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.
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!
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).