Are All Novels Fiction? Unraveling the Truth

For centuries, the term “novel” has been associated with fictional works of literature. Yet, in modern culture, the word is used to describe all sorts of books, whether they are fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or prose. This widespread usage has created confusion and blurred the lines of its definition. In this article, we will explore the origin and meaning of the word “novel,” discuss whether a novel can be nonfiction, and analyze the ongoing debate surrounding this term. Join us on this enlightening journey.

What Is a Novel?

Before we dive into the question of whether all novels are fictional, let’s first understand the standard definitions of the word. According to Cambridge University, a novel is “a long printed story about imaginary characters and events.” Britannica further clarifies that a novel is a genre of fiction. These definitions highlight the fictional nature of novels and emphasize their imaginative essence.

To gain a deeper understanding of the term, let’s explore the etymology of “novel.”

Novel Etymology

The word “novel” originated in the mid-15th century from the Old French word “novel” or “nouvel,” meaning “new,” and the Latin word “Novellus,” also meaning “new.” Back then, people used the word to refer to fictional prose narratives. In Italian, “novella storia” originally meant “new story,” but now it refers to a “short story.” By the 1630s, the word evolved to describe a “long prose fiction narrative.”

In essence, novels were a fresh approach to storytelling. Over time, the term expanded to signify a “new fictional story,” especially with the rise of mass-produced printed books.

Can a Novel Be Nonfiction?

Strictly speaking, a novel cannot be nonfiction. By definition, a novel is a work of fictional prose that involves contrived characters and events. However, many people use the term interchangeably with “book” or “text,” regardless of whether it is fiction or nonfiction.

But why do people insist on referring to any form of literature as a novel? And why does the term “nonfiction novel” even exist?

It all started with Truman Capote, an American author who wrote “In Cold Blood.” Capote labeled his book as a “nonfiction novel,” blurring the line between reality and fiction. While the book is based on true events, Capote crafted it with informative details and carefully manipulated facts to engage readers. This unique approach sparked a debate among literary experts, who still question whether it should be classified as a true novel, journalism, or creative nonfiction.

Novel vs. Creative Fiction

As mentioned earlier, Britannica defines a novel as a work of fiction. On the other hand, creative nonfiction encompasses a variety of literary works that blend true stories with dramatic elements often found in fiction. Essays, memoirs, and biographies are examples of creative nonfiction. Novels, by their very nature, fall under the category of fiction and are distinct from creative nonfiction.

The “Novel” Debate

Many educators advocate for preserving the true definition of “novel” and acknowledge its significance. They argue that the term should not be haphazardly applied to any type of literature. According to experts, novels are fictional prose that portrays characters with a touch of realism, yet they remain distinct from nonfiction.

It is important to note that a collection of short stories exceeding 40,000 words is not a novel. Plays do not qualify as novels either. Even if an author like Stephen Hawking were to write a book, it would not be classified as a novel. Novels take readers on immersive journeys through the thoughts, feelings, and senses of diverse characters, revealing imaginative worlds and events.

However, language evolves over time.

The Changing Definition of “Novel” in Literature

Language is a constant reflection of human evolution. Words are created, pronunciations change, and meanings adapt over time. This does not render current terminology meaningless just because it once meant something different.

The term “novel” seems to be undergoing a similar transformation. Interestingly, among college students, using the word interchangeably with “book” has become the norm. Language is fluid, and definitions evolve with societal changes.

Are Fantasy Books Considered Novels?

Absolutely! Fantasy books that exceed 40,000 words in length are indeed novels. They transport readers into fictional realms filled with enchanting characters, extraordinary situations, and magical elements. Take, for example, J.K. Rowling’s beloved “Harry Potter” series or J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy novel “The Lord of the Rings.” Even “Under Heaven” by Guy Gavriel Kay, which draws inspiration from the Tang Dynasty, falls into the category of fantasy novels despite incorporating some historical truths.

Examples of Novels

To wrap up our discussion, let’s explore a few classic examples of novels and identify their common characteristics:

  • “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville: A tale of Sailor Ishmael’s quest to find the legendary whale Moby Dick, which had previously injured Captain Ahab.
  • “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott: This story follows the journey of four young women from childhood to adulthood, loosely based on the author’s own life.
  • “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley: Dr. Frankenstein’s creation of a living being through an unconventional scientific experiment forms the core of this iconic novel.
  • “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain: Join Huck Finn and his runaway companions on a series of thrilling adventures. This book is considered one of the greatest novels in American literature.
  • “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald: This novel takes readers on a captivating journey alongside Nick Carraway, who encounters the enigmatic Jay Gatsby in his pursuit to reunite with a lost love.

These literary masterpieces share some common threads:

  • They are works of literary prose.
  • They feature contrived characters, events, and other fictitious elements.
  • They exceed 40,000 words in length.


While the term “novel” traditionally describes fictional prose, its usage has expanded in contemporary culture. People now commonly use it as a general term for any book, often disregarding the type of literature they are referring to. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that novels are works of fiction with a length exceeding 40,000 words.

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