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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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