Monday, March 19, 2007

What's a novelist? by Pat Hart

When do you start calling yourself a novelist? Is it when you type that lame ass working title across the very first page and then insert those two little letters: “b” and “y” before your name? Or do you wait until the very first time you crack the spine of a fresh-out-of-the-shipping-carton book, look up into a stranger’s face and ask: “To whom shall I write this, hmmm?” Maybe you wait until Matt Lauer introduces you: "Next up, wife, mother, novelist and now convicted killer--”

Or, better yet, you find yourself on Fresh Air with Terry Gross and she asks, “So, you’re a… novelist?” with that going up inflection on the last word that says: I’m-charmingly-befuddled-and-not-quite-sure-I-used-the-right-…word?

My feeling is that I became a novelist when I finished my first manuscript or, rather, novel, now that it’s done. I met a writer the other day and as we talked I identified myself as a novelist. He snorted at me and said he would not call himself a novelist until after he had actually published a novel. But, I find the act of writing and the process of trying to getting published to be so completely unrelated that I can’t quite accept the causal relationship. Writing and pursuing publications require vastly different skills. They are diametrically opposed ambitions and while one requires you looking deep into yourself for validation, the other forces you to seek validation from strangers.

What I’ve kind of figured out is that the way to get published is to claim that your work is just like all other work in that particular genre while simultaneously claiming that your work is totally creative, unique, and different from anything else ever written, ever, really, for real, plus it’s just like that best seller from last year.

Anyway, what do you guys think? What makes a person novelist? When do you feel it’s appropriate to claim that title?


Anonymous said...

Well, I know that the difference between writers and non-writers is that writers write and non-writers talk about writing, so I'd say finishing the manuscript (or any part of it) makes you a Writer. I'm not as clear on Novelist. In general parlance, people usually say they are something because they get paid for doing it. For example, if someone claims to be a football player, we assume he means NFL, not sandlot. But then again, novel writing is an art, and one can be a painter or a singer-songwriter without have sold any paintings or CDs. So I guess you are a novelist. [Me, too.]

Annette said...

We could toss in the term "author" to the mix and really drive ourselves nuts. I struggle with where to pigeonhole my novel. Is it mystery? Or suspense? Is it amateur sleuth or traditional mystery? My brain can't handle more "what do you call it?" debate than that, so I'm settling with I'm a writer for now.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, what Annette said.

I've been published nearly 50 times, and I'm still hesitant to use the word "novelist" because to me it implies a literary quality that I aspire to, but haven't reached. (Will I ever? Probably not. It's part of Author Paranoia.)

So I call myself a writer. It's descriptive. It's unpretentious. It's Strunk & White--simple language.

Joyce Tremel said...

I'll settle for writer, too.

When I hear the word novelist, I always think of the line in Billy Joel's Piano Man, "Paul is a real estate novelist..."

I think no matter what we call ourselves, the important thing is that we did the work, and actually finished the damn book!

Anonymous said...

I have to say, like the other authors here, I just say, "I write." Sometimes, depending on the place and person, I may say, "I write novels," or, "I'm writing a book on compulsive overeating," or, "I write blogs." But, I agree with Joyce is that the important thing is to write, and the last few months real life has interfered and I haven't done much of that. Except blogs. I still write blogs.

By the way, I'll know I've really accomplished something in my life if I get to be interviewed by Terri Gross on, "Fresh Air." I think she's the best interviewer I've ever heard, and I really admire her taste. I don't care what she's interviewing me for, if that happens, I'll know I've arrived!

Cathy said...

I sometimes say that I write novels (so doesn't that make you a novelist?). And certainly someone who has published 50 books would be a Big Time Novelist. Let's give ourselves a big pat on the back and a cheer. Go Sisters, Novelists Extraordinaire!!!

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Usually I say "writer," too, but when people want more specific answers, then I say I'm a novelist.

I think it doesn't matter when you claim the title, so long as it's something you work toward. I mean, yu can't call yourself a novelist if all you do is the turn pages of a novel someone else wrote.

Anonymous said...

I agree. I call myself a writer. Leaves more to the imagination. When you call yourself an author or novelist, the first question you typically get from outsiders is, "What have you published?" Why cause yourself more stress by having to clarify that you're unpublished but still trying.

Anonymous said...

Interesting comments. I don't mind explaining that I'm unpublished. I just hate it when people ask me "What's your book about?" It seems like a simple question,but I always end up stumbling around and recounting weird snippets of stuff that sound like disjointed pieces of a dream, like "I'm at a party, but it's not really a party, and mother is there but she's acting like she doesn't know me, and then I'm not sure it really is my mother, you know?" Also, I didn't know 'novelist' implied quality, I think I'll go back to plalin old writer until further progree.

Anonymous said...

I'm not clear on the definition of novelist, either. But writer, yes, you are.