Antinovel

Our perception of 'the novel' is constantly changing. Authors repeatedly push the boundaries and redefine the conventions. When Miguel de Cervantes released Don Quixote (1605-1615), often labelled the first modern novel, he was rewriting expectations of what a written text could be. While the novel is so ingrained in our society that it's hard to imagine it ever defied conventions, many authors still show us how the form can be twisted, morphed, and broken down to create something new. This is the premise of the antinovel genre, in which our expectations and ideas are aggressively challenged.

Antinovel Antinovel

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Contents
Table of contents

    Antinovel definition

    What is an antinovel? Here's a concise definition.

    An antinovel is a type of prose fiction in which the author avoids sticking to known traditions of the genre, instead creating their own conventions.

    Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) popularised the term in the 1950s when he attributed it to the work of Nathalie Sarraute (1900-1999) in an introduction to her novel. However, a version of the term was first used by French writer Charles Sorel (1602-1674) in 1633, who described his satirical prose fiction, Le Berger extravagant (1627), as 'anti-roman'.

    The French term 'roman' translates to 'novel' in English.

    Antinovel types

    Let's break down some of the different variations of the antinovel and how the genre ties into other literary movements.

    The first antinovel

    While the term 'antinovel' was only defined in the 1950s, there are predecessors to the genre that share its characteristics, many of which have existed in literature for hundreds of years.

    Laurence Sterne's (1713-1768) The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-1767) was labelled a biography but followed none of the standard conventions of the genre. It is often seen as a precursor to the stream-of-consciousness technique.

    Stream-of-consciousness is a writing style wherein a character expresses ideas, feelings and thoughts in a continuous flow, often without any apparent cohesiveness.

    The protagonist of the story, Tristram, cannot explain anything in simple terms.

    Rather than describing his life story with a cohesive chronology, he frequently digresses into irrelevant topics. Many have therefore labelled Sterne's work as the original antinovel.

    If a novel was made in a similar style to Tristram Shandy today, would it be labelled an antinovel? It's up for debate.

    Many of the techniques, like Sterne's early stream-of-consciousness writing, were unique and jarring at the time. Today, readers regularly enjoy literature from numerous genres in unique styles and are more often familiar with devices that were once considered abnormal.

    Our understanding of what a novel can be is constantly shifting. Once a convention like stream-of-consciousness becomes familiar to us, it becomes the new norm and ceases to be 'anti'. This means that the authors must always search for new ways to surprise us.

    Modernist literature

    The antinovel is closely related to literary modernism.

    Literary modernism was a movement that spanned from the late 19th to the early 20th century. Modernists aimed to consciously break away from writing traditions and express themselves in new ways.

    The conventions of modernist literature are strikingly similar to those of the antinovel. However, modernism is a movement, while the antinovel is a genre. While modernist literature is attributed to a specific period, the term 'antinovel' can be applied to any novel, past or present.

    For this reason, you could claim that modernist writers were writing antinovels, even if they weren't familiar with the term at the time. Modernist writers like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf penned novels that feature many of the characteristics associated with antinovels.

    Antinovel, an old edition of Joyce's Ulysses with a blue cover, StudySmarterFig. 1 - An edition of James Joyce's Ulysses.

    Nouveau roman

    The coinage of the 'antinovel' as a literary term is closely associated with the French 'nouveau roman' (new novel) of the 1950s.

    Nouveau roman, which translates to 'new novel', is a style of French literature that rejects characters, narrators and a coherent plotline to depict the randomness of daily existence.

    Scholars commented that writers like Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922-2008), Michel Butor (1926-2016), and Nathalie Sarraute (1900-1999) seemed to disregard all literary conventions and create new styles with each consecutive novel.

    It was when writing an introduction to Nathalie Sarraute's Portrait d'un inconnu (Portrait of a Man Unknown) (1948) that Jean-Paul Sartre first coined the term 'antinovel'.

    Antinovel characteristics

    Some common characteristics of antinovels include fragmented chronology, unconventional narration, and subversion of characterisation and clear resolutions to the story. They also emphasise form over content to challenge readers' expectations about what a novel should be.

    Fragmented chronology

    Antinovels are often fragmentary and rarely tell a story in a linear pattern. Normal plot conventions are regularly replaced by random observations, flashbacks, symbols and meaningless terms. Fragmentary texts rarely offer all the answers, and require the reader to piece together meanings from the information available.

    Examples of this device can be found in Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire (1962) and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five (1969).

    Unconventional narration

    Narration in antinovels is often complex, fragmented and difficult to comprehend. Some novels, like Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy and James Joyce's Ulysses (1920), feature a stream-of-consciousness narrative style that makes the texts uncomfortable to read.

    Other novels, like Virginia Woolf's The Waves (1931), feature no narrator at all, instead relying on soliloquies from multiple characters to tell the story. What results is a complex, challenging, yet uniquely intimate view into the interior monologue of Woolf's characters.

    In a soliloquy, a character in a play speaks aloud to themselves, expressing their inner thoughts to the audience. They may choose to take the audience into their confidence or ignore their presence entirely.

    Subversion of character expectations

    The unconventional characterisation is a frequent theme of antinovels. Readers expect engaging character development and endearing protagonists.

    In contrast, some antinovels like Nathalie Sarraute's Tropisms (1939) often feature no character development whatsoever. Other novels, like Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis (1915), contain antiheroes, protagonists that are designed to be difficult to relate to, and often unlikeable.

    Antinovel examples

    Some examples that help define the antinovel include Laurence Sterne's Tristam Shandy (1759), James Joyce's Ulysses (1920), and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five (1969).

    Tristram Shandy

    Laurence Sterne's novel is a predecessor of the stream-of-consciousness technique.

    I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly considered how much depended upon what they were then doing; that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost: Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly, I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that, in which the reader is likely to see me.

    Chapter 1

    Sterne's protagonist can never explain anything in simple terms. His narration is disjointed, long-winded and difficult to follow. It was for this reason that Tristram Shandy is frequently cited as the first antinovel.

    Ulysses

    The narration in Ulysses, like in Tristram Shandy, is often jarring for a reader.

    Far away in the west the sun was setting and the last glow of all too fleeting day lingered lovingly on sea and strand, on the proud promontory of dear old Howth guarding as ever the waters of the bay, on the weedgrown rocks along Sandymount shore and, last but not least, on the quiet church whence there streamed forth at times upon the stillness the voice of prayer to her who is in her pure radiance a beacon ever to the storm-tossed heart of man, Mary, star of the sea.

    Episode 13, Nausicaa

    This quote exemplifies the stream-of-consciousness narration that makes Ulysses a challenging text to read. Joyce doesn't make it easy for the reader!

    Slaughterhouse-Five

    Kurt Vonnegut's most memorable quote is also one of his most illuminating as to the anti-chronological structure of Slaughterhouse-Five.

    Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time.

    Chapter 2

    Vonnegut describes the disjointedness of Billy Pilgrim's trauma, labelling him as 'unstuck in time'. This shows there will be no linear chronology or conventional time pattern in the novel. The reader is instead expected to experience and piece together the same fractured memories as Vonnegut's protagonist.

    Antinovel, Nonlinear time, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The story having no clear chronology of events is typically a characteristic of an antinovel.

    Antinovel books

    Here's a list of some of the most popular antinovels!

    AuthorExamples of antinovelYear Published
    Laurence SterneTristram Shandy1759-1767
    James JoyceUlysses1920
    Virginia WoolfMrs Dalloway1925
    Virginia WoolfThe Waves1931
    James JoyceFinnegans Wake1939
    Nathalie SarrauteTropisms1939
    Nathalie SarrautePortrait d'un inconnu 1948
    Alain Robbe-GrilletLa Jalousie1957
    Michel ButorL'Emploi du temps1957
    Vladimir NabokovPale Fire1962
    Anna KavanIce1967
    Kurt VonnegutSlaughterhouse-Five1969
    Georges PerecLife a User's Manual1978
    Italo CalvinoIf on a Winter's Night a Traveler1979
    Milorad PavićDictionary of the Khazars1984
    David MarksonThis is not a novel2001
    Tom McCarthyRemainder2015
    Louis ArmandThe Combinations2016
    Matthew McIntoshTheMystery.doc2017

    Antinovel - Key takeaways

    • An antinovel is a type of prose fiction in which the author avoids sticking to known traditions of the genre, instead creating their own conventions.
    • Jean-Paul Sartre popularised the term in the 1950s when he attributed it to the work of Nathalie Sarraute in an introduction to her novel.
    • Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is often considered the first antinovel due to its digressions and pioneering use of stream-of-consciousness.
    • The antinovel shares characteristics with many literary movements, including modernism, and nouveau roman (new novel).
    • Antinovels are characterised by fragmented chronology, unconventional narration and subversion of character expectations.

    References

    1. Fig. 1 - James Joyce Ulysses 1st Edition 1922 GB (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:James_Joyce_Ulysses_1st_Edition_1922_GB.jpg) by Geoffrey Barker licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Antinovel

    What does antinovel mean?

    The antinovel is a type of prose fiction in which the author avoids sticking to known traditions of the genre, instead creating their own conventions.

    What are the features of antinovel?

    The features of antinovel are fragmented chronology, unconventional narration & subversion of character expectations.

    How to write an antinovel?

    In order to write an antinovel, one should push the boundaries of what the reader expects, and create something jarring and unconventional.

    Which is considered the first antinovel?

    Laurence Sterne's (1713-1768) The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-1767).

    Why do authors create antinovels?

    Authors create antinovels to challenge the reader and force them to form their own meaning from a text rather than providing them with a comfortable experience.

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