October 23, 2014

Reading all the ‘Art of the Novella’ novellas in a year


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The critic at work.

It might have come out of a passing comment in the pub, but in fact it was in an email. I was writing a piece about the cover design of Melville House’s Art of the Novella series, and I mailed to check exactly how many of them there were.

Fifty-two, came the answer. Then: Wow, we should challenge someone to read them all in a year…

Before I could help myself, I had replied: Challenge me! I wrote.

And so, a little while later, here I am, a stack of colour-coded novellas sat at my side, a year in which to read them, and a blog to post for each one. Am I nuts? What do I hope to achieve? What do MHP hope to get out of it?

Well, I don’t think I’m nuts. I mean, a novella a week isn’t going to be too impossible. Quite a few of them come in at around the 100-page mark – and those are small, pocket-sized pages – though there are a few that are double that, and one, at least, that is triple. (Surely that can’t be a novella, can it? Or can it? Hey, that’s part of why we’re here!)

The books themselves should be possible to fit into my reading schedule, which oscillates like everybody’s according to various internal and external factors and forces. And god knows it shouldn’t be a chore. The quality of these books should be a given. The series leans towards the canon, after all, even when the works representing those most famous of names aren’t always those that spring first to mind. So as well as sending me towards books I don’t know by writers I have read, it will prod me into reading writers I haven’t, but probably should have. (Mumble mumble Tolstoy, mumble Eliot, mumble Cather.)

So, reading a novella a week shouldn’t be a problem. Writing about them, however, might be, if only for the fact that the writing will I suppose have to be interesting. But, let’s get this clear at the outset: these won’t be reviews, considered assessments of the works in question, and their place in the canon, but rather blog posts: personal responses, no doubt splurged out to deadline, when creative juices are flowing most freely. I’ve written my fill of book reviews and, really, do you want to read another review of The Dead or The Diamond as Big as The Ritz? No, you don’t. But do you want to read my fevered, dashed out, opinionated and unsubstantiated blog post on them? Why, yes of course you do!

Above all, though, the point of the project is to try to get a fix on what exactly a novella is. I mean, we all know roughly what a novella is, duh! It’s something longer than a short story but shorter than a novel—perhaps most easily spotted side-on on the shelves, by virtue of its thin, thin spine. But is there anything more precise, more helpful than that?

Certainly, I’m coming at the challenge with a slight default wariness towards the form, perhaps even mistrust. There’s something slightly self-congratulatory about it, isn’t there? Something fey and affected and back-of-the-hand-to-the-forehead. Why does it need a special name?  Why does it draw attention to itself this way? (Well, of course, it doesn’t. You don’t get many self-identifying novellas—they don’t call themselves ‘a novella’, the way some stupid novels call themselves ‘a novel’. It’s more often a description applied from the exterior.)

What comes to mind when I think of the novella, then? Well, obviously, examples: Heart of Darkness, Old Man and the Sea, The Fall. And vague ideas of word count. The Paris Literary Prize stipulates between 17,000 and 35,000 words, which seems broadly right in a not-particularly-useful way.

Is there something to the style, then? My Dictionary of Literary Terms derives it from the tales of Boccaccio, via the German Novelle, which stresses that it should narrate “a single event, situation or conflict, which produces an element of suspense and leads to an unexpected turning point”, which does, I admit, chime with my idea of what a novella might be – that it is concise, and focused, possibly even condensed… and has nothing of the ‘something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing’ of VS Pritchett’s definition of the short story. There is something willed, and definite about the novella; it should carry that ‘single event or situation’ threaded through its narrative like a seam of steel.

But does that mean I am starting off with assumptions about classicism and narrative unity that might dismay exponents of the contemporary novella, or the experimental novella? (I would like to think I know my way around the contemporary short story, and the contemporary novel, and could point you towards some of their more radical, obscure and provocative byways, but could I say the same about the contemporary novella? I’m not sure.)

Another point of comparison would be the UK publisher Peirene Press, which publishes solely “world-class contemporary European novellas”. Some of them are radical enough—Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman is a single 117-page sentence, albeit broken into paragraphs—and perhaps will provide a counterpoint to some of the novellas I will read here.

Is the novella an inherently European form? My stack of MHP novellas, split into Old and New World piles, would appear to suggest so, even if I let you guys keep Henry James. (I’m writing from London, I should add here.) But, again, we’re talking about a particular set of examples, a particular art of the novella. There’s nothing in this stack from later than 1922. Nothing from Africa or Asia. How is that going to queer my pitch? Not that this is a complaint, merely a recognition of the constraints in place from the outset.

I’ve also got myself a copy of Richard Ford’s Granta anthology The Granta Book of the American Long Story, with its eleven selections, all dating from after the Second World War. And of course it has an excellent, informative and amusing introduction (which you can read online here), titled, in fact, ‘Why Not a Novella’.

In it Ford gives an expanded version of the evolution of the novella as form (Boccaccio-GoetheHenry James), and waxes wry on the impossibility of fixing down a definition. He presses writer colleagues who have written novellas – and even taught college courses on them – to help him out:

“Everyone seemed to believe there was a ‘technical definition,’ around somewhere,” he writes, “but no one knew if it could be found in a specific book. Several people said they would definitely know a novella if they saw one, and that between sixty and 120 printed pages would be about the right length […] Several people acted suspicious about why I wanted to know these things in the first place, as though I might be planning to expose their views and embarrass them.”

It’s worth noting, though, that Ford ends up ditching the term novella altogether for the title of his anthology, turning instead to the “less succinct, less memorable, but possibly less historically-infuriating and ultimately freeing expression, ‘Long Story’.”

‘Long story’, he adds, a little further down, “isn’t very pretentious”, which perhaps is revealing, not least that he doesn’t include it in his main definition, but mumbles it, disguised by a cough, as an afterthought. The novella: pretentious? Well, that chimes with what I said at the outset: not that the idea of a novella is pretentious in itself, but that the tendency towards overly elaborate classification might just be. The more divisions you have – between novel, novella, short story, short short story, flash fiction, (flash novel?,) long story, short novel, nouvelle, novelette, növelchen – the more time you will spend bickering over minuscule differences, you will lose sight of the big picture.

But, you can be sure, no right-thinking publisher would bring out a series of books entitled ‘The Art of the Long Story’. That’s not going to fly, is it? (And Ford was following up his previous anthology The Granta Book of the American Short Story, so there was a certain logic to his choice.)

And let’s not forget that the bare facts of publishing have an impact on the nature of the novella, though these have changed over the years; plenty of the novellas I’ll be reading in gorgeous pocket-sized book form were originally published in magazines, in toto or in serial form, like any other story or novel.

In fact, how about this for a definition of the novella, as it stands in the contemporary market place: the shortest piece of fiction that can be made to stand on its own two feet, as a printed book. Or even: the shortest piece of fiction that a publisher thinks they can get away with charging customers for.


Jonathan Gibbs is the author of Randall, or The Painted Grape, published by Galley Beggar Press, and lectures in Creative and Professional Writing at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. He tweets as @Tiny_Camels and blogs at Tiny Camels.