There’s this problem child I know. We all have someone in our lives who could fit this definition – a rebel, a wild one, a lost soul, or all three at once, which would be quite something – but mine is less conventional, in every possible way. The problem child I know isn’t made of flesh and blood and bone, it doesn’t have a heart (at least not in the usual sense), and for some – for many, it seems – it doesn’t actually exist, or they know it does but wish it wouldn’t.
What on earth am I talking about? The novella, of course. That little book of power and pummel, the miniature of in-between.
A quick survey of literary history reveals that the novella has well and truly punched above its weight. Stories like Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886), Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice (1912), George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) and Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1952) have had an immeasurable impact on Western writing and reading – mini revolutionaries, the bunch of them – and each has firmly found its place in the canon.
But the crunch is this: what is their true identity and purpose?
Jonathan Cape’s hard-cover edition (1972) of The Old Man and the Sea describes it as “shorter than the conventional novel, longer than the longest short story, Hemingway’s new work of fiction eludes classification.” My 1993 Arrow Classic edition of the same tale contains references to it being a short story, a long short story, and a novel. In other words, we haven’t a clue what we’ve just published.
The fact is there is a great suspicion about the novella, because it’s next to impossible to categorise. Down through the ages there have been times when no one wants to even talk about the thing, as if worried that it is going to lead to incarceration, or a long, slow death from The Plague.
But let’s be brave.
The word itself, novella, comes from the Latin, novus, which means new and was originally applied to plants and animals. In the sixth century, novella meant a newly planted tree, which is rather delightful; I’ll be using it the next time I’m at the nursery. Yet this doesn’t really get us anywhere. And definitions that rely solely on word-count – somewhere between 10,000 and 40,000 words seems to be the rule of thumb – completely under-estimate the devious ways of the novella.
In his introduction to The Granta Book of the American Long Story (1998), Richard Ford tries to capture a definition of our little friend (or perhaps that should be foe) but even he can’t get one to stick, despite interviewing his comrades in academia, who appear knowledgeable about the subject but ultimately brush him off. Interesting that for this story I approached two respected academics in the creative-writing field and neither returned my emails – as if I was enquiring about a missing person they might just know something about.
The history of the novella goes back further than the efforts of Tolstoy and co. Five hundred years earlier one Giovanni Boccaccio authored (or may have simply collected) the first cycle of novellas that comprise The Decameron. A hop and a skip from there, the Germans, who have never shied away from a bit of cheeky experimentation, took a particular shine to the form, primarily in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, to the point that the critic Theodore Mundt, in 1823, called the novella ‘the German house pet’. (I shudder to think what Australia might nominate as a ‘house pet’. Kylie Minogue? Actually, could she be described as a pop-music novella?)
However, despite the novella having a long and illustrious history of contribution, it really does seem to be the literary problem child. But why? Why is it so hard for people to get their heads around what is essentially a short work of fiction? Then again, a short story is also ‘a short work of fiction’. And therein lies the apparently insurmountable difficulty: the novella is the slipperiest of beasts, refusing to fit neatly into boxes that appeal to writers, readers, and publishers. And if history has shown us anything, we are sceptical about what doesn’t fit neatly into boxes. Ask your nearest bisexual.
But still novellas are written, and sometimes they’re even published.
John Clanchy, the Canberra-based award-winning writer of short stories, novellas and novels, says that despite being a fan of the shorter story the novella really is cause for heart palpitations. “The concept,” he says, “is suss for many in the Anglo word, which has tended to see the novella as just one more European conspiracy: first they foist the novella on us, and when that doesn’t work they go and invest post-modernism.”
How would Clanchy define the novella?
“Whatever we call it,” he says, “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.”
Despite his own success with shorter works – His Father’s Daughter (UQP, 2008) contains five stories ranging from 9,000 to 30,000 words – Clanchy agrees that one of the biggest challenges with novellas is getting the bloody things into print. “Editors and publishers don’t seem to know what to do with this ‘intermediate’ form,” he says. “Show a novella to an editor – the adventurous Madonna Duffy at UQP excepted – and she’s just as likely to pull a mouth and say, ‘A novella? It’s kind of…um…long, isn’t it?’ To which the only sensible reply is, ‘Yes, but so is a goanna.’”
Mandy Brett, Senior Editor at one of Australia’s most respected mid-sized presses, Text Publishing in Melbourne, believes that it goes without saying that novellas are difficult to publish. “There are a couple of reasons for this and the first is brutally economic. On the bookshelf, a novella is just a very skinny book. We can’t expect people to pay nearly as much for it as for a novel. But in fact it doesn’t cost all that much less to produce. This makes the small book a highly dodgy proposition in terms of turning a dollar.”
The second difficulty is cultural, says Brett, but ends up being economic. “There is not a broad readership for the novella. It is not widely appreciated as a form, being perceived as a stingy novel or a bloated short story.”
Brett certainly has a point. Inspired by Richard Ford undertaking an ‘informal poll’ of his academic mates, I posted on my humble home in the blogosphere a request for thoughts on the novella. Comments came back along the lines of “most writers like writing them and reading them, but readers don’t, because they generally want more of a meal when they sit down to eat” and “I prefer the traditional novel format – it’s not so much a more-bang-for-your-buck kinda thing (though I have found myself standing in a bookshop thinking, there’s no way I’m paying $32 for 120 pages) it’s that I find short stories just too damn short!”
However, according to Mandy Brett it’s not as grim as all this might suggest.
“There’s a small subset of literary readers who will buy an outstanding novella because they appreciate wonderful writing, or hear enough good things about it to give it a go.” Brett cites A Love Letter from a Stray Moon by Jay Griffiths, which was published by Text earlier this year, as an example of a contemporary novella. It is 20,000 words in length and she describes it as “exquisite”.
John Clanchy, too, is optimistic about the future of the novella. “As a committed reader in the Age of Obesity,” he says, “I’ve cut the contemporary fat novel right out of my diet – too many carbs and too little nutrition at too large a price.”
What about this brave new world of digital publishing and e-readers?
Mandy Brett sees fertile ground. “As the ebook starts to take over and book pricing comes adrift from the traditional restrictions imposed by print technology and the physical distribution of books, it will become much easier to play around with format and form. I expect to see more poetry, more novellas, more short stories, and more experimental literary forms accessible in mainstream outlets in the future.” And that’s a ray of sunshine for those writers who want to muck up and those readers who hunger for more than the bulging literary block-buster.
So, it seems, the novella, despite its inherently shifty business, is here to stay. It may well be lurking behind that wall over there, ready to frighten the living daylights out of an unsuspecting public. Perhaps the revolution will – again – come in the form of a little book, one that might pop up on a computer screen and say this: There’s something that you really should know about.
First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 20 August 2011. With thanks to John Clanchy and Mandy Brett. Thanks also to Alec and Agnes, who commented on an earlier Under the Counter post about the novella and are quoted above.