How Many Roads?

At the end of my last post I left E. M. Forster somewhat defensively trying to find a definition of the category “novel”. But novels don’t really fit the kind of classic definition he was looking for. A classic definition of a category has a firm boundary; everything inside the boundary belongs to the category and everything outside doesn’t. He proposed that any prose fiction of over 50,000 words is a novel. But do we really want to say that a prose fiction of 49,999 words isn’t a novel? Does the title count? Or the words “The End” at the end? These silly questions are a sign that we’re working with a silly definition.

Another characteristic of a classical definition is that anything in the category is as good an example of the category as anything else in the category. Any prose fiction over 50,000 words is just as good an example of a prose fiction over 50,000 words as any other. But Forster admits that some novels are better examples than others; he puts Jane Austen’s Emma right in the middle of the category, and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick at the edge.

There are other characteristics of a classic definition which don’t fit “novel” very well. A classic definition probably should be timeless, and perhaps ideally independent of human beings entirely. The number 48, for instance, was an even integer before people thought about the concepts of odd and even, before people could count, and before there were people to do the counting. But a novel was not a novel in the paleolithic period. It’s not clear that a novel was a novel when Cervantes wrote Don Quixote. And I suspect that what Forster would have called a novel in 1927 doesn’t completely match what we would call a novel today. That is, if we could all agree about what counts as a novel.

The category “novel”, as Forster understands it, has a definite center; some novels, such as Emma, are clearly in the center of the category, and some, such as Moby-Dick, are not in the center. Some novels are more novelistic than others. The category is graded. That’s one reason novels don’t fit a classic definition. There is no central even integer, no even integer that is more even than the others.

Forster’s definition is a bundle of three characteristics: 1. Novels are written in prose rather than verse; Milton’s Paradise Lost is not a novel. 2. Novels are fictions; Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography is not a novel. 3. Novels are more than 50,000 words; Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw is not a novel. This list of characteristics could be augmented. For instance: 4. Novels are realistic; Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland is not a novel. 5. The characters in a novel are more or less ordinary people rather than kings and queens and princes and princesses; Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso is not a novel. 6. The plot of a novel is invented by the author, not derived from myth or other traditions; Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur is not a novel. 7. A novel does not point to a system of meanings outside itself, as in allegory; Orwell’s Animal Farm is not a novel. 8. The language of a novel is primarily referential rather than rhetorical; Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia is not a novel. Maybe there are more characteristics, but this is a pretty good list. Emma scores high on every point, confirming its position in the center of the category, with other “novels” radiating out from the center in various directions. A non-fiction novel, such as Capote’s In Cold Blood, moves in one direction away from the center, while an allegorical novel, such as John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy moves away from the center in a different direction.

If we were using something like a classic definition, a novel would have to pass all of these tests. But we might want to say that seven out of eight is good enough, or even six out of eight. Would any six out of the eight be enough? For instance, Forster thinks that a novel should be in prose. But what about a fiction more than 50,000 words which just happens to be in verse? There are actually quite a few verse fictions which are generally considered novels. A good example is Alexander Pushkin’s Russian novel Eugene Onegin. Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, is largely, but not completely, in verse. Should we say it isn’t a novel at all, or should we say that it’s a novel with an asterisk? One of my favorite verse novels is Derek Walcott’s Omeros, though some people would call it an epic. Maybe it’s partly a novel and partly an epic. Are epics novels? Why not? Is a prose translation of the Iliad a novel? Would a verse translation of Emma no longer be a novel? What about fantasy novels? Is The Lord of the Rings a novel? What about science fiction novels? These days I think our conception of a novel is broader than Forster’s, but we often use qualified designations, such as verse novel, allegorical novel, detective novel, and so on. But Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen fails several of the tests—it’s written in verse, it’s fantastic, the characters are hardly ordinary people, it’s an allegory, and the language is highly rhetorical. It’s not a novel.

Many other categories don’t fit the terms of a classic definition. Take the category “rich person”. That’s clearly a category. If I say that Jeff Bezos is a rich person, you will know what I mean. But how rich do you have to be to belong to that category? I don’t think there’s a fixed dollar amount that makes a person rich, any more than there’s a fixed word count that makes a novel a novel. The same goes for “tall person”, and many other similar categories. How big a hill is a mountain? (And exactly how many roads must a man walk down?) These are categories with fuzzy edges and with gradations inside the category. Lady Gaga is rich, but Jeff Bezos is a lot richer.

Many biological categories have fuzzy edges. At one time, before the theory of evolution was developed, it was generally thought that each biological species had a clear boundary. According to the idea of what was called special creation, each species was created by God just as it is. A cat was a cat and a dog was a dog and a horse was a horse and a cow was a cow and that was it. A cat and a dog can’t reproduce, and a horse and a cow can’t reproduce. Modern biology has thrown special creation out the window. Species change and develop into new species. The boundaries are not fixed. Dogs can’t breed with cats, but they can breed with wolves, and they do so pretty often. Some crosses—such as mules, which are a cross between a horse and a donkey—are infertile, but other crosses are fertile and some crosses produce a new species through a process known as hybrid speciation. Our species, Homo sapiens, almost certainly interbred with another human species, Homo neanderthalensis.

In some categories, some of the items are better examples of the category than others—though one should always ask Better for what purpose? A Martian scientist on a research trip to Earth might say, “I hear you have this kind of creature called a bird. Can you show me an example of a bird?” The chances are pretty good that you would not start with a penguin. A penguin is not a good example of a bird. It’s absolutely a bird, without any question, it’s not like Omeros, which is a sort of a novel but maybe an epic. A penguin isn’t mostly a bird with some characteristics of something else, it’s a bird. But for most purposes, a sparrow or an eagle is a better example of a bird.

The best example may be the best just by accident. A whale is a mammal, but perhaps not the best example of a mammal, since it lives in the water rather than on land, where most mammals live. But imagine some cataclysm which destroys all the mammals that live on land, leaving just whales and porpoises. Then a whale would be a really good example of a mammal.

The category “mammal” has three subcategories: the placental mammals (dogs and cats and horses and tigers and bats and whales and people); the marsupial mammals, which have a pouch for their newborns (kangaroos and koalas and opposums), and the monotremes, which lay eggs (platypus and echindas). All the mammals secrete a milky substance to feed their young, they have at least some hair on their bodies, they have a single bone in their lower jaw, and three bones in the middle ear. There’s lots more to say about the anatomy of monotremes, but they seem to be firmly within the category of mammals. So there is no center to the category mammal; instead there are three different subgroupings within the category, three circles inside a bigger circle.

The idea of a classic category is still powerful and it can cause problems in thinking. For instance, in political arguments I find that people often insist on a classic definition of socialism—usually they say that socialism requires that the state should own the means of production. If you read the history of socialist thought, however, you will see that there has been a wide range of ideas that have been called socialist, including types of socialism without a state. Socialism is a fuzzy category.

There is a lot more to say about categories. There’s an excellent (big fat) book on the topic, George Lakoff’s Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things (Chicago, 1987), which I recommend highly. Many literary and linguistic categories are fuzzy or graded, and it’s important for philologists to learn how to think outside the classic category box.

4 thoughts on “How Many Roads?

    1. Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you liked it. In a very very amateur way I’m quite fascinated by evolution in general and human evolution in particular. I read a neat book a couple of years ago, Last Ape Standing. It’s a popular account, which is my speed in the area, but I learned a lot from it.


  1. I half expected you to pick up on Edward Schiappa’s distinction between definitions of essence and definitions of use. Or, maybe I was just close to that text recently and, like any good hammer-user, see everything as a nail.

    Thanks for this wonderful side trip through an extended reading of Forster. It has been some time since I thought about him.

    Liked by 1 person

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