‘In Marx’s novel …’

Philip Balboni

The New Yorker’s recent account of ‘The End of the English Major’ in US universities reminded me of a peculiar trend in the essays written by my first and second year undergraduates at Berkeley: a surprising number of them seem to think that a book and a novel are the same thing. Or, at least, they often use the two words interchangeably, and find it difficult to articulate the distinction between them. Reading their first essays each semester, I often encounter sentences that begin: ‘In Margaret Mead’s anthropology novel …’; ‘Edward Said, in his novel Orientalism …’; ‘In Marx’s novel, Capital …’ I’ve seen such sentences written by very good writers and by very poor ones; by students interested in the topics on offer and by those who couldn’t care less. Almost all of them are native speakers of English.

When I taught my first class in 2017, as a teaching assistant for a large introductory anthropology class, I saw four, perhaps five such sentences. The following semester it was five, maybe six. In my comments, I noted that a novel was a particular type of book, and that what we were reading were not novels but works of non-fiction, which could be referred to as ‘studies’, ‘works’, ‘texts’ or simply ‘books’. I chalked up the confusion to the very differing quality of humanities education available in US high schools and left it there. When I took up teaching again in spring 2021, however, it was no longer four or five students referring to the ‘novels’ of Mead or Marx or Said. A solid quarter of my students used ‘novel’ and ‘book’ interchangeably, a trend that has continued.

Most of my students are STEM majors, forced to take anthropology classes for distribution requirements, although there are some humanists and social scientists, too. They are as bright as you’d expect, and very anxious about their academic success. That most of them lack a solid training in the humanities is not surprising. Apart from the very fortunate and the very gifted, high-school students (at least in America) rarely receive rigorous instruction in composition or close reading, let alone in the niceties of literary terminology. Once they reach university, they discover that professors, graduate teaching assistants and adjuncts have little time – and no financial incentive – to provide the attention and feedback they need to improve their skills as writers and readers.

The fact that most students receive a poor education in the humanities is too general an explanation, however, to account for the prevalence of the novel-book conflation (my colleagues have noticed it too). So I’ve tried to be a good anthropologist, and ask lots of friendly questions. Twice, I’ve had students confess that they had vaguely thought that ‘a novel’ was a ‘fancier’ way of saying ‘a book’. Another had seen the phrase ‘anthropological literature’ in one of our readings and had assumed from there. One joked that, since ours was ‘basically an English class’ (I begged to differ), they thought all the books we read were novels by definition. (This student also thought that our class was the last time they’d have to write anything longer than a short email or text message – an assumption that, in the era of ChatGPT, doesn’t seem terribly far-fetched.) The issue wasn’t that they didn’t understand the difference between fiction and non-fiction, however. It had to do with how they thought about reading, and about what kinds of text are read in what kinds of way.

The best explanation I can come up with is that the only books most students had to read before college were novels. They had used textbooks, certainly; they had read excerpted chapters, magazine or newspaper articles, blogposts or Wikipedia. But in terms of the books they were now being asked to read – books written by one, maybe two authors, with a progressive argument, designed to be read from start to finish – novels were the only example most students had been exposed to. Since reading a book all the way through, whether out of interest or enthusiasm or under duress, was what they did with novels, it stood to reason that all books to be read this way were also novels.

If this explanation is correct, then the novel-book conflation is perhaps harmless, a factor of experience and exposure. Yet it may also be indicative of a broader trend: the increasing marginalisation not of reading in general (which is certainly more ubiquitous today than at any period in human history), but of a particular way of reading a particular kind of work: reading as the sustained, progressive engagement with a book that is written to be read as a whole, from beginning to end. Students and faculty are under increasing pressure to read as ‘poachers’ (to distort slightly Michel de Certeau’s phrase), approaching the works of their peers as hives of information to be harvested piecemeal and on demand. I’ve listened to too many faculty complain in recent years that they – or their colleagues – ‘just don’t read anymore’. And few graduate students seem to read entire books. Who has the time? You can cover a lot more ground by poaching – and publish a lot more, too.

This change in reading practice doesn’t only accelerate the drive to make the humanities and qualitative social sciences focus on the production of ‘useful’ information, rather than on the cultivation of critical thought and perception. It also makes them less fulfilling, as the (admittedly difficult) experience of reading books like Capital or Orientalism is replaced by reading them in snippets or through summaries written by others – now including, as a number of my students’ recent essays seem to suggest, by AI. Some people will always find the idea of reading such books exhausting, perhaps superfluous. But it isn’t hard to see how the experience of reading an entire book is very different from ingesting its arguments piecemeal or second-hand.

If I sound like an ornery old curmudgeon, let me stress that, as a 31-year-old anthropologist, I see this change in the way we tend to read as occurring alongside many others that are exciting and overdue. All the same, in the current climate of relentless productivity, narrowing attention spans and demand for literature and scholarship that (like everything else) can be consumed easily and efficiently, it is a worrying development. I’ll try to take heart from the fact that ChatGPT seems to know that Capital isn’t a novel (I’ve checked).


  • 7 April 2023 at 11:11am
    Phil Edwards says:
    It occurs to me that novels cover a huge range, from Mills & Boon / Harlequin through Catherine Cookson & her successors to mass-market genre fiction to paperback bestsellers and second- and third-bestsellers to literary fiction and other 'serious' niche genres (e.g. political fiction) on out to experimental fiction, the kind of thing whose natural habitat is the university library. Non-fiction monographs only really exist as paperback bestsellers, in a couple of 'serious' niches and as academic texts. Students without a humanities background might never have come across the second and third of these - and as for the first, if Freakonomics or Guns, Germs and Steel looks like a novel and sells like a novel...

  • 7 April 2023 at 12:12pm
    Gardiner Linda says:
    Though the scale may be greater now, the inadequate literacy problem is nothing new. I began teaching philosophy at Wellesley College in the US in 1975, after an education in the English university system. I was horrified at the students' lack of general preparation: on assigning Descartes's Discourse on Method (not exactly War and Peace), the students asked 'You mean the whole book?' and on being told that this was indeed the assignment, one said 'I've never read a whole book before!' They had tremendous difficulty in reading David Hume on account of all the semi-colons - not in understanding or responding to his arguments but simply getting through the sentences. For that matter, I had to explain to them that in philosophy an 'argument' doesn't mean a fight. These were very intelligent students at a prestigious institution, who seemed to have learned next to nothing by the age of 18 or so. I gather it's gone downhill since then.

    • 12 April 2023 at 8:10pm
      Ciderwine Maker says: @ Gardiner Linda
      I think philosophy may have been a special case. I was teaching English at Tufts (a comparable institution) at the same time, and didn't find the students had trouble reading (or writing) expository prose. To be sure, the texts that students were assigned were chiefly literature and very seldom criticism; but these included essays as well as book-length expository works such as Walden. I think they'd have had trouble with Descartes and Hume, but not because of the semi-colons; after all, they did pretty well with Boswell and Johnson.

    • 13 April 2023 at 2:25pm
      Ellie Picard says: @ Gardiner Linda
      I attended Wellesley ten years later, at which time I wrote a thesis length paper comparing the writing and thought of Hume to Samuel Johnson. I was well acquainted with semi-colons and my peers had read many books in their entirety. Perhaps the misunderstanding is cultural. In the US students at a liberal arts school must demonstrate competency across disciplines throughout their upper school educations. As a result, at eighteen years old they may be taking philosophy for the first time, and may not have yet read a philosophy book in its entirety. Frankly, the suggestion that Wellesley students of my sister’s era (she was a Rhodes Scholar) would not have known that an “argument” meant an assertion by a scholar is quite unbelievable to me. Perhaps your tenure at Wellesley was brief.

    • 13 April 2023 at 7:44pm
      Gardiner Linda says: @ Ellie Picard
      I taught for many years at Wellesley, and the examples I cite were all real responses that I heard at one time or another. I could cite many more in the same vein. And just for the record, in philosophy an argument does not mean 'an assertion by a scholar'!

    • 14 April 2023 at 3:58am
      Ellie Picard says: @ Gardiner Linda
      “To assert in a manner against which others may make counter assertions” according to the OED. Perhaps that is outside your wheelhouse? Perhaps some of the comments you recall students making were ironic? I can assure you, the majority of Wellesley students have read an entire book and understand semicolons. Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Diane Sawyer, to name but a few. Your generalizations from a handful of remembered comments from long ago are offensive.

    • 14 April 2023 at 3:59pm
      Ciderwine Maker says: @ Gardiner Linda
      I think Ellie Picard's observation that students may not have read an entire philosophy book before is important. US high schools don't as a rule teach philosophy. Rather, they concentrate on English, math, history, sciences, and languages. But I still find it hard to believe that Wellesley students were as you describe them. They would have been beginners at philosophy yet eager to learn from a stimulating professor. As a first-year student at Amherst College (also comparable to Wellesley except that it was a men's college) in the 1960s I took an introductory philosophy course. 50 years later I still remember reading Ayer's *Language, Truth and Logic* in its entirety. No doubt my reading was naive, yet I recall being engaged with (and pushing back against) many of his arguments; and I recall many lively class discussions.

  • 7 April 2023 at 9:00pm
    Tom Dawkes says:
    This novel/book conflation reminds me of the — frankly most irritating — conflating on internet sites of 'song' with any musical piece of any length or genre.

    • 9 April 2023 at 9:53am
      dgosling says: @ Tom Dawkes
      Another example is the way all radio or TV programmes are referred to as a ‘show’. ‘Welcome to my show’ says the presenter of a news programme, as if everything on TV is fundamentally entertainment.

    • 13 April 2023 at 12:44am
      haroldsdodge says: @ Tom Dawkes
      Gosh, I was just about to say exactly the same thing. We seem to be watching the total collapse of the English-speaking world's ability to distinguish between songs and other types of music. When I tell my teenage kids that Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is not a song - "there are no words, no one is singing" - they smile politely and get back to posting Instagram comments about Miles Davis's song Kind of Blue. Spotify and co don't help. Everything there is a "song", even (to take one particularly nutty example) a track entitled "Spoken Introduction by Stan Getz".

  • 9 April 2023 at 11:29pm
    Marion Abbott says:
    Over the 17 years I worked as a bookseller, I encountered a similar pattern of fiction/non-fiction confusion from my customers. Two examples stand out: Lily King’s novel Euphoria, based on the life of Margaret Mead, was regularly mistaken for a biography; the novel American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins was judged as non-fiction by legions of critics both professional and amateur. The first instance was harmless enough. The second damaged not only the publishing house and larger publishing industry but the author and everyone else in the social media line of fire. These distinctions are important.

  • 10 April 2023 at 5:38pm
    Alex Abramovich says:
    It's not just the students. Here's The Hollywood Reporter describing Pauline Kael as a novelist:

  • 12 April 2023 at 8:06pm
    Thomas Tyrrell says:
    Teaching the Holocaust to 12 year olds through the school-mandated and fundamentally flawed 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas' has made the fiction/non-fiction distinction a real point of moral order in my class. I got through it by doing a carousel lesson getting students to familiarise themselves by sorting through age-appropriate WW2 fiction and non-fiction texts, describing how they can distinguish between them.
    Then, in the final lesson, I show authentic atrocity photographs and get them to discuss whether the module has shielded them too much from the horrors of the Holocaust, or has been an appropriate introduction.

  • 15 April 2023 at 7:32pm
    L Fromm says:
    The conflation of "novel" and "book" may be yet another example of the ever-evolving English language. Not long ago, one would not have thought something could be more (or less) "ubiquitous," which used to mean "everywhere, in all place, omnipresent."

  • 18 April 2023 at 6:36pm
    Simon Hodges says:
    Reading is one thing, bit discussion is as important for refining understanding. If you're confusing books and novels you either aren't reading deeply enough or not hearing others talk about them. Either way, not encouraging.

  • 21 April 2023 at 4:29pm
    Ken Gelder says:
    Balboni's article makes a mountain out of a very small molehill and has nothing much to do with the New Yorker article he cites. I hope his students don't read it (or if they do, I hope they think it's a novel...). Yes, a few students do indeed call memoirs or historical works 'novels' and maybe vice versa. So what? Perhaps they've been reading Defoe. Or any historical novelist. Non-fiction and fiction can often be hard to distinguish (cf. 'creative non-fiction' ), but there's no need to blame students for the confusion. All it does is trigger the usual biases (e.g. people used to read more back in the day, people finished what they started, the knew a novel when they saw it, what on earth is happening to the English language, etc etc.) and a bit of overblown outrage (e.g. Picard's 'your generalisations are offensive' remark, above: no need for that). On the other hand, if a few students do indeed get confused by these things, then just go ahead and enlighten them: you're a teacher, after all.

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