Does "Novel" Now Mean Any Book?

This post by Ben Yagoda originally appeared on Slate on 8/4/14.

I was taken aback recently to pick up an (unnamed) magazine for which I’d written an article and see my brief bio begin with the words: “Ben Yagoda is a novelist. … ” I am not a novelist, never have been, and have not (since the age of 15) even had any aspirations in that direction. When I looked into the possible reasons for the error, I came to understand that the person who wrote the bio wasn’t misinformed or making stuff up, but rather took “novelist” to mean the same as “author,” or, more specifically, “writer of books,” and maybe even more specifically than that, “writer of more or less meritorious books.”

A light bulb went off. I teach mostly writing and journalism workshops, but every once in a while, in class discussions or writing assignments, students will have reason to refer to particular nonfiction books—as I say, meritorious books, so not a guide to using your digital camera or naming your baby—and on numerous occasions they have referred to them as “novels.” I never gave this much thought till I had a conversation a few months ago with my colleague Kristen Poole, who teaches Renaissance literature. She told me that her students very frequently write things like “Shakespeare’s novel Hamlet.”

 

Click here to read the full post on Slate.

 

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