Monday musings on Australian literature: Classic Australian novellas

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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.

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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.

Written for Novellas in November 2022 and AusReadingMonth.

30 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Classic Australian novellas

  1. I’ve read Man Shy a few times (is Dusty the same length? I’ll check in the morning) and have been meaning to review it forever – the red heifer is the archetypal independent woman.

    I’ve no idea how you remembered I’d reviewed Cockatoos, but thank you.

    • I’d love to review Man-shy for the blog one day, Bill, but if you do first that would be great. I don’t have my copy of it anymore – it was probably a school copy, and Mum probably had one too, but all I have is her copy of Dusty (at home in Canberra). It’s bit longer – over 200p.

      Was glad you had reviewed Cockatoos!

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  4. Hi Sue, I have read all, but two. Cried reading Man Shy, Dusty and the Red Heifer. I only have Dusty, and I cannot find my Man Shy – possibly I gave it to my grandsons. You could add The Fish Girl by Mirandi Riwoe, which you reviewed.

  5. I’m relieved that I have at least one of the books in your list – the Elizabeth Jolley. Hope it as good as Miss Peabody’s Inheritance.

    I love that quote from Robert Silverberg. I don’t care for short stories much; they always end leaving me feeling unsatisfied. Novellas though have been a real discovery for me in the last few years.

    • Haha Karen … might get you into short stories yet! I think Miss Peabody’s inheritance was my first Jolley and I loved it but when I want to recommend her to someone it’s Newspaper – rightly or wrongly – that I choose! Does that answer your question?

  6. Novellas are my favorite! They have to be tight like a poem in terms of word choice. In the past I bought a book that was two novellas, and that was perfect. I also enjoy short story collections that conclude with a novella.

  7. I’ve only read The Plains on your list – I finished my post with a comment that a reread is definitely on the cards – there was a lot to try and take in!

    I have read Shirley Hazzard’s The Evening of the Holiday (1966) for NovNov this month, so that would be another ‘classic’ for your list I believe.

  8. I am brand new to the world of Novellas (although I have read plenty of them but didn’t realize that’s what they were at the time…like Great Gatsby. I’ve read that a million times and never realized it was a novella!) so I found your post very interesting and I read the Wiki article and found it very interesting and informative as well! Especially this:

    “For the German writer, a novella is a fictional narrative of indeterminate length—a few pages to hundreds—restricted to a single, suspenseful event, situation, or conflict leading to an unexpected turning point (Wendepunkt), provoking a logical but surprising end.”

    Indeterminate length (!!!)…restricted to a single, suspenseful event, situation, or conflict leading to an unexpected turning point (Wendepunkt), provoking a logical but surprising end.

  9. Interesting isn’t it Jinjer, and thanks for commenting. I had read that, but it’s not the generally accepted definition of course is it. I think that the “single, suspenseful event, situation, or conflict” is often seen as part of a novella, largely because the short length dictates a narrowing of narrative focus, but it’s not usually seen to be the prime criterion. They don’t really give examples do they of a long novella…

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