The three different kinds of novels (they’re probably not what you think)

Awhile back I ran across Edith Wharton’s book on how to write. I love Edith Wharton probably more than almost any other writer, so reading this was a no-brainer. And it was fascinating. She’s writing this book more than 100 years ago, and she’s sitting significantly closer to the invention of the novel than we are. If we go back 150 years before Wharton, we can read things that are called novels, but they’re very different, structurally, from anything we’d read today. In Wharton’s time, we haven’t yet hit modernism, but otherwise the outlines of the novel are more or less set.

And I think in her chapter on the novel, she writes very clearly:

Most novels, for convenient survey, may be grouped under one or the other of three types: manners, character (or psychology) and adventure. These designations may be thought to describe the different methods sufficiently; but as a typical example of each, “Vanity Fair” for the first, “Madame Bovary” for the second, and, for the third, “Rob Roy” or “The Master of Ballantrae,” might be named.

When I read this I was like, “Oh my god, I’ve never seen that distinction before.”

(For the uninitiated, here’s how I’ll summarize the difference between the three types. A novel of manners deals with the development and changes within people’s social relations. Most romance novels, for instance, are novels of manners. In these novels, the relationships are the real characters. A novel of character is about the development of one person. It has much more to do with the experience of living within the world and with one person’s internal development. And an adventure is the hardest to define: it’s primarily about external struggle to achieve some definite object. Of course, many novels nowadays contain elements of all of these types.)

I think the reason this came as a surprise is that most of what I know about novels I learned within genre fiction communities, and in our world, the adventure is still the predominant form. There are exceptions! Jo Walton has written novels of manners (in The Just City) and novels of character (such as Among Others). Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkisigan series has progressed through the different types, with some being adventures (Warrior’s Apprentice) and others being novels of character (Memory) and some being straight-up novels of manner (A Civil Campaign). But generally speaking, most sci-fi/fantasy books are adventures.

It becomes even more complicated for me, I think, because the type that interests me the most, the novel of manners, is also not very much in vogue in my other genre (literary fiction for adults). In some ways, it’s not surprising that I ended up writing contemporary YA, because here the novel of manners is the predominant form (this is also why I’m drawn, I think, to romance novels and to some kinds of crime novels).

As a friend of mine recently said (in a toast at my wedding), “Rahul loves conflict.” I just love all the situations in real life where people go at each other and come to cross purposes. In fact, I love movies about weddings, for exactly that reason: weddings are a time when all these feelings bubble to the surface.

Anyway, these thoughts about the nature of the novel came back to me as I was reading Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell (a stunning, spectacular novel of manners). Elizabeth Gaskell is so good. Her work is definitely better than most Eliot, aside from Middlemarch. She just has so much control when she comes to her characters. They’re so multi-faceted, and she knows exactly when to draw back and let them be real. For instance, the stepmother in Wives and Daughters is sort of shallow and horrible, but she really really tries to win over her stepdaughter, partly because she’s not a cruel person (she doesn’t enjoy causing misery) and partly because she knows that the people in the town are going to be judging and evaluating her and she doesn’t want to fall into the wicked stepmother trope. Note, she doesn’t change over the course of the book. Not really. But her relationship with her stepdaughter progresses and develops.

Anyway, these thoughts have given me so much insight into the sort of books that I want to write, and now I put them on the internet that they’ll do the same for you =]

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(Here I’ve attached an image of the Oxford Classics cover of Wives and Daughters. If you’re reading classic English literature on the Kindle and you’re not buying the Oxford Classics editions, then you’re making a huge mistake! They’re like half as expensive as the Penguin Classics editions [often under $5!] and their footnoting is so good! I think I’m coming into the part of my life where I actually enjoy annotations, which is kind of a shock. Wow, I’m officially old.)