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.