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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Irritating pet-peeve annoyance

The next paragraph of this blog post contains a phrase--taken from a recent piece on StudyFinds, a website that summarizes the conclusions of research--that is a fingernails-on-the-blackboard pet peeve of mine. See if you can spot it:

“So, what should you read next? We turned to expert sources to compile a list of the best fiction novels.”

No, it’s not “expert sources,” although subjective judgments of literary quality are, arguably, not matters of expertise. It’s “fiction novel.” Because, as anyone with an English-language dictionary can tell you, a novel is, by definition, fiction.

(You’ll be pleased to hear that Pride and Prejudice is #2 on StudyFinds’ list of “Best Fiction Novels, According to Readers,” behind To Kill A Mockingbird but ahead of Anna Karenina.)

The redundancy of the phrase “fiction novel” is not controversial, and yet for at least the past couple of decades, it’s been clear that many students are confused about this fact.

And not only students: Years ago, during a Parents’ Night at my children’s middle school, an English teacher explained that, while the book wouldn’t be assigned to everyone, her students could pick Anne Frank’s diary, a work of nonfiction, as their “free-choice novel.”

This confusion is apparently so widespread by now that you’ll find online references to entire subcategories of this redundant genre: “historical fiction novels” and “Amish fiction novels” and “women’s fiction novels” and “crime fiction novels.” (“Science-fiction novels,” is, of course, perfectly correct. Go figure. English is a quagmire.)

Inevitably, we’ve now got writers (for instance, here and here) noting the potential wooliness of such terms as "non-fiction novel" and "graphic novel" and wondering if perhaps the language has changed so that “fiction novel” has become acceptable. To date, however, the general conclusion seems to be a firm rejection of "fiction novel.”

And thank goodness for that. Civilization may be crumbling, but at least we can hold the line on a few things. Jane Austen is a novelist, a fiction writer, and the author of Pride and Prejudice, her second-published work of long-form fiction, also known as a novel. Dare I say as “only a novel”?


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2 comentarios

19 oct 2023

I agree with you about 'fiction novel', but I'm not so sure I do about 'historical fiction novels', etc - I think they are all like 'science-fiction novels', just without the hyphen. They are all different genres - historical fiction, Amish fiction, crime fiction, science-fiction - and novels can be identified by that genre. My sentence parsing is a bit shaky (I came at the beginning of a generation where Australian schools decided to reduce the focus on grammar) but I would see 'historical fiction' as being a single adjective for 'novels'. Rather than 'historical' and 'fiction' being two separate adjectives.

To me, there is a difference between 'historical fiction novels' and just 'historical novels' - one specifically means novels set…

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Deborah Yaffe
Deborah Yaffe
19 oct 2023
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I would argue that the terms are "historical/crime/romance/etc. fiction," encompassing both novels and short stories, or "historical/crime/romance/etc. novel," encompassing only the long-form versions. I would not take "historical novel" to mean a novel written in past times about then-contemporary happenings--for that, I'd turn to "classic novel," or "Victorian novel," or "18th-century novel," or whatever. But hey -- the language does change, no matter how much curmudgeons like myself refuse to permit it. :-) As for "non-fiction novel," I think we owe that one to Truman Capote, who did have a specific thing in mind (non-fiction conveyed via novelistic techniques). But perhaps we'd have been better off if he'd come up with a different term!

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