Thursday, September 10, 2009

Too Long For A Short Story, Too Short For A Novel

This appeared in The Times of India sometime in 2005. I can't locate it online, and can't even locate the hard copy that must be, even as you read this, causing indigestion in resentful silverfish. I thought I'd post it now since things seem to be getting a bit slow around here. Normal service will resume soon.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s latest volume of fiction isn’t a novel. Nor is it a collection of short stories. Instead, in Memories of My Melancholy Whores, the 77-year-old Nobel laureate turns again to the novella: the literary hybrid that, as publishers say, is too long to be a short story, yet too short to be a novel. Marquez’s latest is, unfortunately, not the best example of the novella’s powers. Though characteristically lyrical and detailed, it’s slighter than his earlier work, including his former novellas, Leaf Storm, Chronicle of a Death Foretold and No-one Writes to the Colonel.

When fashioned correctly, the novella is a perfectly-cut little jewel, emitting a radiance and sparkle far beyond its size. Haunting tales, sorrowful love stories and insightful first-person sagas: they’ve all been captured with its confines. Testimony to which are Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, to name just a few.

The form itself has a long history, being especially beloved of the Germans. Some trace its origins to Giovanni Boccaccio’s capacious The Decameron, written in the 14th century and comprising 100 novellas narrated by ten garrulous folk fleeing from Florence to escape an outbreak of the plague.

Brevity is the soul of the novella. Though word-length is an unreliable yardstick for defining such a protean mode, there’s broad agreement that a novella weighs in at between 20,000 to 50,000 words – with the novel being anything in excess of that amount. Stephen King, who’s written many a novella himself, has called it “an ill-defined and disreputable literary banana republic”. The normally courteous Mr King was, of course, referring to the difficulties of selling a novella in the commercial publishing world, as it doesn’t fit the typical length requirements of either magazine or book editors. Even Philip Roth’s Goodbye Columbus, for example, was clubbed with four other short stories when published, to make it worth the while of the paying public.

However, at least one publisher, the US-based Melville House, has turned this atypical length into a virtue. They recently issued the attractively-designed and well-received ‘The Art of the Novella’ series, a list that includes such impressive examples as Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener and Gustave Flaubert’s A Simple Heart, among others.

Writers of genre fiction have always found the novella’s span perfect for their needs. Consider the detective novel, from Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles to Michael Chabon’s recent Holmes tribute, The Final Solution. Or take the sci-fi and fantasy realm, from H.G. Well’s The War of the Worlds to any Hugo or Nebula nominee. The manageable length also makes it ideal for fledgling writers looking to step out of the domain of sketches and short stories, as Steve Martin did with 2001’s bittersweet Shopgirl. It’s attractive, too, for writers taking a break between writing the “loose baggy monsters” that so many conventional novels often degenerate into. Don deLillo, for instance, followed up 1997’s gargantuan Underworld with his 2001 novella, The Body Artist. Which may not have been easier to read, but at least it was lighter to hold.

These advantages notwithstanding, it’s undeniable that most authors, agents and publishers seem enamoured of the mammoth-advance generating novel, rather than a shorter work. What, then, of the novella’s future? Interestingly, today’s authors seem to be using it in the same way as Boccaccio did centuries ago: by fashioning interlinked narratives that are thematically connected. What are Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days, or David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, after all, but a series of novellas? Going back just a few decades, one finds Julian Barnes’ A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters and V.S. Naipaul’s A Flag on the Island employing the same technique.

This, then, seems to be one of the “new” forms that novelists are gravitating towards. Novellas enable them to capture diverse geographies and points of view in a single work, in order to make sense of a world that, more than ever, is unified and fragmented at the same time.

So much for writers. For today’s readers with limited reserves of time and patience, there’s one unbeatable advantage the stand-alone novella offers. Happily, you can devour it whole in one sitting itself.


sarahloldfield said...

I enjoyed this piece, and wherever the hard copy is, I hope the silverfish are appropriately appreciative of your efforts!

I haven't read Heart of Darkness (yet) and I failed to appreciate The Turn of the Screw (surely worth another go) but Bartleby is wonderful in inexplicable ways. I have a collection of Herman Melville's short stories, but I admit to coveting the Melville House novella series, which is indeed a thing of beauty.

Heard a couple of mentions of Cloud Atlas recently. Do you recommend it?

Appreciate the point about the inconvenience of lugging a baggy monster around. Infinite Jest still going strong!

Unknown said...

Am sure you'll finish 'Jest' soon: and after that, you must try 'Cloud Atlas'. It's wonderful.

sarahloldfield said...

Twenty pages of IJ left to go, question is can I stick to the schedule for the homestretch?

It is a big undertaking, and other reading must necessarily suffer for the duration, but I hope you get the chance to read it one day. It is addictive, a unique experience.

Thanks for the encouragement vis a vis Cloud Atlas. Gravity's Rainbow (#gravrain on twitter) is next up on the monster list, and after that it gets hazy...

Kerry said...

Great piece on the novella. If you follow Sarah's links, there is a parallel discussion going on over at The Fiction Desk.

I really enjoy novellas. I think they, like short stories, are often more meticulously crafted. Some of the monsters just get away from their authors. The same flaws are glaring in a novella but may be lost in a monster. I appreciate the care that necessarily attends the writing of a successful novella.

Anyway, I will be checking back in. By the way, I read Death in Venice in college, did not like it. Maybe that deserves another go too. I would not say that about a 800 page book I suffered through.