When I started taking an interest in literature, I naturally found myself wondering just what made a novel, a novel.
Certainly there is a consensus that a novel is a work of prose fiction. It seems fair to argue that the audience is generally expected to read them privately--rather than hear them publicly recited or performed like epic poems, or plays. It also seems plausible to contend that it has tended to stress the individual, and interiority, to a greater degree than those other, older forms--evident in such things as the time they spend inside their protagonists' heads.
Nonetheless, one can say that this generally describes the fiction we read today, and that one has to look to something else to distinguish it from, for instance, a short story. One obvious criterion is length, the short story filling a few pages, the novel a book (with the minimum estimates falling in the 40-50,000 word range).
However, there are qualitative differences as well as quantitative ones. One expects greater breadth and depth, and more detail, in a novel than in a short story--producing an "epic depiction of life," a world on the page.2
Certainly those novels esteemed as great literature tend to offer this. I find myself thinking, for instance, of writers like Hugo or Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy. In a much more idiosyncratic way, even a postmodern like Vonnegut or Pynchon goes for the same thing.
In fairness, narrowly "genre" works are less likely to do this. A romance or a thriller, for instance, may offer this--but many of them, judged by this standard, give the impression of a novella, or even a short story, extended to the length of a book. Ironically, at a time when books are running rather longer than they used to, I wonder at times if this is not the direction in which a good deal of popular fiction is tending.
1. The Science Fiction Writers of America, for instance, uses the 40,000 word figure in determining what is eligible for the "novella" category of the Nebula Awards.
2. Where does the novella fit in, one might wonder? Lengthwise it's an intermediate form, which offers the detailing of a novel, but just the scope of a short story.
My Posts on Literature