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Willa Cather: “It’s Not A Novel!”

Death Comes For The Archbishop is not a novel.

But, wait a minute, isn’t this a list of the 101 greatest novels that I’m reading through? Well, I thought so.

But Willa Cather preferred to call her most famous book a “narrative.” Here’s how A.S. Byatt explains it in the introduction of the novel.

As she herself points out, “novel” is a misleading term in some ways. Reviewers, she says, found the book hard to classify–to which she characteristically responds, “Why bother?” and goes on “Many more reviewers assert vehemently that it is not a novel. Myself, I prefer to call it a “narrative.”

That makes sense. There’s little plot in the sense that the book really doesn’t have a point A to point B style. It’s almost constructed like small snapshots, brief stories, about events these two priests have as they roam through the New Mexico territory.

The book has a lot of dialogue, a lot of landscape descriptions, as you would expect from a Western. The pacing is slow, matching the story, which involves a lot of slow, laborious traveling over dry and harsh terrain.

Cather is clearly a superb writer, but don’t you dare call her book a novel, okay?

Have you ever read a book that you would say doesn’t fit the traditional mold of a novel?

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Matt #

    I think Infinite Jest could be classified in that way? I haven’t read this one but it doesn’t necessarily sound that exciting to me.


    January 17, 2012
  2. The first 2 books of A Dance to the Music of Time have a pretty loose structure, too. Also Naked Lunch is not only strange, but strange to call a novel.


    January 17, 2012
  3. It’s always difficult for me to think of epistolary novels (i.e. novels written in the form of letters or other correspondence) as novels in the usual sense. Yi Sang’s “The Wings” also had a strange structure — and is probably too short to be considered a novel anyway.


    January 18, 2012

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