Sunday, July 26, 2009

Postscript on the Long Novel

(herein of definition)

What is the difference between the long novel and the series? The fact of the matter is that enormous numbers of people, including children, have, in the last decade, read a very involved story easily exceeding my twelve-hundred-page definition: the Harry Potter series of books. It raises the question of when a novel is a novel and when it is a chapter.

Remembrance of Things Past is of course divided into seven parts, sometimes called novels, but it is usually characterized as a single novel. Why? Perhaps because the divisions between the parts are rather arbitrary. (Perhaps because no one really knows where The Fugitive ended and The Past Recaptured begins). With our Harry Potter books we have, in each, a beginning and an end which, arguably, give to each of the seven parts a certain unity.

Or take another popular series, the Aubrey/Maturin sea tales of Patrick O'Brien. There are, I think, 21 novels in the series. They tell a connected story. I've read five or six of them, but I've met more than one person who's read the whole series. Is it one long novel, or is it a series of separate novels?

I know, it's kind of a silly question, in the end, because the effect of these series is like that of the long novels I described in the last post, with the possible exception of the fact that the unity of an episode may make it more memorable.

Also less daunting. I have always said that my kids had the advantage over contemporary children when deciding to begin the Harry Potter series. They faced, every year or so, a new book with a setting or characters they loved and were already familiar with. Today's children face a formidable set of seven volumes. Same words, but, unhappily perhaps, a more daunting package.