I have written on and reviewed novellas almost since this blog started, because I love the form. Last year, for Novellas in November (run by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck), I wrote a Monday Musings on Supporting Novellas (here in Australia). This year, I thought I’d address the meme’s first week’s theme, which is Classic Novellas. I am also going to dedicate this post to Brona’s AusReadingMonth, because I know she loves a good novella too!
I love Bookish Beck’s introduction to novellas, in which she quotes American author Joe Hill‘s description of novellas as being “all killer, no filler”. This beautifully captures why I love great novellas – they cut to the chase. This is not to say that longer books can’t also cut to the chase. Of course they can, but novellas often get a bad press because, you know, they are over before you’ve started, they don’t offer value for money in terms of how much you pay per page, etc etc. None of these anti-novella reasons cut it with me, though, because for me writing is all about the punch (broadly speaking) – and you can get that in a short story, a novella, or a full-length novel.
Wikipedia’s article on the novella provides a useful introduction to the form. Do read it if you are interested, but I thought I’d share just one quote from it, because it expands on Hill. The quote comes from Robert Silverberg‘s introduction to the novella anthology, Sailing to Byzantium. He writes that the novella
is one of the richest and most rewarding of literary forms…it allows for more extended development of theme and character than does the short story, without making the elaborate structural demands of the full-length book. Thus it provides an intense, detailed exploration of its subject, providing to some degree both the concentrated focus of the short story and the broad scope of the novel.
I have discussed the definition of novellas before, and you can read more in Wikipedia, so am not going to go there again, except very broadly. Definitions, after all, are the darnedest things, and here, for this post, I’m confronted with two – “classic” and “novella”. Regular readers here will know that I do like discussing definitions but, perhaps contrarily, I’m also happy for them to be loose. That is, I like definitions to offer a framework for the topic under consideration, but I don’t like them to lock us down. So …
For the purposes of this post I’m going to use meme-leader Cathy’s definitions. Classic, then, means published up to and including 1980 (or thereabouts), and novella means up to 150 pages and no more than 200! (Officially, novellas are defined by number of words but how can readers know that, so pages, for all their variation in size, is it!)
Selected Australian classic novellas
The first novella I can remember reading was in fact a classic Australian one, Frank Dalby Davison’s Man-shy, in my first year of high school. It had quite an interesting history, as Wikipedia describes. Originally self-published through the Australian Authors Publishing Company, it was soon picked by Angus and Robertson after winning the 1931 ALS Gold Medal, before then being successfully published in America as The red heifer. In a post on 1930s Australian literature, I shared that a columnist/critic had written that Davison’s The red heifer “has already been accepted in America, probably to a greater extent than in Australia”.
Over the decades since then I have read many more … including most of those in the list below (though several were before I started blogging).
- Jessica Anderson, Tirra lirra by the river (1978) (Lisa’s post)
- Thea Astley, A kindness cup (1974) (Lisa’s review)
- Frank Dalby Davison, Man-shy (1931)
- Helen Garner, The children’s Bach (1984) (my review)
- Bill Green, Small town rising (1981) (Lisa’s review)
- Barbara Hanrahan, The scent of eucalyptus (1973) (my review)
- Elizabeth Jolley, The newspaper of Claremont Street (1981)
- Louise Mack, The world is round (1896) (my review)
- David Malouf, Fly away Peter (1982) (Lisa’s review)
- Gerald Murnane, The plains (1982) (my review)
- Vance Palmer, Cyclone (1947) (Lisa’s review)
- Patrick White, The cockatoos: Shorter novels and stories (1974) (Bill’s review)
I’ve included Helen Garner’s novella, although it is pushing the definition envelope a bit, because, when researching its Wikipedia article many years ago, I discovered that Australian academic and critic, Don Anderson, had argued that
There are four perfect short novels in the English language. They are, in chronological order, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and Garner’s The Children’s Bach.
That is some accolade.
This is a small selection, based mostly on those I know and have read. I’d love to hear of your favourite classic novellas – and, if you are Australian, I am particularly interested in classic Australian ones that I haven’t included here.