November 24, 2015
The New Yorker to try its hand at renegade art form: the novella
by Wah-Ming Chang
Deborah Treisman says that the fiction department at The New Yorker is “often frustrated by novellas: they can do so much, and yet we can’t do much with them. There simply isn’t enough space in a weekly magazine with a mandate to cover the waterfront of news, politics, and culture.”
Which is why she’s launched the New Yorker Novella series, in which the magazine will publish novella-length fiction a few times a year as an online feature. The novella starting things off is Callan Wink’s In Hindsight, about a widow’s life on the Montana plains.
The definition of a novella, given the form’s middle-child status, always seems to mildly confound or annoy readers and writers. Treisman says that the novella “leaves things out . . . is not, usually, an expanded story . . . more ambitious than a story, denser and more gemlike than a novel.” When asked why he was drawn to writing novellas, Stephen King replied, “I never in my life set out to write a novella. They are usually short stories that ‘just growed.’ So the form has no particular attraction. To the contrary, they’re too big to be small and too small to be big.”
The economy of length may be the novella’s most salient feature, but what’s more interesting is how it structures itself. Ian McEwan’s notes on it, from 2012, celebrates its architecture as “one of its immediate pleasures”:
Conrad’s [Heart of Darkness] begins with exquisite artifice, in “luminous space”—Marlowe gearing himself up to tell his story while he and his friends sit in a yacht at anchor in the Thames estuary at dusk. As the light drops, the notion of darkness is set before us, and will be relentlessly pursued through a hundred pages or so . . . Those opening pages, the frame, have a self-conscious grace that honors the form.”
The same can be said about the opening pages in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, Albert Camus’s The Stranger, Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, César Aira’s Ghosts, and Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl.
The list goes on, because the form is well loved (Nouvella, a relatively new independent publisher, only does novellas). Our own series, The Art of the Novella—which includes some of the best titles in this form, such as Nikolai Gogol’s The Nose, H. G. Wells’s The Invisible Man, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Lore Segal’s Lucinella, and Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko—is a testament to this dedication:
Too short to be a novel, too long to be a short story, the novella is generally unrecognized by academics and publishers. Nonetheless, it is a form beloved and practiced by literature’s greatest writers. The Art of the Novella Series celebrates this renegade art form and its practitioners with titles that are, in many instances, presented in book form for the first time.
Wah-Ming Chang was the managing editor of Melville House.