This paper offers a contribution to current debates in the field of cultural policy about the social impact of the arts. It explores the conceptual difficulties that arise in the notion of ‘the arts’ and the implications of these difficulties for attempts to generalise about their value, function and impact. It considers both ‘essentialist’ and ‘institutional’ perspectives, first on ‘the arts’ in ... [Show full abstract] toto and then on literature, fiction and the novel with the view of making an innovative intellectual connection between aesthetic theories and contemporary cultural policy discourse. The paper shows how literature sits uneasily in the main systems of classifying the arts and how the novel and fiction itself are seen as problematic categories. The position of the novel in the literary canon is also discussed, with particular reference to the shifting instability of the canon. The paper suggests that the dilemmas thrown up in trying to define or classify the novel are likely to be encountered in attempting to define other art forms. The implications of these findings for the interpretation and conduct of traditional ‘impact studies’ are explored.