The novella has ambivalence built into its DNA. It’s neither one thing nor the other and tends to make you think even as it lures you down blind alleys and serves up irresolute endings.
Readers of this blog know that I am partial to short novels, particularly novellas. I always feel a little self-conscious saying this. I worry. Does it make me sound
- Lazy, as in I can’t be bothered to read a long book? Or,
- Impatient, as in I want to rack up my book reading stats and long books slow that down?
And to be honest, maybe there is a little bit of truth in these.
A long book requires a long commitment. Reading any literature requires attention and if you don’t have the concentrated time to give to a long book, you risk “losing the plot”, figuratively and literally speaking. In other words, if you read it in too many short spurts over too long a period of time, it can be hard keeping it all in your head. In the same time-frame you could very well have read two, three, four or even six novellas (if, say, you were reading Vikram Seth‘s A suitable boy). You would have experienced a number of different perspectives on the world rather than just one – and you probably would have been challenged multiply by the often elliptical nature of the short novel. And this brings me to why I really like short novels …
I like, as the Daily Beast quote above says, being made to think while being lured down blind alleys and served up irresolute endings. Of course, the modern long novel can do that too … But with a short novel you tend to get tight prose. There are no wasted words. There are no long digressions – or multiple storylines …
What, no digressions? This is where the Big Fat Book comes in. When I wrote my post on novellas nearly a year ago, I said I’d write a post on long novels – and finally I am getting around to it, because, despite my general preference for short novels, I have read and enjoyed long ones*. First, here are some that I’ve read and enjoyed in the last decade:
- Charles Dickens‘ Bleak house
- Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex
- Hilary Mantel‘s Wolf Hall
- Gabriel Garcia Marquez‘s One hundred years of solitude
- Rohinton Mistry‘s A fine balance
- Leo Tolstoy‘s Anna Karenina
- Steve Toltz’s A fraction of the whole
- Alexis Wright‘s Carpentaria
Not a lot of them, eh, but memorable every one. And the reason is, I think, that you live with long novels. A short novel can engage your emotions, of course, but it is, I think, a more intellectual engagement in which our feelings are continually monitored by our brains: what are we feeling and why? A long novel is different. You become part of its life; the characters become “real” in a way that they rarely do in a short novel and you feel their loss when the book ends. This makes the reading experience very different. The brain is engaged, of course, but the emotions take the upper hand.
In fact, generalising wildly, I see the reading experience as going a bit like this:
- In the short novel, with its tight prose and often minimal plot, your brain works hard to understand what is happening, where it is going, what it is all about, and then is suddenly confronted with an emotional kick at the end.
- In the long novel, with its multiple story-lines and often frequent digressions, your emotions become engaged as you live the characters’ lives with them, love, cry, hate, worry with them, and then, when it’s all over, your brain comes in to work out what it was all about.
I say this relatively not absolutely, because of course we engage both emotion and intellect in all our (fiction) reading. However, it seems to encapsulate, for me at least, the mechanics behind my rather different responses to reading a short versus a long novel. Does this make any sense?
Anyhow, I’d better finish here and get back to my current, long and rather engaging, novel, Peter Carey‘s Parrot and Olivier in America. Review coming just as soon as I manage to finish it …
* A NOTE ON DEFINITIONS: Leaving aside those specific terms of “novellas” and “big fat books”, my rule of thumb definition is that short novels are under 300 pages, and long novels over 500 pages. The rest are, well, just novels.