The other day I stopped short went I noticed a ton of books with the words “a novel” tucked away on their cover design. I had no idea why some do this, and some don’t, despite them all being novels. Why even include it in the first place? I had to look into the mystery from my original post.
My confusion stemmed from the fact that it seems fairly obvious when a book is a novel. From the title, location we find it (shelved under fiction…), or just from the fact that novels are sort of the default in writing now, I could not figure out why this was included so irregularly.
I FOUND THE ANSWERS!
Or, at least, I found several possible reasons.
The first, original reason is historical. Novels haven’t actually been a thing for very long. Writing used to be primarily nonfiction: travelogues, letters, play manuscripts, essays. English stories that were not actually true (aka our good friend fiction) were not very common until the 17th century or so. At that point, authors had to tell readers that their book was a novel because otherwise they might get confused.
That’s not an insult, that’s for real. With a realistic story, with familiar settings, modern-day issues, and characters who might be based on real people, they very well might have thought it was their standard nonfiction! Adding “a novel” let readers know that the contents were imagined. (Orson Welles probably would have done well to take this idea to heart.)
Unsurprisingly, this led to a modern day usage of prestige and tradition. Old things are often associated with being classy or dignified because they’re old. That’s certainly a bit the case here, if an author wants to be seen as more literary, or to have the pleasure of a connection to a past author they adore. It’s also possible they just enjoy continuing the tradition, and embrace that element of being a writer!
For some authors, it’s still a necessary way to avoid confusion. Especially in recent years, we’ve seen a surge of fiction that is titled to sound more like nonfiction. Titles that include a first and last name of a character (The Bookish Life of Nina Hill might be a memoir), or could sound like a factual investigation to an issue (The Book of Unknown Americans could discuss immigration practices) could benefit from making it clear that they are actually novels.
Suzanne Collins made use of this reader line with her new release that’s in addition to the Hunger Games series. The book title and cover style link it to the series as well, but to clarify for readers who are unsure, it says “A Hunger Games Novel” at the bottom. This is useful in series’ which don’t share a continuous title style, unlike “Harry Potter and the ____.”
Plus, of course, it could just be aesthetic. Like Janelle Brown’s Pretty Things at the top of this post, some just work it in as a featured element on the cover.
A perfect example
When I was in college, I had to read Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. This was a really bizarre read that confused the heck even out of many of my classmates. It’s confusing because it starts off with a preface/introduction, but it is actually written as though from the character’s perspective. Then it goes into a poem, written by a character who has died. This is followed by a section of notes on the poem by the character who wrote the preface.
By any quick look, this seems like any other annotated poem set so familiar to English majors. But it 100% was not, and it was so bizarre. I always read prefaces and author’s notes and the like, so I had a handle on it, but in class the first day after most people were totally baffled about what was going on because they had skipped it, not realizing it was actually part of the novel itself!
So, in short, yes, its pretty freakin’ helpful for Nabokov to include “a novel” on the book cover, because there was a lot of confusion and questioning even with that knowledge.
well, *I* feel better
Seriously. This has changed me. Before I learned the why, this habit (I’ll admit) seemed pretentious and snooty, and I think I did somewhat judge books more poorly for it subconsciously.
But now, I love knowing the history behind it! I’m much more forgiving now to novels that are so clearly labeled as such. Embrace your origins!
I also want to throw some thanks to Annie Neugebauer for being a fantastic and clear source of answers for this mystery. She has some great additional details and even a flowchart, so go check out her post on the issue as well!
Question: if you published a novel (or for those who already have!!), would you include the “a novel” tagline on it?
Despite my changed attitude… I still wouldn’t. 😂