Monday musings on Australian literature: In praise of the “taker-outers”

Today’s Monday musings post is not solely about Australian literature but it was inspired by an Australian writer, Kate Jennings, about whom I’ve written a few times in the last month or so. In 2002 she wrote an essay titled “Bone and sinew”, for our now defunct Bulletin magazine, in which she praises short novels (or, novellas*). Tony of Tony’s Bookworld likes novellas, and so do I.

Anyhow, Jennings starts her essay with a statement that F. Scott Fitzgerald apparently made to Thomas Wolfe. He said:

You’re a putter-in, and I’m a taker-outer.

It seems that Wolfe believed a novelist couldn’t be taken seriously until, to use Jennings words, “he or she had produced something that could hold up a three-legged sofa”. Jennings likes Scott Fitzgerald’s description and goes on to say:

Putters-in and takers-out – as good a way as any to classify novelists. Putters-in: writers who pile on atmosphere, adjectives ad arguments, who share with readers all their thoughts, and research, who follow storylines like a dog on the loose. Takers-out: writers who fiddle with each comma and finesse every word, who know exactly what Samuel Johnson meant when he said that when you think you’ve written a particularly fine passage, strike it out.

Jennings admits to her bias – after all, she says, she’s written a couple of short novels herself – but says she does also enjoy  the likes of George Eliot, Christina Stead, Patrick White and Rohinton Mistry. Her point is that their novels are not “superior because of their length” and that short novels should not be perceived as “slight” simply because they are “slim”. There are many short novels with proven staying power (such as The great Gatsby, Joseph Conrad’s The heart of darkness and George Orwell‘s Animal farm) and yet, she says, publishers, recognising that readers and reviewers are prejudiced against shortness, “often ask writers to pad out short novels with stories. The term ‘novella’ is now pejorative: a marketing kiss of death”.

Well, it isn’t for me. Jennings quotes David Mamet on elegance in writing. He asked “how much can one remove and still have the composition be intelligible”. I like this way of describing it. Taker-outers, I believe, trust their readers, viewers and listeners (because this also works for theatre, film and music) to get it. They don’t believe they have to explain every detail. Kate Jennings certainly doesn’t in Snake. She presents a series of little vignettes and expects her readers to “get” the whole picture – and we do, only too vividly!

Kate Grenville with her cello

The versatile Kate Grenville (Courtesy: Peter Ellis via Wikipedia using CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Fortunately for me, many of my favourite Australian writers (hmm … is this a “chicken or the egg” situation?) have written short novels (as well as, for some, longer novels). I have listed some before and so here will add some others, mostly lesser known, that have impressed me:

  • Thea Astley’s Coda
  • Kate Grenville’s Dreamhouse
  • David Malouf’s Ransom
  • Eva Sallis’ The city of sealions
  • Tim Winton’s In the winter dark

Jennings writes “That short novels can be tough, specific and encompassing can come as a surprise to readers. Sinew and bone …”. Really, though, it’s a matter of what you read for. If your preference is to escape into fat and flesh, then short novels may not be for you, but if you like chewier fare, then a good short novel will rarely disappoint.

* I think novellas are generally defined as those under 150 pages, but I tend to include in my personal definition books that are up to 200 pages (or so).

23 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: In praise of the “taker-outers”

  1. You know, you’re really starting to make me feel silly for not having read a lot of short stories and novella! Although does reading each of those 30+ American Girls books multiple times count? 😛

    • Thanks Tony. I nearly mentioned The spare room but I think you (?) mentioned it in your comment on my novellas post and so I decided to mention completely new ones. However, I’m very glad that you’ve mentioned it here too. Reiteration never hurts! Haven’t read The hunter, so will look out for it.

  2. I love taker-outers. Spare prose always end up leaving me breathless and in awe. Everything seems deceptively simple. I don’t think I’ve read too many short stories, which I think has a worse rep than novellas, but I do love The Outsider. The last batch of short stories I read was Paddy O’Reilly’s collection…which was 2 years ago!

  3. I go back and forth. Sometimes I am in the mood for lean and mean, and then at other times I want something along the multi-plot lines. I really enjoyed Hensher’s novel The Northern Clemency–very get-your-teeth-into, but they can’t all be like that. After a novel of some girth, I’m headed for minimalism. It’s the antidote or the next course, if you like.

    Mamet’s dialogue, btw, drives me around the bend.

    • I understand that… I can love a whopping big novel like, say, Anne Karenina, or, one of my more contemporary favourites, Rohinton Mistry’s A fine balance but I do find that I am more apt to think of the small tight novels when I am asked about my favourite novels. (Jane Austen’s of course are just right – from the shorter ones like Northanger Abbey to the longer ones like Emma. She just knew how to do it!!)

  4. Like Guy, sometimes I’m in the mood for short stories or novellas, sometimes for loose baggy monsters.Ransom and Amanda Lohrey’s Vertigo are the best Australian examples of the former I’ve read recently.

    I think the putter in/taker out distinction is a bit simplistic though- George Eliot wrote some wonderful novellas eg Brother jacob, Scenes of clerical life and The lifted veil as did Christina Stead in The Puzzle Headed Girl.

    • Thanks ADD! I must read Lohrey one day. Somehow she regularly gives me the slip! You are right about the putter-in versus taker-outer issue. Some writers do write long and short novels successfully. (Tim Winton for example with Coudstreet versus books like In the winter dark, That eye the sky, and and even Breath was short by comparison). Maybe these novelists longer ones would have been even longer if they were true “putters-in”!?

  5. I agree there is definitely a place for both the long and the short and neither is superior to the other. Virginia Woolf tended to be a taker-outer and she is one of the most amazing writers ever in my humble opinion. I’ve also read a Duras novel that was barely 100 pages but managed to pack a big punch. Still at other times there is nothing like wallowing in the pleasure of big fat Victorian novel.

    • You said it Stefanie. There IS something about the big fat Victorian novels isn’t there? Is that Duras novel, The lover? I think I have that in my TBR pile as it’s been recommended a few times. I must get to it – surely I can squeeze 100 pages into my schedule somewhere? Though, come to think of it, short doesn’t necessarily mean quick to read, does it? Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, for example, is not something you whip through in one sitting.

  6. Interesting distinction. I tend to think of pared-down books as being rather cinematic and visual, almost like a film script where as a reader you do a lot of the work in your own head. I wonder if this sort of novel is a modern phenomenon. I know that there are older novellas (i.e. prior to film/television) , but are they puffed-up short stories, rather than a pared-down longer story? I think that there’s a difference.

    • Thanks Janine, that’s interesting. How do you define the difference between puffed up short story and pared down longer story? Are Kate Chopin’s The awakening or Nathanial Hawthorne’s The scarlett letter or Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome puffed up short stories? How do you think they are different from post-moving image novellas like say McCarthy’s The road or any of the Aussies I’ve mentioned?

      I tend to see novellas as being more intense/elemental emotionally rather than in terms of being cinematic or visual, though I can see what you mean. I certainly agree that for whatever reason they often demand more of the reader.

  7. I must admit that I hadn’t thought of “The Scarlet Letter” as a novella, although I guess in terms of page count it would be. I’m rather ashamed that I haven’t read “Ethan Frome”- I think it’s on the e-reader I’m shunning, so I could read it there. In fact, I haven’t read “The Awakening” either, I don’t think.
    A puffed- up short story for me revolves around one scenario across a fairly limited time span. I think I’d use chronological sweep as one of the criteria that marks out a novella- hence I think Snake would fall into that category.

    • LOL Janine … I nearly said in my question, do you see a puffed-up short story as a single narrative and then decided that I wouldn’t put words into your mouth! I can see your point though I think I don’t really feel the need to make the distinction. I’m happy to simply describe it in physical terms as something long enough to be published on its own but under 200 pages. (I think formal defs usually say 150pgs but I’m more relaxed).

      BTW You should read Ethan Frome and, particularly, The awakening. The good thing about novellas is they can usually be squeezed in between other reads!

      I’m sorry you are shunning your e-reader. I got my Kindle a couple of weeks ago and like it a lot, though am only using it sporadically because of all the paper books I have. I really got it for classics so it’s my take out with me book while I read the paper ones at home.

  8. I tend to like taker-outers. Virginia Woolf, J.M. Coetzee, Gina Berriault, Jeannette Winterson, and Vladimir Nabokov all tend to be taker-outers. Of course, Anna Karenina is an all-time favorite, so quality certainly matters more than page count. I tend to dread anything over 500 pages, particularly if it or its author does not have a bullet-proof reputation. I tend to think of long novels as self-indulgent unless really, really well done.

    For instance, Wolf Hall, which I thought was brilliant, probably could have been pared down a bit without losing any brilliance, and may have gained some. And I loathe long novels that are not enjoyable. Short ones I forgive. The author tried something and failed (or succeeded but not in a very entertaining or intellectually engaging way). With the long ones, I feel more like I am being held hostage. Of course, I could just abandon them, but sometimes they hold the gun of cultural significance to your head and you cannot.

    Great idea for a Monday Musings post. (Beasts by Joyce Carol Oates is an excellently dark novella; I could not leave the thread without contributing a title).

    • Another person after my own heart. Like you I do enjoy good long novels – Anna Karenina, Bleak House, Middlemarch, A fine balance (more recently) – but my heart sinks initially too when I’m confronted with a long book. I love your point about forgiving short novels you don’t enjoy but not long ones.

      And, thanks for adding a title to the thread. I do like a good dark novella so will add this to my list.

  9. Well, I love taker-outers. Short stories, novellas, just bring them on. Thanks for the list. Gabriel Garcia Marquez writes really good novellas, BTW. My fav is Chronicle of a Death Foretold.

  10. Pingback: ‘Snake’ by Kate Jennings | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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