The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word ‘modern’ as relating to the present or recent times, and defines the word ‘novel’ as either a fictitious prose narrative of book length, or something interestingly new or unusual. Therefore, a modern novel has to be a fictitious prose narrative, of book length, that is interestingly new or unusual, and relates to the present or recent times. Dr Johnson, however, is more specific in his definition of a ‘novel’ when he defines it as “a smooth tale, generally of love”. Therefore, according to Dr Johnson, a ‘modern novel’ is a tale, generally of love, set in the present or in the recent past.
Angela Carter, the novelist, is more liberal with the definition of a novel and says that “anything that wants to call itself a novel is a novel, by definition, so fiction can do anything it wants to do… The novel has some role and responsibility in helping to explain experience and making the world comprehensible, even if it’s only to the person who is writing it.” Barbara Hardy, a professor of English Literature, supports this notion when describing the role of the novelist, who “is giving form to a story, giving form to his moral and metaphysical views, and giving form to his particular experiences of sensations, people, places and society.” Ian McEwan, the novelist, expands on this theme when he says that the novel “is a marvellous means of investigation into life, and I mean life in all its senses, daily life, ordinary life, emotional life, life as we try to give meaning to it and try to understand it.”
The pressure on novelists to pander to contemporary tastes has resulted in there being two kinds of novel. David Lodge, author and literary critic, refers to them as “the highbrow novel of aesthetic ambition, which sold in small numbers to a discriminating elite, and the popular or middlebrow novel of entertainment which sold in much larger numbers to a mass audience.” The success of catchpenny novels for a mass audience has resulted in many novelists writing purely for profit – they view writing as a means to an end, as opposed to an end in itself. For example, in the early 20th century there was a large demand for crime fiction novels; a few ingenious novelists from this era (e.g. Agatha Christie) survive, but many of these genre novelists are now forgotten – their brief success was the purely the result of public demand for cheap crime novels.
The “highbrow novel of aesthetic ambition” was not written as a means to an end, but as an end in itself. It does not initially sell as well as cheap catchpenny novels, but it brings more satisfaction to the author. These novels were commemorated due to their individuality long after many genre novelists had been long-forgotten. Novelists of this ilk include Jane Austen who only achieved fame after death, but who is now thought of as one of the great novelists of all time.
It is clear that there are a wide range of different genres available to the novelist, but what must the novelist do ensure that he writes a modern novel? The novelist must ensure that his novel concerns issues and ideas important in the contemporary world, such as philosophy and science, before it can be called a modern novel.