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Poor novellas?

November 30, 2012
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Having just reviewed two novellas in succession – Nigel Featherstone’s I’m ready now and Gerald Murnane‘s The plains - I was intrigued to receive an email this week from AbeBooks titled “The best novellas: Literature’s middle child”. It linked to an article which starts:

Poor novellas. They are the middle-child, the Jan Brady of the book world – too short to be novels, too long to be short stories.

Joe Fassler in The Atlantic earlier this year also used a family-based metaphor to describe novellas:

Longer than a short story but shorter than a novel, the form has been the ugly stepchild of the literary world.

So, are novellas poor? Are they “the ugly stepchild”? Well yes, in some ways they are because, as I understand it, publishers are not keen to publish them. Fassler confirms this, stating that novellas are “an unfairly neglected literary art form that’s been practiced for centuries by celebrated writers” and yet face “an ongoing struggle for commercial viability”. One of the problems seems to be that they “hog too much space to appear in magazines and literary journals, but they’re usually too slight to release as books”. This made me wonder whether the the e-Book might result in a greater acceptance of novellas. You can’t, after all, see that you’re taking home a slim volume can you!

Things are changing, though, says Fassler. American publisher, Melville House, decided in 2004 to publish a series of classic novellas by such writers as Joseph Conrad, Fyodor Dostoevsky, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. They were apparently derided in the industry for publishing novellas and for using plain covers. Had the critics never heard of Penguin?  But, the novellas sold – and sold – and kept on selling.

There is a catch, however: they’re classics. Apparently, it’s not so easy to sell contemporary novellas. They are more expensive to produce because their authors are alive and need to be paid. Fair enough, eh, Nigel and Gerald? So, people will buy classic novellas because they are by well-known authors and cheap, but are not so keen to buy contemporary ones. Melville House is not giving up though. They are apparently looking at using the electronic media (told you!) and adding curated materials “to extend the experience”. They’re starting with some classics, but plan to move onto contemporary works.

Joe Fassler ends his article with a definition – always the challenge – which goes like this:

a narrative of middle length with nothing wrong with it, an ideal iteration of its own terms, that can [be] devoured within a single day of reading. I think I’m not alone when I say this is the kind of reading I like best. On a summer Sunday, sometime. We fall under the book’s spell in the morning. A friend knocks, the phone rings, the mail clunks through the mail slot. There won’t be any stopping until there’s nothing left to read. The tempo builds until the pages turn with feverish speed, the sun burns hot and starts to dim. Finally, we’re released sometime before dinner. The spell lingers on all through the evening until, at night, we dream.

Good one, but I also rather like John Clanchy’s definition which novella writer Nigel Featherstone quotes in his blog:

Whatever we call it, the novella isn’t a novel that’s run out of puff; it isn’t a short story that’s meandered beyond its natural length and lost its way. I like working with the novella because it shares some of the most attractive features of the novel – its expansiveness, its multiple layers of theme and plot – at the same time constraining them with features normally associated with the short story: intensity of focus, singularity of narrative voice and architecture, discipline of length. But all the while remaining a distinct species, not a hybrid.

Funnily enough, Melville House’s new novella initiative is called Hybrid Books. Ah well, each to their own … I don’t care what novellas are called really as long as they continue to be written and published because, as I’ve said before, I like the form.

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24 Comments leave one →
  1. December 1, 2012 12:43 am

    I like novellas. Peirene Press http://www.peirenepress.com/ publish contemporary European novellas which have been getting great reviews from people like Stu. I really admired Veronique Olmi’s Beside The Sea and would subscribe but the postage to Australia is too horrible to contemplate it. Here in Oz Giramondo Shorts are offering all kinds of interesting stuff at around 100 pages, some fiction, some faction, and I have one by Brian Castro near the top of the TBR pile.
    The most memorable Australian novella I’ve read was Amanda Lohrey’s Vertigo. Fabulous book.

    • December 1, 2012 1:15 am

      Oh thanks Lisa .. yes, I drool over those Pierene ones. I bought one for my brother/sister-in-law a year or so ago but not for myself. They look beautiful and all the reviews I’ve read have been positive.

      I think we have some wonderful novellas here – Malouf’s Fly away Peter and Jolley’s The newspaper of Claremont Street are two longstanding favourites of mine. But my recently read Murnane is excellent, and I like the fact that Blemish Books are supporting writers like Nigel Featherstone. But, it does seem to be the smaller publishing houses doing it, mostly, doesn’t it.

      • December 1, 2012 8:09 am

        Did you see Mark Rubbo’s commentary on the merger of Random House and Penguin? He’s optimistic (with some reservations) but seems to think that the smaller houses will be more nimble and flexible, more willing to do the interesting things like printing novellas, I guess.
        Still, I’m sticking with my ‘look to the future’ strategy and buying everything I like the look of now so that if publishing gets swallowed up into a ghastly dystopian future of airport novels and cooking porn, I will still have enough books to last into my old age LOL.

  2. December 1, 2012 3:28 am

    Hmm. Perhaps with our shortening attention spans and the rise of the e-book, then novellas will become more popular, as you say? Any kind of reading is good reading to me…

  3. December 1, 2012 3:37 am

    Melville House is a great indie press and I am glad they have had success with their novellas. I am not surprised though since they have come up with some clever ways to market them. I think e-books are a perfect opportunity for novellas especially if they are attractively priced. I like Fassler’s novella description. Novella’s really are poised to provide a perfect reading experience.

    • December 1, 2012 8:27 am

      Oh thanks for adding that about Melville House Stefanie. we don’t see them here. But we do have indie publishers here too who are experimenting with form and take risks on shorter works.

  4. December 1, 2012 8:35 am

    Thanks, Sue, for continuing to profile novellas and promoting discussion about the form. As a writer of novellas (and a reader of them, too), I’m fascinated about what makes them tick. Whole essays are written about the difficulty in defining the things, which is fascinating in itself – why is it so hard to define what is a very valid form of storytelling? Perhaps it’s because it fills that shifty, suspicious space between the short story and the novel, and no one really likes anything shifty and suspicious.

    It’s true that commercial publishers don’t like them (though it’s possible that Helen Garner’s ‘The Spare Room’ could be considered a novella, it’s just that the font and margins quite large to make a bigger book), but it’s equally true that smaller publishers love them because they can be a stand-alone publication but they’re achievable to produce (it would be hard for a small press to produce ‘A Suitable Boy’!). I agree with comments above that the digital environment will be very kind to novellas, because length is less a consideration.

    Can I say that I totally ADORE that Fassler quote. It’s exactly how I like to read.

    • December 1, 2012 9:25 am

      Thanks Nigel .. It’s a great quote about reading isn’t it, whereas Clanchy’s is more about form. I like your analysis of why big versus small publishing houses might or might not publish them. Yes, I’d call The spare room a novella. Garner has written a few hasn’t she.

  5. December 1, 2012 8:39 am

    Reading the review of the Plains I kept thinking that it would make a great art-house movie. I wonder if the novella is particularly suited to this – or would the shortness of the novella translate into a vignette – a little movie. Also, can there be genre fiction novellas or is it a form most suited to literary fiction? (Airport novels can’t be too short in case they are finished before the end of the flight.)

    • December 1, 2012 9:29 am

      Thanks Judith … I reckon short stories and novellas are perfect for films. The plains could make an interesting movie – arthouse – as you say. It would be fascinating, in fact, to see what interpretation they put on it. I was thinking the same thing last night re genre fiction … I have some big genre reader contacts and am planning to ask them,

  6. John Clanchy permalink
    December 1, 2012 3:16 pm

    I too liked the Fassler definition a lot – and I think Whisperinggums’ insight that Fassler was focussed on the experience of reading a novella whereas I was focussing on characteristics of the literary form is spot-on.Very interesting discussion of the ‘poor relation’/’literature’s troublesome child’. My favourite novella is Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych”, though I have read recently – in the last week – others arguing passionately for Mann’s “Death in Venice”,
    Wilder’s “Bridge of St Luis Rey” … Plus a lot of talk about Ian McEwen’s latest “Sweet Tooth”. Something about novellas seems to be in the air. John Clanchy

    • December 1, 2012 5:11 pm

      Oh welcome and thanks for commenting John … And thanks for sharing your favourites. I reckon Mc Ewan’s On Chesil Beach was pretty much a novella. He’s generally a tight plotter. I should read Sweet tooth … And I really should read that Tolstoy.

  7. December 2, 2012 4:59 pm

    I agree with John that talk about novellas is in the air. I think the Griffith Review competition might have something to do with it. They received over 200 entries, and it would be interesting to know how many writers tried their hand at a novella for the first time in order to enter that particular contest. I wrote mine while staying at La Muse – it didn’t seem out of the question that three weeks was enough to get my head around a first draft – though the French food and scenery was something of a distraction. It’s fun to swap our favourite novellas, but it could also be useful to talk about the creative process, how different it is from setting out to write a novel – at least it was for me..

    • December 2, 2012 6:31 pm

      Ah thanks Dorothy … I saw that competition advertised and meant to mention it. I love The Griffith Review! Not being a writer I couldn’t talk about the process but I’m certainly interested in hearing how different it is for a novella. (I can imagine being distracted by French food, wine and scenery.) BTW your boatman of Burley Griffin keeps popping into my head! I enjoyed that story.

  8. December 3, 2012 4:44 pm

    Thanks for the compliment!
    What do you think about Geordie Williamson’s piece on the resurgence of the novella in last weekend’s Australian? He has some valid points to make, but I’m sick of people predicting the death of the novel. They’ve been doing so all my adult life. This time it’s the world wide web playing grim reaper….?!

    • December 3, 2012 11:44 pm

      Ah thanks for pointing me to that Dorothy. Fascinating piece … as you say some interesting points but I’m not sure I agree with them all.

      I totally agree re predicting the death of the novel. Can’t see it myself … though it might change I can’t see it going. It seems to me that we just incorporate more into our lives …

      Also, I think one could argue that just because a novella is short doesn’t necessarily mean it’s faster to read. A 140pp novella can take as long to read as a 300pp novel if the former is experimental, innovative, challenging, and/or thought inducing in some way and the other is a page turner?

      BTW, do you think “One of the primary objectives of the novel [is] to transmit useful information about the world”? I find this a strange thing to say really. It might be the end result of reading fiction but I’m not sure I see it as a “primary objective”? Perhaps I’m just splitting hairs or it’s a matter of definition or it’s a clumsy way of saying what he wants to say. Reading fiction does expand my horizons/increase my understanding of humanity but … hmmm …

  9. December 4, 2012 9:58 am

    Exactly, Sue! Some of Williamson’s arguments are full of holes. I agree absolutely with your point about length and reading pace. And the experience of reading fiction is not at all, for me, as Williamson describes it. I think that, if you’re going to make sweeping predictions, as he does, you have to start by comparing like with like, not by comparing the experience of reading an online article, say, with a poem or a work of prose fiction. I much prefer the descriptions in your post!

    • December 4, 2012 10:07 pm

      Oh good, glad you agree. It’s hard to disagree with such a luminary! And I do agree regarding comparing like with like.

  10. December 7, 2012 6:14 pm

    I remember reading Joseph Conrad’s novellas and quietly seeping into the southern seas. But Jan Brady? That was a very funny/weird comment. I think particular stories just demand their form and length, as much as their location and tone, and which person they are written in. I’m with you WG, I don’t think the novel or novella are going anywhere soon. If work is good, it will shine.

    Having said that I would love to write a novella!

    • December 7, 2012 6:28 pm

      I think you’re right, Catherine … the story/the content/the author’s style drives the form.

      I loved the “Jan Brady” comment – made me laugh. Another analogy could be a three bears one – not too short, not too long, just right!

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