Smart Bitches, Trashy Books: A Website

I, SB Sarah, a Person, was reading the latest entry at Galley Cat, a website, about the number of books being tagged with the words “A Novel.” The phenomenon is so odd, and yet, so common.

An Anonymous Bitchery Reader, a Person, sent me the link, saying, “What the hell is up with that?”

My answer: I do not know. Why tag books with “A Novel?” Maybe it’s a CYA attempt along the lines of “We guarantee this is 100% made up, as opposed to a fictional work that’s attempting to pass itself off as a memoir.” Or maybe it’s a particular cover artists’ love affair with the word “novel.” Or maybe it’s an attempt to steer that book from being shelved in a particular subgenre so that its housed in the more austere “general fiction” section of the big store?

So what is the deal? And can I tell you how much I dread a cover that uses the deadly words, “A Romance Novel?”

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  1. 1
    Kalen Hughes says:

    This is too funny. A couple days back a friend and I were making fun of this phenomenon while wandering through Borders.

    Jeez? A novel you say? Damn. I thought it was a doorstop, or a box of candy, or maybe a broach.

  2. 2
    iffygenia says:

    On the other hand, “: A Romance” doesn’t usually indicate a genre romance.  Often not even a romance (as in, relationship).

    And sometimes a book titled “: A Memoir” is fiction.  No, I don’t mean James Frey; I mean first-person books like Memoirs of a Geisha.

    Possession: A Romance – A.S. Byatt
    Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions – Edwin Abbott
    Ivanhoe: A Romance – Sir Walter Scott
    Cliges: A Romance РChr̩tien de Troye
    Lilith: A Romance – George Macdonald
    The Scarlet Letter: A Romance – Nathaniel Hawthorne
    Scaramouche: a Romance of the French Revolution – Rafael Sabatini
    The Mysterious Stranger – Mark Twain
    Moonheart: A Romance – Charles de Lint

  3. 3
    DebR says:

    “Or maybe it’s an attempt to steer that book from being shelved in a particular subgenre so that its housed in the more austere “general fiction” section of the big store?

    I think that’s exactly what it is – a rather pretentious little cover tag to try to convince readers that a book is somehow better or more high-brow (“it’s LIT-ra-chur, dahlink!”) than a “mere” genre story. It makes me wonder what publishers will try next, once everything from “Hop on Pop” to “War and Peace” has been labeled “A Novel.”

    “A Literary Masterpiece?”
    “A Novel To Change Your Life?”
    “A Novel That’s Way, WAY Better Than Any Other Novel You’ve Ever Read. EVER. Seriously. Trust Us.”

  4. 4
    Kalen Hughes says:

    I see it on romance novels too though. One of my friends has “a novel” on all three of her romances from Ballentine.

  5. 5
    iffygenia says:

    a rather pretentious little cover tag to try to convince readers that a book is somehow better or more high-brow

    I think a lot of it’s more ironic, more pragmatic, and less pretentious than that.

    I often see “: A Novel”, etc, on books set in, or sending up, a particular period or genre.  Irony and reference.

    And sometimes it’s about making the book less austere—clarifying that it’s not nonfiction.  There’s so much nonfiction and creative nonfiction, and so much of it’s gorgeously packaged like fiction.  If the book has a neutral title, it’s often hard to tell which it is from the front cover.

  6. 6
    Ann Bruce says:

    Publishers are helping out their readers because too many of us are using novels in unseemly ways (heck, Candy wanted to marry a bunch of them and sexually abuse a few others).

  7. 7
    Charlene says:

    I do know of one case where the publisher added “A Novel” because the title had been used mumbledy-dozen years ago for a non-fiction book.

  8. 8

    Ann B., I salute you!

  9. 9
    Teddy Pig says:

    Yeah I want to see what happens if they did this…

    The Bible – A Novel

  10. 10

    I think it might have something to do with “A Million Little Pieces” …

  11. 11
    Katie W. says:

    Celina—I don’t think it had anything to do with James Frey’s “Million Little Pieces.” That book is not entirely fictitious—it’s creative non-fiction. Some parts were definitely exaggerated, and a few never happened at all, but the base of the story was true. It’s still considered to be creative non-fiction.

    Personally, I think one of the major reasons for labeling fiction books “A Novel” has already been mentioned—it makes it appear to be more literary than other fiction books.

    But I think there’s more to the marketing game than just making the book appear to be very high-brow. As a nation, Americans are not readers. I worked in a bookstore chain for four years (not very long ago) and, honestly, many Americans are morons when it comes to literature. Many of them truly did not grasp the fact that all fiction books are not, necessarily, novels. I would have to listen to irate customers who bought a fiction book (like “Memoirs of a Geisha,” as someone previously mentioned) expecting to read a novel, and instead got more a memoir-like narrative. So the publishers started tacking on “A Novel” to the book’s cover so that there would be no question that you are indeed buying a novel.

  12. 12
    RandomRanter says:

    You know, I was trying to come up with titles that were clearly fiction and titles that were clearly not, and I realized that I can’t. So while I think it’s gone nuts, and the people who need to know this probably won’t see it, but I guess it’s CYA or something.

  13. 13
    Ann Bruce says:

    James Frey’s “Million Little Pieces” is not entirely fictitious—it’s creative non-fiction. Some parts were definitely exaggerated, and a few never happened at all, but the base of the story was true. It’s still considered to be creative non-fiction.

    Huh?  Wouldn’t creative non-fiction be, well, fiction?  What’s the line between creative non-fiction and fiction?

    So, would something like Susan Johnson’s Taboo be considered creative non-fiction?  She based it on the life of a historical figure, but she exaggerated some parts and added a few that never happened at all.

  14. 14

    I always found tacking on “A Novel” to the title pretty ridiculous, too—until my first “Pink Carnation” book got shelved in the gardening section!  And suddenly it all made a lot more sense.  It amused me to wonder what other shelving errors get made due to novel title choices.  “Chocolat” with cookbooks, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” in Eastern Religion/Auto Repair….

  15. 15
    djh says:

    Lauren… so the tag “A Novel” is mainly for those who shelve the books?  funny…

  16. 16
    RandomRanter says:

    I’m back.  It occurred to me that The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes was tagged as a novel, and some other collaborations were tagged as novels to clarify that it was one big story and not an anthology.

  17. 17
    Stephanie says:

    I’m actually trying to convince my publisher to take “A Novel” off the paperback version of my book when it’s issued. I don’t think it’s likely to be taken for non-fiction, and, when the cover is reduced in print or online, the tiny words become nigh unreadable.

  18. 18
    Katie W. says:

    Huh?  Wouldn’t creative non-fiction be, well, fiction?  What’s the line between creative non-fiction and fiction?

    Actually, creative non-fiction emerged as a legitimate genre quite a few years ago. I agree with you that it seems a bit absurd but a lot of memoirs now are billed as “creative non-fiction.”

    Here are some sources that explain it better than I could:

    What is Creative Nonfiction? from creativenonfiction.org

    What is creative non-fiction?? by Phil Druker from the University of Idaho

    And that always useful: Creative nonfiction in Wikipedia

  19. 19
    Ilona Fenton says:

    Definition of the word Novel:
    1. a fictitious prose narrative of considerable length and complexity, portraying characters and usually presenting a sequential organization of action and scenes. 
    2. of a new kind; different from anything seen or known before.

    Both fit books on the fiction shelves of most bookstores today so maybe that’s what the publishers are trying to tell us poor readers who hadn’t already worked it out for ourselves?

  20. 20

    I can tell you why they do it in my genre – there are ‘yaoi novels’ and yaoi graphic novel’ and so Amazon does ask pubs to please make the distinction, because some pubs are charging the same price for a ‘novel’ that they do for the ‘graphic novels’, and this makes the under-age porn entitled literati, very-very angry. :(

    my word: church27

  21. 21
    Kalen Hughes says:

    Yeah I want to see what happens if they did this…

    The Bible – A Novel

    I just snorted mole sauce up into my nasal passage. I’d soooooooo buy that novel.

  22. 22

    Okay, so on the “Bible: A Novel” front, I can’t resist… has anyone read Umberto Eco’s “Misreadings”?  It’s a series of short essays, one of which consists of hypothetical rejection letters by editors for various great works of the past, including the Bible.  The Bible one (if you’ll forgive the awful paraphrase) is something like, “Love the blood and gore, but hard to keep track of the plot—and you really need to cut some of those begats.”  It’s hysterical.  He also does rejection letters for Dante’s Inferno, James Joyce’s “Ulysses” (needs punctuation) and others.  Of course, I have no idea what it’s shelved under in the bookstore….

  23. 23
    Lorelie says:

    so the tag “A Novel” is mainly for those who shelve the books?  funny…

    I had a run-in with a B&N employee yesterday who thought that when I said Roaring Twenties I meant 1820s.  Then when I explained I wanted the 1920s, she asked if a book on the rise and fall of Progressivism from 1870 to 1920 would fit the bill. 

    Which is a round-about way of saying I’m not surprised.

  24. 24
    Kalen Hughes says:

    Lauren, that Ecco book sounds great!

    My undergrad college offered a class called THE BIBLE AS LITERATURE that was a blast. Esp for an atheist philosophy major who got kicked out of Sunday school when she was five. *grin*

  25. 25
    Bonnie C says:

    Random Ranter – I saw that, too, on the TUMF website. Also I think Jenny Crusie posted something similar when they got they cover proofs for Agnes – something about having to make it very clear that because there is more than one name on the cover it does NOT mean that the book is a compliation of stories.

  26. 26
    Julie Leto says:

    My one and only trade novel had “A Novel” on there.  My understanding was that at first, trade books were NOT fiction…they were primarily non-fiction and the “A Novel” tag was to distinguish them within trade paperbacks.  However, I’m now seeing it everywhere.  I don’t think it’s pretentious…maybe because I understand the origins.  But nowadays, I do find it silly.  Especially on a mass market sized paperback.

  27. 27
    Anna says:

    I may be in the minority (and it wouldn’t be the first time!), but I have found the ‘a novel’ occasionally helpful when I’m in the bookstore quickly trying to access whether this book is for me.  Some book covers and descriptions on the back don’t immediately make it clear whether it is memoir or a novel. 

    As for the label of ‘a romance novel,’ there is already the label I’ve seen frequently in the romance section with some version of ‘erotic fiction’ on the cover.  Those tags let me know how explicit the book will be, as well as what kind of words I may be seeing to describe those marvelous va-jay-jays.

    Of course, I could always search out the small print on the book’s spine, but when I’m scanning quickly that’s a pain.

  28. 28
    asrai says:

    As my 4th grade teacher told me when I wrote “THE END” at the end of a story It’s Unnecessary and Redundant.

  29. 29
    Katie W. says:

    My understanding was that at first, trade books were NOT fiction…they were primarily non-fiction and the “A Novel” tag was to distinguish them within trade paperbacks.  However, I’m now seeing it everywhere.  I don’t think it’s pretentious…maybe because I understand the origins.  But nowadays, I do find it silly.  Especially on a mass market sized paperback.

    Trade paperback books are absolutely not genre-specific. Vintage Books, a subsidiary publisher of Random House, has been issuing fiction trade paperbacks for many, many years. (They are easy to spot by their spines—the have solid blocks of color at the top, and bottom, of the spine.) They not only issue newer books, but they have an entire line of re-issued older books (Nabokov, Faulkner, Steinbeck, etc). And that’s just one example but TP is a common format for both fiction, and non-fiction books. (Weirdly enough, in bookstore lingo, a hardcover book is “TC” for “Trade Cover.”)

    And mass-markets are VERY common in non-fiction. Almost every True Crime book is issued as a mass-market (some come out in TC first but then they always end up MM). Some diet books come out MM, some Psychology books come out as MM and many biographies are in MM format, as well. I prefer it when a MM cover gives a clear definition of the book. You see this a lot with some mystery MM books because they have a similar look to True Crime MM books, so the Mystery MM gets “A Mystery” (or similar to that) on their cover.

    It’s like when the Official Nora Roberts Seal was introduced and I rejoiced because there was finally an easy way to see if you were buying a new work, or a re-issue. Tacking on “A Novel,” or “A Mystery,” or “Based on a True Story!” on the cover of a MM book is a service to the reader, who is probably scanning the shelves at Target for a quick read.

  30. 30
    kpsr. says:

    Huh, I always thought TC was for “Trade Cloth” as opposed to, say, POB (which happens much more for kids books than the grown-up market) (oh, that’s paper-over-board).

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