Discussing the Novella at AWP 2013
Last Thursday at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Boston, about 300 people crowded into a packed room for a panel titled “What a Novella is.” The panel was moderated by writer and translator K. E. Semmel, who wrote “Revaluing the Novella” in the December 2011 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, in which he suggested that “novellas may be the perfect length for our fast-paced, distracted society.” Panelists included novella authors Owen King, Edan Lepucki, Derek Palacio and Andrew Ervin, who grappled with how to define the form and offered reflections on why the novella is experiencing a “creative revival.”
Edan Lepucki, author of You’re Not Like Me Yet, which was recently re-published by Nouvella Press, suggested that novella writing might be accidental if a writer is aiming for a novel and ends up writing something shorter—it’s something of a failed novel. But how short the final result would have to be to qualify as a novella was up for debate—panelists threw out numbers like 25-80 pages or 20-40 thousand words.
Derek Palacio, author of How to Shake the Other Man, joined the panel in place of The Sensualist author Daniel Torday (they are both published by Nouvella Press), whose flight was cancelled due to snow. Palacio said a novella can be categorized on what it’s not—not a short story, not a novel. It doesn’t have a fine point like a short story or as much plot development as a novel. “Instead of having a sharp focus like a peak of a mountain,“ he said, “a novella is more like a plateau.”
Owen King, son of Stephen King and author of Bloomsbury novella We’re All in This Together, said he considered a novella to be either a short story plus one element or a novel minus one element (examples of those elements might be subplots, or extensive character development). He noted that the way time functions in a short story can be fairly limited (with some notable exceptions like Annie Proulx’s short story Brokeback Mountain), while novellas allow more room for duration.
Andrew Ervin, author of Extraordinary Renditions—three linked novellas published by Coffee House Press—noted that editors and even writers were more likely to categorize shorter written works as a novel to avoid long-standing prejudices against the novella form on the part of publishers. The Great Gatsby could be considered a novella based on its length, but it’s usually categorized by publishers and academics as a novel. But he also suggested that he was glad to see that the attitude toward novellas might be changing:
We’re starting to see resistance to novellas being chipped away by small presses, which is great to see. When we write novellas now, we’re writing something that will not be embraced commercially. But the trend toward novella publishing has revolutionary potential.
When Semmel asked the panelists to name what might be considered the most influential novellas, responses included We the Animals by Justin Torres, Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? by Joyce Carol Oates, The Dead by James Joyce, Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville, and Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov. Melville House’s classic Art of the Novella series was mentioned as an example of a revival of the novella form by independent publishers.
Ultimately Ervin said the novella’s merits or creative inspiration is up to the writer, not the publisher. Addressing the panel’s audience, he declared, “We don’t know what a novella is—you need to decide. Don’t let us or publishers tell you what to do.”
Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.