Monday musings on Australian literature: Supporting genres, 6: Novellas

Yes, I know, novellas aren’t really a genre, but when I started this sub-series I couldn’t find one word to cover all the types of literary works I thought I might end up covering, so we are all going to have to live with “genres”. OK? Many of you will know why I’ve chosen novellas as my next in the series: it’s because one of the several blogger memes running this month is Novellas in November.

Regular readers here will know that I love a novella – and it’s not because they are short, per se, but what the shortness implies. You know that I love short stories, so you will probably know what it is that I love about novellas – it is the ability to condense a story to its essence, while still engaging my heart and mind. In an interview post on my blog, author Nigel Featherstone who has a few novellas under his belt said this:

If short stories are about brevity, novels are about complexity. So that’s what I might love about working with the novella: they offer the best of both worlds: succinctness and sophistication. Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and George Orwell’s Animal Farm are cases in point.

Featherstone, Fall on me

Of course, as he goes on to say, definitions like this “are ultimately meaningless: some short stories are about complexity, while some novels use up 200,000 words by saying not much about anything. A story must find its natural length, that’s the beginning and end of it”. True, but I do like the idea that novellas offer “succinctness and sophistication”. Kate Jennings’ Snake, on which I posted last week, is a perfect example.

I should, I suppose, discuss definition. The problem is that novella definitions tend to be based on word count, but we readers have no idea of the number of words in the books we buy. Consequently, we tend to go by number of pages, which has to be rough because the number of words per page can vary significantly from book to book. However, my rule of thumb is the same as that offered by the Novellas in November crew, which is “150 pages or under, with a firm upper limit of 200 pages”.

However, I do want to make the point that for me – and for all serious definitions I’ve read – a novella must be fiction (despite Griffith Review’s including creative nonfiction in its criteria!)

Publishers

There is a sense that publishers are loath to publish novellas because they believe readers equate length with value and feel cheated paying a book price for something that’s 150 pages versus, say, 300 pages. However, some publishers do actively support novellas. They are often the smaller independent publishers. Most of the Australian-published novellas that I’ve reviewed on this blog have come from, in no particular order, Spinifex, Wakefield, Hybrid, Xoum, Scribe, Text, UQP, Blemish (no longer in existence), and Inkerman and Blunt (which published Nick Earls’ acclaimed Wisdom Tree series). Classic novellas, and novellas by “big” names are, of course, published by the big publishers like Penguin.

One publisher which has been actively promoting and supporting novellas is Griffith Review. Primarily a literary journal, Griffith Review has, since issue 38 in 2012, devoted one issue a year to novellas, which they call The Novella Project. Introducing the project, then editor Julianne Schultz discussed the changes that were happening in publishing, and said,

In this context we believe that the time is right for the revival of the novella – of those stories that are longer and more complex than a short story, shorter than a novel, with fewer plot twists, but strong characters. Condensed tales that are intense, detailed, often grounded in the times, and perfectly designed for busy people to read in one sitting.

They have a page on their website titled Notes on the novella. It comprises a collection of “notes” from contemporary Australian novella writers, including those published in the Novella Project editions. If you are interested in what writers think about the form, here is a good place to start. Holden Sheppard, for example, sees it as a “very pure form of storytelling”:

Novellas promise readers a direct flight to their destination – no layovers in Singapore or Dubai. 

Love it …

Competitions

Who would have thought there’d be a prize for novellas but, it seems, where there’s a form or genre, there’s likely to be a prize. Here are three for novellas:

Julie Proudfoot, The neighbour
  • Griffith Review Novella Project is a competition that commenced in 2012, and sees winning entries being published in an edition of the journal. Entries can be fiction or creative non-fiction, ranging between 15,000–25,000 words. Winners have included established writers like Nick Earls, Cate Kennedy, John Kinsella and Stephen Orr. Catherine McKinnon worked her Novella Project III winner, “Will Martin”, into a novel, Storyland (my review).
  • Viva La Novella Prize was also established in 2012 – by Seizure – with the first winner announced in 2013. It’s an annual prize awarded for works of 20,000-50,000 words. Seizure is “a social endeavour which runs under the auspices of Xoum Publishing“. Since the award’s inception, Brio/Xoum has published 20 short novels, meaning there’s been more than one winner per year. I’ve read two, and have a couple more on my TBR. It’s another wonderful initiative.
  • Storyfest National Novella Writing Competition is an annual competition for high school students, that seems to have been running since 2018. The entries have to be between 8,000 and 20,000 words. You can see and read the overall and state winners on the Somerset Storyfest website. Lovely to see such encouragement for student writers.

Lists

Just search “novellas” in your browser and you will find a multitude of lists, but for a useful list of Australian novellas, check out Brona’s blog.

Are you a novella fan? If so, would you care to share some favourites?

Previous supporting genre posts: 1. Historical fiction; 2. Short stories; 3. Biography; 4. Literary nonfiction; 5. Crime.

45 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Supporting genres, 6: Novellas

  1. I do like novellas. I greatly prefer short over lengthy.
    However, I am firmly committed to Nonfiction November, and I haven’t been able to find a way to participate in both NN and Novellas in November. I’m penciling it in for 2022.

    • Thanks Deb, I rarely take part in both so I completely understand. There seems to be too many memes (are they memes? they’re not really challenges) in November.

      BTW I’ve tried a couple of times to comment on your blog and haven’t been able to. Blogger blogs seem to no longer accept name / URL commenters, but when I tried to sign in with my Google account, it signed me in but when I came back to your page it had me signed out again. I’m flummoxed. Do you have any ideas?

  2. I like it because it’s interesting, but I’m not a fan of the novella. Why this is I cannot say, other than to surmise it’s the bit of Scottish blood in me – to use up an Audible credit on something only a few hours long doesn’t come naturally. (I regret matching your early opinion, ST.)
    As for The Griffith Review’s including the non-fiction novella – I do wish I could think of the noun that describes this situation .. gone from the ancient bonce ..

  3. Your point about the indie publishers was interesting as I’ve found that with my novella reading this month, too (or “novella” reading if going by your definition, as I’ve extended it to get all the short books off my shelves!!).

  4. I’m with M-R (again!), I buy my Audible books like sausages, by the yard. 30 hours is clearly much better value than 4. But I like long books anyway, once I’ve invested in a protagonist I just want to go on and on (for the same reason, I don’t like family sagas, the protagonist keeps changing).

    Looking round my shelves, I have very few Australian novellas, maybe just The Bond of Wedlock (Praed) and Eucalyptus (Bail). And Formaldehyde, which I love, the exception that proves the rule.

    • Ha Bill – and I tend to not like series because I don’t want things to go on and on.

      You are allowed to have exceptions, as am I!

      BTW Formaldehyde is one of the winners on my TBR. You’d think I could find time to read it.

  5. I love novellas. Probably my favourite form of writing. I used to subscribe to Pereine Press in London… they publish exclusively literary novellas in translation, three a year. I built up quite a collection but (typically) have only read a handful.

    • I also wanted to buy some of their books kimbofo. They looked delicious. Have you got them here with you or are they still in London? While I agree with Nigel about a story finding its own length, and while I have enjoyed some real chunksters, I do love novellas.

        • I personally doubt whether I will ever return to the UK (for many varied reasons). It’s more a case of when will we be able to sell our flat and when will the Other Half be able to get back to WA. I suspect the WA border will remain closed until March.

  6. Fascinating there would be so many novella competition.
    I’m sometimes confused with this genre. I don’t think we often use it in French. It’s either a short story or a novel. And I notice that lots of French novels are considered novellas in the US.

    • That’s interesting W&P. They are really “just” short novels, but somehow we in the anglo speaking world feel they have enough different to warrant talking about separately. Camus’ L’étranger is in my list of favourite novellas. We would call Gide’s L’immoraliste one too!

  7. I’m not a fan of novellas Sue – again for purely pragmantic reasons – if I purchase one, the price is usually no different from a full length novel, and books are costly. So I simply don’t buy them, and rarely bother to borrow them from the library either I’m afraid!

    • Clearly Sue, the publishers know whereof they speak! BTW the novella I will review next only costs $16.99, and of course most Text classics, which include novellas, are less than that. But it sounds like this pragmatism is only one of the factors in your not being a fan?

      • I think I should modify my comment Sue, as obviously i enjoy reading Thea Astley and some of Elizabeth Jolley. I do think novellas can be difficult to do well, and I generally prefer a longer read because I like to become invested in the characters, and novellas given less opportunity for character development.
        You’re quite correct about text classics being more affordable, but I usually (simply because of limited income) have to be discriminating about book purchases – if I know it’s an author I like, I will purchase – but tend to be wary of those I don’t know. I use libraries for these ones!

        • Phew Sue, glad there are exceptions. Seriously though, I knew you like these authors and that you were talking generally.

          I guess I would say the library offers a great opportunity to try out exciting new novellas! But, that’s just me! Watch out for my next review – it’s for a really stimulating novella. At least, I thought so.

  8. A lot of what we call novellas now (in the 150-200 page range) would have been considered novels in the days of Thea Astley & Elizabeth Jolley. Novels have got bigger and baggier in recent times, sometimes IMO because they need a good pruning.

    • Interesting comment Lisa. Certainly quite a few of Astley’s and Jolley’s books were short(ish). I’ve called some of Astley’s books novellas, and Jolley’s, but some of Astleys in particular in in very small print Penguins, so I have wondered whether they are technically novellas by word count.

      It would be interesting to survey novel lengths over time. Of course we know that in 18th and 19th centuries, novels tend to be very long. You could be right that they are getting longer again, as you read way more than I do – but I haven’t particularly noticed it. Of course, that may be because I gravitate to taut and tight! Haha. Certainly all those big fantasy series you see in the shops are HUGE!

  9. Hi Sue, I do like novellas, but after perusing at Brona’s list, I see I haven’t read many. Snake I loved, Elizabeth Jolley and Thea Astley’s novels (which are considered novellas), I also enjoyed reading. So I think Barbara Hanrahan’s novels, for example, Dove, would also be considered a novella. And, I see Heart of Darkness is considered a novella, so that would be my favourite novella.

    • I’m not surprised that you like them Meg, as I think we have reasonably similar tastes, and like a variety of forms, don’t we. Brona’s list is a great list, but you are right she doesn’t have Barbara Hanrahan there. Scent of eucalyptus is the one I’ve read and I reckon it could be included.

      Heart of darkness your favourite novella? That’s interesting. I have read it, but it’s not on my list of favourite novellas. I should read it again though. There are a lot of classic novellas I think – Metamorphosis, Animal farm, Camus’ The outsider, and others. It’s surprising really.

  10. I confess that I had never heard of Barbara Hanrahan until today, so thank you. Another name to keep in the back of my mind when I’m trawling through second hand bookshops! And I added her Scent of Eucalyptus to my Australian Novella list.

  11. I have to admit that I do have a hard time choosing to buy a novella and my library often doesn’t have them. I’m most likely to notice this when there are novellas included in a series. I’m also not a huge fan of novellas and short stories. I can love them when they’re done well, but I think they may be harder to write than a novel, because of the space constraints, and it’s much more rare for me to love a novella or short story than a novel. Linked short stories have tended to be my best bet, since you still get some room for a plot or character development to take place over a longer work.

    • Thanks Katie. I think you are probably right about novellas being harder to do. That’s probably why some of my favourite, or most memorable books, are novellas! They tend to be the ones that pack a punch. I am drawn to them, if I see them in bookshops. I do like linked short stories too. I understand why people who don’t prefer short stories and novellas can enjoy them – and it’s nice to have a place where we can meet!

  12. As it happens, I’m writing a novella at the moment. I didn’t know it was a novella until fairly recently, but now it has definitely taken on a novella shape. As a writer, one thing I like about the form is that it allows me to leave gaps, to infer rather than explain, and I don’t feel the need to go into the characters’ backgrounds. One of my favourite novellas is ‘The Children’s Bach’ by Helen Garner. On the negative, or more critical side, I recently re-read ‘Death in Venice’ (as part of my project of reading plague literature). I was actually appalled by the attitude of the health authorities in denying, or seriously down playing the cholera epidemic so people wouldn’t leave the city.

    • Thanks Dorothy. I look forward to seeing your novella when it comes out.

      I like your idea that “it allows me to leave gaps, to infer rather than explain, and I don’t feel the need to go into the characters’ backgrounds”. This encourages the reader to fully engage because it’s not all on a plate. I too like The children’s Bach and have read it a couple of times.

      I must read Death in Venice. What would you most recommend from your plague literature reading? I’d love to know.

  13. Well, you know Camus’ The plague’. I would recommend that to anyone who hasn’t read it. Then the introduction to Boccaccio’s ‘The Decameron’. If you don’t know it, the introduction deals directly with the plague, but it’s conveniently forgotten after that. Worth a look, because it’s written so many centuries ago. Samuel Peyps’ diaries, those that deal with the plague are definitely worth reading.
    And about ‘Death in Venice,’ I’d love to hear what you think. Another thing I couldn’t stomach on re-reading was von Aschenbach’s obsession with the Polish boy. Maybe I’m being unduly negative.

    • Thanks Dorothy … I love The plague. And all-time favourite for me.

      I’d forgotten about The Decameron. And I’ve still to read Pepys. You aren’t enthusing me about Death in Venice, I must say!

  14. The pricing and value-for-money topic is an interesting angle to novellas. I love novellas and I don’t believe in “the longer, the better”. But since I mostly read via audiobooks, which tend to be expensive, it has sometimes annoyed me that I have to pay the same price for a 4 hours story and a 10 hours story. But if I really want to read a novella of course I buy it anyway!

    • Thanks Stargazer. I understand exactly what you are saying. In the end the quality is the thing isn’t it, but it’s understandable to think twice. I guess the message (implied, at least) is that the major costs aren’t in printing the pages or producing the audio.

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