Ls&Cs: The Fiction Novel

About how language changes, how some cultural assumptions are common among some but unknown by others, and how some people don’t know any of the things that anyone reading this blog know. With my own personal experiences of such matters, and samples of Adam-Troy Castro.

The Week, James Harbeck, 14 Dec 2021: Is ‘fiction novel’ the ‘pin number’ of books?, subtitled, “The dubious rise of a perhaps needless distinction.”

“It’s a fiction novel.”

When you hear that, does it go right by? Or do you think: “Did you, now? Did you drink some wet water?”

This is a redundancy of sorts; if something is a novel, of course it’s fiction. Are there people who do not know this?

I’m going to alternate between quoting and paraphrasing from the article, and relating my own experiences with people I’ve known about these matters and others.

Article: There is after all something called a “nonfiction novel,” like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. But surely without this exception, a novel by default is fiction.

Comments: Stepping back, there are people, more people than those of us who read books probably realize, who don’t read books (or anything else) and so have never lived with the ordinary terminology we take for granted. A novel is a story, they might think; but then they wonder, you mean a true story? Or you mean someone just made it up?

Similarly, at the lowest end of cultural understanding there are those who don’t quite get movies (let alone books). Aren’t movies about true things? Didn’t all those things in Lord of the Rings actually happen? I mean, how could they tell a story about them if it wasn’t all true? There are people like this. TV shows especially are confusing because you see the same character week after week, and some viewers conflate the character with the actor. Furthermore, if they do understand the distinction, they assume the actor is *being* the character, i.e. that the actor is making up his lines as he goes along. The concept of writers and scripts is foreign to them. There are people like this.

Article: It goes on about how some terms, like mile and marathon, have strict definitions, but can still be used figuratively. Other terms, like “dinner,” change meanings over time; dinner used to mean the main mid-day meal. (Whereas in my Midwestern upbringing, the evening meal was called “supper”. And dessert was called “lunch” yes really.)

Article: and some words are retronyms, like landline and manual transmission; before mobile phones and automatic transmissions, you didn’t need to specify the former terms. Perhaps “fiction novel” is like that. Other terms, like “PIN number,” are redundant. Is “fiction novel” like these? In any case, the article concludes, “fiction novel” isn’t really used all that much.


Further comments:

I’ve met people who simply can’t quite get the idea of why anyone would read a book, let alone how they get written. If they’re stories, what’s the point?; they’re just made up. (Well so are movies, but see above.) Nonfiction? But you’re not still in school are you, why would you bother?

And others don’t understand where books come from. The example that comes to mind is a dialogue reported by the writer Adam-Troy Castro on Facebook some months back. Castro is a mildly successful science fiction, with several books and a bunch of stories to his credit, though he has lots of followers on Facebook for his posts there.

Alas, I didn’t save the link to the post I have in mind, but it went something like this, paraphrasing briefly:

Person: So this is your name on this book?
ATC: Yes, because I wrote it.
Person: You wrote it? Every word?
ATC: Yes.
Person: Why?
ATC: I’m a writer, that’s what I do.
Person: But why?
ATC: Because I’m a writer, I make a living writing books, and people buy them.
Person: You mean you made it all up?
ATC: Yes, that’s what writing fiction means.

And so on.

I do have two examples of ATC posts that I can link and quote from. They are public posts, so anyone on Fb can see them. Follow the links the read the entire posts; they’re worth it.

He has this post from 7 Nov 2017:

Have any of you ever been in a multiplex movie theatre when the buses deliver church groups there to see the latest Kevin Sorbo film, which could be titled anything but which really does possess the unspoken subtitle, DON’T WORRY, YOU’RE ABSOLUTELY RIGHT ABOUT EVERYTHING YOU BELIEVE, AND ALL THOSE ATHEISTS WILL EVENTUALLY FIND OUT THEY’RE WRONG?

I have. Three times so far, for different movies. It’s a spectacle.

The first thing you find out, about church groups arriving at the multiplex to watch the latest defensive film, WE KNOW ATHEISTS SCARE YOU AND IT’S OKAY, is that nobody goes for entertainment. They go because it’s a grim duty. …

It goes on.

And from Sept 27th this year, his response to viewers of the TV show Foundation who had checked out Asimov’s writing.

But people are saying the following things about Asimov the prosesmith: that he was terrible at conveying emotions, that he was mostly interested in using his characters as spokesmen for his ideas, that he wrote human drama like a guy who had been shut up in a dark room all his life.

These are all reasonable charges.

Asimov did write, at least in the early years, like a fellow who knew human beings only at a remove, and this is why the stories he was best known for in the early years at least were about robots who behaved according to predictable programming instructions, and a mathematical science that could predict the behavior of large populations with absolute fidelity.

And yes, he was a guy who had had a limited social life, being forced to long hours in his family’s candy shop and being the genius more comfortable with books than with social interaction.

This is a brilliant piece, and explains how Asimov can still be venerated, despite all his personal and literary foibles.


Quiet day. Sunny but chilly. My partner Y went to his office for the last time until after the holidays; his plant is shutting down and so he’s being laid off, and has a severance package, as of January 7th. I’m looking forward to his finding something new to do. Gotta go.

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