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Subtitled “A Novel”: A Blog Post/Rant

February 7, 2009

In lieu of posting a review today, I’m going to spend a paragraph or three bitching about something that very minor that nevertheless bugs the snot out of me… the subtitle “A Novel.”

Now, I love me a good subtitle. Part of the reason that I love the Bloody Jack novels so much is because of their subtitles. But a good subtitle has to actually tell you something more about the book. That’s its point, no? And “A Novel” really just… doesn’t.

I mean, really? This thing, that I am holding in my hand, made up of bound sheets of paper printed with little black squiggles that resolve into words which tell a fictional story is a novel?!? I don’t think I could have figured that out without that helpful subtitle, so thanks, Captain Obvious of the subtitling industry!

There are cases where I can let it slide. There are some cases where I can see how a novel might be mistaken for a non-fiction book (like Galapagos: A Novel by Kurt Vonnegut), so although I don’t like it, I won’t grit my teeth about it too hard. Too, there are books like Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters, where the subtitle takes the convention and uses it for something clever (Ella Minnow Pea is both an epistolary novel and a novel about the letters of the alphabet.)

But the vast majority of the time, there is really no excuse. Every time I see “A Novel”, I’m reminded of a bit from Tomato Nation:

Wing Chun: My favorite thing about Skateboard is its alternate title.

Sarah: Oh, for real. Skateboard: The Movie. Like we might get it confused with Skateboard: The Musical or Skateboard: The Actual Skateboard.

Seriously, take a look at the search results for “a novel” on LibraryThing and tell me how many of those 26,236 books you think need clarification that they are, in fact, novels.

Because really, no one is going to confuse Peeps: A Novel with Peeps: Those Folks You Hang Out With or Peeps: The Terrifying Confection of Sugar, Marshmallowy Sugar, More Sugar, and Pure Evil.


What say you, readers? Does this bug anyone else? Or have I just gone completely off the deep end?

24 Comments leave one →
  1. February 7, 2009 10:52 am

    This bugs me too. I don’t see why it’s at all necessary. I usually see it on literary fiction, I always think they’re trying to elevate their work above the rest of the books. Could be wrong there, but IMO there isn’t any point to it.

  2. February 7, 2009 11:30 am

    Thank you, my sister! I do not ever like having that subtitle unless it’s something like “A novel of grape fruit picking in Florida” or something like that. I remove it when I think about it as I add books to Library Thing. I hate it when I’m creating my links for Amazon Associates. Why is it there? There is no purpose for it. I can’t think that authors would do that themselves. Who knows. Meghan might be right about the literary fiction angle.

  3. February 7, 2009 11:57 am

    It doesn’t bother me as much as it bothers you, but I do think it is at least rather silly. I tend to see it a lot on historical fiction, though, and sometimes it is probably actually helpful. :A Novel is probably necessary for “The Autobiography of Henry VIII,” or people might think it was his actual autobiography, but “Leonardo’s Swans” probably didn’t need :A Novel. For literary fiction I find it absolutely ridiculous.

  4. February 7, 2009 12:14 pm

    Meghan – Could be, could be. “It’s not just a book, it’s a Novel.”

    Literate Housewife – I always go through and strip it from my LibraryThing books too! Right now I’ve got six “: a novel”s listed, but they’re all “: a novel in monthly installments” or somesuch.

    DoB – Now I’m just giggling about someone going to the library to check out “Leonardo’s Swans” (unsubtitled), and being handed a pair of unruly honking birds at the checkout desk.

  5. trish permalink
    February 7, 2009 1:11 pm

    It doesn’t bother me. Sorry! I’ve always thought it helped distinguish fiction from non-fiction. When I googled this question, two answers came up that I thought were relevant:

    “It really is just to distinguish it from a collection of stories or essays or some other genre. I have sat in meetings where marketing and editorial people have discussed this very issue and it ends up being a marketing decision. Also, it’s just a tradition.”

    “I work at the house that published two of the books you reference. This is called a reading line, and is used to identify a novel as not also being part of a genre fiction, as suggested above.

    “It’s not so much a publisher’s decision–the big chains request it, so we do it.”

  6. February 7, 2009 3:03 pm

    I had never given this much thought, so I guess it doesn’t bother me much, but I enjoyed reading your post. Especially the last paragraph :P

  7. February 7, 2009 3:55 pm

    I actually enjoy having “A Novel” listed if there is some uncertainty from the title about whether or not it is a fiction book. Otherwise I don’t give it a second thought.

    Love the Peeps! Thanks for the entertaining post!

  8. February 7, 2009 3:55 pm

    It doesn’t bother me, either. I never think of it as a subtitle (I don’t think it technically is), just a clarification. (Someday I hope to see better clarifications, like “Mrs. Halloway: A Novel of Pure Smut”)

  9. February 7, 2009 4:05 pm

    Trish – Interesting! It’s true that it mostly shows up on non-genre fiction (except, as DoB mentioned, for historical fiction)… but I’ve still seen it on books that also have the “General Fiction” designation on the spine/back.

    Nymeth – I’ll be interested to hear what you think when you get around to reading Peeps – either the novel or the ingredients list. :)

    Alyce – Maybe it’s that when I go looking for books, I know that they’re novels (or not), and it’s not often that I run across a book that I don’t already know whether it’s fiction (or not).

    Jena – Hee, those kind of subtitles/clarifications I would be all too happy to see!

  10. February 7, 2009 4:52 pm

    I can’t say that I’ve ever noticed this before, but it does seem like a “duh” addition that just takes up space in most cases. Since most libraries and bookstores are kind enough to sort books by fiction/non-fiction (and even genre, gasp), it is pretty redundant. ;)

  11. February 7, 2009 5:52 pm

    It kind of bugs me, too. Like many others, I’ve always figured it was a semi-pretentious way of saying, “This book is Big and Important and Literary! It’s a NOVEL!”

  12. February 7, 2009 9:48 pm

    Oh that photo comparison is priceless :) And while I haven’t given it much thought either (well, everytime I see a subtitle “A Novel” in any book I read I just assume there’s something titled the same way out there that isn’t, eh a novel). Goes without saying it doesn’t bother me a bit.

    But now that you mention it….

  13. February 8, 2009 12:41 pm

    I don’t know what’s the real reason behind it but as a bookseller I can tell you the stupidity of people doesn’t know limits. I’m talking about those people who don’t know the difference between fiction and non-fiction, or even biography or autobiography…It’s not just customers unfortunately, so if a book says A NOVEL on the cover, it’s more likely to end up being shelved PROPERLY in fiction and not in some random section like it has happened.
    It also saves time. Sometimes, I too have to go on the internet to be absolutely sure that a book is fiction and not a memoir. It’s not that obvious.
    Also for authors who usually write non-fiction, it makes sense to write A novel on the cover, to avoid improper shelving. One example Torey Hayden,who’s famous for writing biographies of miserable childhoods, but has written few novels. If it didn’t say “a novel” I could have shelved it beside all her other biographies. they all look the same to be honest:P

  14. February 8, 2009 3:13 pm

    Yup. Just another way to help people NOT think about the meaning of words.

  15. February 9, 2009 1:57 pm

    Lindsay – It seems like the consensus is that it’s mostly there to help the bookstores and librarians, though.

    Memory – “Unlike anything that’s come before! A truly novel Novel!” :)

    Lightheaded – Heh. It’s going to be one of those things that now that I’ve brought it up, I’ve created a legion of people who can’t help but see it. MWUAHAHAHAH!

    Valentina – Okay, I can see that. And those cases where a single author has written both fiction and non-fiction are the edge cases that don’t bother me so much.

    AR – Every time I start thinking about it, I find myself going around and mentally subtitling random objects: “Where are my glasses: the optical aid? (to be distinguished from my glasses: the drinkware)”

  16. February 9, 2009 7:32 pm

    I completely agree! “Captain Obvious of the subtitling industry!” You had me roaring out loud.

  17. February 10, 2009 7:59 am

    Me too! Me too!

    Thank you for articulating this to the world! :-)

  18. February 10, 2009 8:43 am

    sagustocox – I actually went as Captain Obvious for a superhero costume party last year. Good fun, easy costume, and whenever someone asked me what I was supposed to be, I got to go “Isn’t it… Obvious?” :)

    Kelly – Yay! Anti-“a novel”-ites unite!

  19. February 10, 2009 6:04 pm

    Well, it’s going to bother me now!

    Hilarious post. :-)

  20. February 10, 2009 6:14 pm

    darla – Hee hee, sorry! :)

  21. February 12, 2009 3:34 pm

    Yup, yup, yup–I agree about the subtitle, but did you have to commit violence to prove your point? Poor widdle peeps. You’re a bad, bad mean person!

    I’m going to write a bestseller entitled: “Fyrefly Murders Peeps: A Novel.”

  22. February 12, 2009 7:10 pm

    chartroose – Peep-on-peep violence is nothing! Check out what happens when you google image search for “peeps show“! (First page at least is safe for work.)

  23. February 14, 2009 3:07 pm

    It drives me absolutely crazy! It’s always come across to me as a snobby way of saying “hey this book is better than the average.” I actually spent an hour or so going through my LibraryThing collection and taking it out of the titles in my library – only 141 more to edit :P

    And that “peeps show” search is brilliant! I cannot believe some of the things people have created with those lovely little marshmallow creatures :)

  24. October 2, 2009 7:51 am

    I love it. I don’t have much more to add, but the Peeps touch was really nice.

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