The Rise of the Novella

Use of the term novella seems to be reserved for literary criticism these days, or at best, the hushed discussions between employees of bookshops and a publisher representative trying to sell their wares.  Said representative may act apologetically, furtively, something almost reminiscent of a scene from Le Carre’s Smiley sequence.  Why the attritional approach?  Perhaps it is because the novella’s form has uncertainty, even tentativeness built into its central tenets, woven through its very foundations.  It is neither one thing nor the other by definition; too long to be a short story, too short to be classified as a novel.

Novellas are tricky beasts – the literary equivalent of a moody teenager eschewing rules, constantly changing physically.  It is generally agreed that a piece of fiction 7,500 words or less is a short story.  The upper reach of the novella’s word-count is uncertain.  It seems that one cannot really pin down what a novella is, only what it is not.  This provides publishers and bookshops with a ‘hard sell’ to readers.  Getting bogged down in defining the novella is perhaps what has plagued the form.  More discussion springs forth about length than content.  What tends to follow this mire of misunderstanding is the misconception that a novella is an ‘incomplete novel’, or a short story in need of drastic editing.  Simply put, this is wrong.

The much maligned literary form has spawned some of the greatest works of fiction ever created.  You will have heard of them, you will most likely have read some, even studied them.  Give a moment’s thought to the brevity and economy of language such classics as Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Mann’s Death in Venice or The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson employ.  Mr Gove certainly hadn’t as he attempted to usher Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men into education’s retirement bin.  Perhaps it was not quite ‘English’ enough for him?  For shame Michael!  Some of our most celebrated writers perfected the form; from Orwell to Woolf.  Even our dear Jane Austen wrote one.  Gove’s gone; novellas live on.

Short stories have also suffered from the perception that less really is less when it comes to authorship; that less couldn’t possibly be more; that distilling language to its most primal and elemental was not worthy of submission, let alone publication.  Not long ago short stories were known as the impossible product to market in the book industry, but recently authors have ushered forth career spanning collections that presumably have been stuffed into drawers until now.  Opinion has radically changed.  Short stories have become the literary world’s darling of late, coming in from the cold.  This may be a ray of hope for their slightly larger cousin.

Tramp Press, a newly formed Irish independent, decided they would celebrate James Joyce’s revered short story collection Dubliners centenary year.  For many it is the best work in his oeuvre.  Dubliners 100 brings together contemporary Irish authors, reimagining each story by the literary icon.  One of the writers brought on board for the project was Eimear McBride.  Author of the multi-award winning A Girl is a Half Formed Thing, she reinterpreted ‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’.  Eimear kindly took the time amid a melee of press to comment on her feelings toward the short form;

“Short stories strike terror into my very bones. The gift for writing them is a rare thing and for interlopers, like myself, the possibility of mortification is high.”

Despite this challenge to established and/or award winning names a slew of collections have been released recently.  Graham Swift’s new collection England and Other Stories has been met with wide critical acclaim; writers use short stories more often than ever to debut in journals such as Granta; and now they even grab headlines, with authors such as David Mitchell recently announcing a new short story prior to his novel The Bone Clocks in September, ‘published’ via 280 interlaced tweets.  Some publishers verge on specializing in the bite size form – publishers like Salt based in Norfolk.  Despite recent popularity, the book trade must work tirelessly to compound success, making sure it’s no passing trend.  Jen Hamilton-Emery, mastermind of Salt’s output and much lauded annual anthology describes the appeal;

“The short story may be short, it may be a quick read in our time-pressed lives, and it may be convenient to read on the move, but don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s an easier option.  The best short stories can change how you see the world, leave a lasting impression and stay with you months, nay years, after reading them. To write them takes precision, a careful construct of words, with no room for packaging or baggage. To read them takes nerve.”

We live in an increasingly time sensitive world; a pressured 5:2 existence.  Novellas and the short story are the perfect medium for fleeting literary consumption.  Light enough to pop in a pocket; they may as well have been invented for our times, for the commuter rushing between various modes of transport who can only grab a few private minutes.  We want a condensed package, but to be informed.  We want convenience, but to be entertained.  Derived from the Italian, novella simply means ‘new’.  Perhaps this is the best way to think of them: a short, sharp new literary experience.  Ephemeral, but with something to say.  Succinct, but with the emotional depth and resonance of any novel.  Is this not the standard bearer for our twenty-first century demands?

Novellas have been winning prizes recently.  Didn’t you notice that a novella won the Booker Prize?  Julian Barnes’ A Sense of an Ending is a novella.  The concision of his writing was one of the book’s most celebrated facets!  Revelling in the short form isn’t a modern English aberration either.  Two notable American authors known for epic tomes turned their hand to this specialism; Don DeLillo contributed Point Omega to his canon in 2010, and Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 is where, for many, his writing reached the headiest of heights.  Other notable contemporary names include Nicholson Baker, wunderkind Tao Lin, and Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertész.

Over the past few years, the novella has been written about sporadically. Literary fashion resurrects the debate.  One voice that often cuts through – championing the novella – is publisher Dennis Johnson’s.  Named after Herman Melville – himself not averse to the form – Melville House launched The Art of the Novella series in 2002, soon after inception.  Not long enough, many would wager, to invest in a hard sell format, let alone a series of them.  We spoke to Dennis about his particular love for the form, and why they continue to be a success story;

“When I was a young writer, [novellas] were hopeless to sell, being too long for magazines and literary journals, and too short for publishers.  It seemed a very pure kind of pursuit to me – writing following a purely aesthetic imperative.  I loved the way it seemed to have the best qualities of its flanking forms – the concision and shape of a short story, yet room for multiple characters and the philosophy of the novel.

When I became a college professor, I created a class wherein we studied the form.  The greatest writers had adored them, and yet it still seemed a secret to most of the reading public!  Years later when I started Melville House with my wife Valerie Merians, I decided we should publish this great writing from throughout literary history.

I confess I didn’t start the series from any particularly brilliant publishing insight; it was whimsy, based entirely on my love for the form and its authorial champions. And yet years later it turned out to have been smart publishing – a way for a little company to start a classics line that was unique, a rather remarkable accomplishment in retrospect, and one that has helped us grow a supportive backlist.  These books continue to thrill me most as a reader. We just received our two newest titles in the office yesterday.  I can’t wait to take them home and read them again.”

A bastion of literary London, Hatchards have always been a shop to immerse oneself in the classics, to litmus test contemporary writing, and those to turn to for the next quality industry trend.  To celebrate their beauty and the desire for the novella’s renaissance, Hatchards St Pancras will open with a prominent celebration of the best novellas you must read.  Long live the short form.

By Christopher Keith-Wright
Christopher Keith-Wright is a buyer for Hatchards.

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