the same time, genre novels began to flood the market. Previously, genre subjects (such as Gothic or ‘old dark house’ novels, or romance) had appealed to only a small readership. The rise, however, of mass literacy and cheaper methods of publishing made ‘pulp’ fiction (so called because the books were printed on pulp paper rather than the more expensive weave) enormously attractive both to readers and writers. Favourite subjects of late-19th-century genre novels were swashbuckling romances (following the model of Dumas\' The Three Musketeers and best exemplified in the work of Orczy and Sabatini), and exotic adventures (this was the period when ‘new’ regions were being opened up, in particular Africa, the Dark Continent). Favourite 20th-century genres were, and are, comic novels, crime novels, espionage novels, horror novels, fantasy novels, romance (historical or allied to specific professions, such as medicine), sf and war novels. Since Tolkien\'s fantasy-trilogy The Lord of the Rings became a world best seller in the late 1950s, since the arrival of supernatural horror as a popular film subject in the 1970s, and since the rise in popularity of sex-and-big-business soap operas in the 1980s, novels in these three genres have dominated world markets.

In some ways, one of the most interesting things about the novel, of all kinds and in all literatures, is its length. Something between 200 and 500 pages seems about right (approximately 50,000-120,000 words). Prevailing tastes have tended to veer between the two extremes of novel length. Long novels, the ‘three-volume novels’ or ‘blockbusters’, were extremely popular in the mid-19th century—and are so again today. In between times, 300 pages (80,000 words) were regarded as about right. But novels outside the specifications, from Proust\'s million-word In Search of the Past at one extreme to the 30,000-word novellas (by such writers as Saul Bellow, Gide and Hesse), which were fashionable until just after World War II, seem to arouse suspicion among consumers of fiction, and are more talked about than read. Perhaps the lengths we prefer say something about our concentration span, or our tolerance for fictional narrative, in the same way as a two-hour span in drama or a 30-minute span in symphony or concerto tell us of our tolerance in other art forms. But whether this is so or not, the ‘standard’ novel lengths are not solely publishers\' conventions (the amount of paper one person can afford, or can hold, on a single occasion), but seem to have some inherent, existential validity which resists analysis. KMcL



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