One of my class assignments is to ask students to provide a short review of chapters in the ethnographies they read. Students are to include the following in the reviews: 1) a concise summary of the chapter; 2) a point or two noting the relevance of the chapter to the course and/or anthropology in general; and 3) a question that the chapter raises for them and a potential answer to the question. (This question and answer should not be provided in the book.) For interest, the ethnographies I am using this semester are: John Barker’s Ancestral Lines (Maisin of Papua New Guinea), Robert Jarvenpa’s Northern Passage (Han of the Yukon and Chipewyan of Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories), Herdt’s The Sambia (The Sambia of Papua New Guinea), and Lila Abu-Lughod’s Writing Women’s Worlds (Awlad ‘Ali Bedouin of Egypt).
Inevitably, I will receive about 10% of the reviews which refer to the ethnography under review as a novel. This is perplexing to me because, for me, the term novel implies fiction in the sense of a straightforward dichotomy of fiction and non-fiction. I’ve started wondering, however, if students are taught a very specific definition of novel in literature classes – and whether or not that definition is consistent with what they read in the ethnographies I’ve assigned. So, I turned to my English Literature colleagues and, not surprisingly, was treated to a sophisticated explanation of what a novel is and is not. In sum, there is agreement that a novel is fiction, but that the term novel is best used in conjunction with a modifier like ‘poetic novel’ or ‘comic novel.’ Further, we agree that novels, like ethnographies, include narratives but narrative is not synonymous with fiction. We are also in agreement that fiction can be ethnographic and while we didn’t discuss specifics, I offered The Wire as one example of a fictional, yet ethnographic television series.
(I understand that fiction is a tricky term given the post-modern perspective that tells us that all ethnographic writings are fictions in the sense of being a creation of an author who makes choices about what to include and what to leave out. But that’s not really my question. I’m wondering if ethnographies are novels. Indeed, I think I’d be content if my students said their ethnography is a fiction instead of a novel.)
What do I say to students who call ethnographies novels? What do anthropologists think novels are?