Once again, why teach novels?

This question earns me such scowls and sighs that you would think I was suggesting murder.  I honestly think that none of my fellow staff members are sure why they teach novels, but questioning it makes them uncomfortable.

To be honest, I’m not sure I have an answer.  What can be taught in a novel that can’t be taught in a short story?  Sure, things can be covered in more depth and with greater detail, but if I taught only short stories and another teacher taught novels and we gave them a test at the end of the year on a set list of information, would my students do worse?

If it’s not things like point of view, tone, genre, etc…, then what is it?  I have often contended that we should teach novels as a way of creating “lifetime readers”.  But then, should we be selecting old classics for the freshmen?  Or should we be picking Stephen King and Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer as our authors of choice? Or should we even be picking a single novel for each student to read?  Should we be building libraries of  novels that will encourage reading?  Any book that is written well enough could be acceptable?  Could pulp fiction authors like Charlie Huston be offered in school?  Sure, it’s full of violence, drugs, profanity, and sex, but if it catches the reader’s attention, is it worth it?

What should our goals be with teaching novels?  I’ve been to many sessions with professional authors who say that the love of reading was drummed out of them in school by forcing them to read Lord of the Flies and Ethan Frome.  No teacher wants that to be the goal…but are we really looking at what we are doing?

Why do we teach novels?

I am the language lover and these are my thoughts.



  1. renaissanceguy said,

    December 14, 2008 at 10:51 am

    I don’t think that there is any value in teaching bad novels, just because kids are more likely to enjoy them. Of course, people’s idea of bad novels varies a lot.

    I think that what you suggest about short stories is true. Everything that we would want to teach kids in a literature class could be taught through short stories. In fact, short stories have a lot of advantages. You can read quite a few in one semester, exposing the students to many different themes, literarty styles, and plot structures. You can more easily analyze short stories as well as comprehend them as a complete unit.

    I would definitely require students to read at least one novel each semester and do some kind of response activity. In this regard I am all for choice–from an approved list with lots of variety.

    I am a traditionalist. I think the great books that have been loved for decades or even centuries are still worth reading.

    I loved Lord of the Flies in high school. I don’t like Ethan Frome, and I’m glad that they didn’t force us to read it in high school.

    The high school novels that I enjoyed reading and benefited from were:

    1. 1984
    2. A Tale of Two Cities
    3. Lord of the Flies
    4. Huckleberry Finn
    5. To Kill a Mockingbird
    6. Shane

    I don’t remember which other ones I read, but those stand out in my mind as books that I liked and that I have returned to.

  2. renaissanceguy said,

    December 14, 2008 at 10:52 am

    I wasn’t meaning to exclude poetry and drama. Those should be included, too. I was simply responding to your main question about the relative merits of short stories and novels.

  3. December 15, 2008 at 8:39 pm

    So, in general, novels should be taught just for enjoyment? I like the idea, but I’m not sure if there isn’t something else needed…

  4. Scott Erb said,

    December 17, 2008 at 4:07 am

    I really like Angels and Demons, but that’s because I love Rome!

    David Hume said that moral education is best pursued by reading novels. In doing so one starts to identify with people different from onesself — different culture, different religion, different gender, etc. — and see that they share the same basic traits and emotions as anyone. That is a strong reason to get people to read novels — ethical development!

  5. December 17, 2008 at 4:28 am

    That’s a great book, Scott, even if you don’t love Rome.

    I’m not sure I could put down ethical development as one of our curriculum guidelines…but I’d sure like to!

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