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Virginia Woolf’s writing room

‘Find the place where passion and precision are one.’  (Yeats)

‘Making a character ‘alive’ means getting to the bottom of his existential problem, which in turn means getting to the bottom of some situations, some motifs, even some words that shape him.  Nothing more.’  (Milan Kundera in The Art of the Novel, 1986)

‘Ford and Conrad loved a sentence from a Maupassant story, ‘La Reine Hortense’: ‘He was a gentleman with red whiskers who always went first through a doorway.’  Ford comments: ‘that gentleman is so sufficiently got in that you need no more of him to understand how he will act.  He has been “got in” and can get to work at once.’’ (James Wood in How Fiction Works, 2007

‘Care about writing because it matters.  Ache over every detail.  Be involved in the painful and intolerable wrestle with words and meaning.’  (Mem Fox in Radical Reflections: Passionate Opinions on Teaching, Learning and Living, 1993)

‘Writers have one great responsibility: to write beautifully, which is to say write well.  Within this responsibility is that of being truthful.  To charm, to amuse, to enchant, to take us out of ourselves, these are all part of beauty.  But there is a parallel responsibility: and that is to sing a little about the realities of the age, to leave some sort of magical record of what they saw and dreamt (because they can’t really do it the same way when dead) and to bear witness in their unique manner to the beauties, the ordinariness, and the horrors of their times.’  (Ben Okri in A Way of Being Free, 1997)

‘Go boldly forward and write the email to Australia and the world that says, ‘Your position is not sustainable.  You cannot keep going in this direction.  Something is going to give: it may be your relationships, it may be your infrastructure, it may be your children, or it may be you.’  (John Marsden, from his Colin Simpson Lecture to the Australian Society of Authors, 2005)

‘When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, “I am going to produce a work of art.”  I write it because there is a lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.  Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.  One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.’  George Orwell in his essay Why I Write, 1946)

‘Write it only for yourself, not for publication, not to show anyone, but full out, all you feel, for yourself, alone… And then sooner or later I daresay someone will talk you into publishing it somewhere.’ (correspondence from Douglas Stewart to David Campbell in Letters Lifted into Poetry, 2006)

‘To compose a novel is to set different emotional spaces side by side – and that, to me, is the writer’s subtlest craft.’  (Milan Kundera in The Art of the Novel, 1986)

‘There is only one recipe – to care a great deal about the cookery.’
Henry James

It was the light, such brightness.  We’d had heat for days, temperatures hitting forty degrees Celsius, the chooks barely coping, before a stretch of cool, overcast weather, a little mist.  But on Tuesday just gone, there it was, the light, such brightness, extraordinary clarity, as if we’d been living through a dust-storm that had suddenly cleared, or I’d finally cleaned the windows after twenty years of domestic laziness (which reminds me).  In reality, it was nothing more than a morning with a clear blue sky, no heat, just the clear blue sky, but how magical it felt.  I wanted to grab my coffee and sit outside and be out there, amongst the light on the blooming white roses, on the lavender that’s coming, and on the tomatoes that are fruiting up nicely; and the chooks, of course, those angels of the handkerchief-sized yard of mine.

But still I went down there, the opposite direction, to my writing room at the front of the house and opposite the library.  It’s quite a big room, my writing room – it could easily fit in a queen-sized bed (which would result in no writing, that’s for sure).  There’s a view out into the front veranda and the strip of yard out the front and the picture-postcard picket fence and the plane-tree avenue and the houses on the other side of the road and Rocky Hill on the other side of town.  But I’m getting carried away.  The point is I like my writing room: there’s no internet, no stereo, no bookshelves except a small white one that contains a collection of dictionaries.  One black Acer PC, which is holding up well considering how cheap it was; a Canon colour printer-scanner-copier, of which I’m just a little too fond.  The walls are painted a deep mud-red, which, in certain kinds of light, matches the turpentine floorboards.  A lot of things on the walls: a painting done by a friend, screen-prints, photos I’ve taken (some dating back to the early 1980s), story outlines.

So I enjoy it, being in this place, but on a day when the light outside is so extraordinary that you find that you’ve spent ten minutes staring at it, marvelling, there are thoughts that go through my head: why do I go down the hallway to the writing room?  What’s the true impulse?  Perhaps the most honest – and potentially most famous – essay on the subject is ‘Why I Write’ by George Orwell (1953).  Orwell talks about ego, and aesthetic enthusiasm, and political purpose, amongst others, with political purpose being his greatest motivator: ‘…looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally’.

I can’t find any reason to disagree with Orwell, but somehow there’s something missing.  Although it’s rather presumptuous – pompous even – to talk about my own motivations (Fall On Me might be pretty good, but it’s no Animal Farm), the topic is something I often think about, especially when I’ve just received bad news – the rejection of a story submitted, notice of a bad review, or my own conclusion that what I’m writing is stillborn.  Why exactly do I insist on spending the majority of my week sitting at my desk and making up stories?  In many ways, it’s an absurd practice: I did it as a kid, it was just playing back then, and I’m still doing it now, aged forty-three, except it remains playing.  Even though I write contemporary realist fiction, I’m doing nothing more than making up worlds and characters and predicaments.

Sure there are things I want to say, there are records that I want to leave behind, and, yes, I do love playing with words and sentences; getting life on the page is no easy task, in fact it’s more impossible than possible, so there’s an almighty challenge in all of this, and when it happens, that life, when you can feel pulse on the page, when the world is as real as any world can ever be, well, there’s no other feeling of accomplishment – it’s as though you’ve managed to go to the moon and back.  But I can’t escape thinking that the main reason why I turn away from spending a day outside in the most magical of light is that, on the whole, I find the fictional world more interesting than the world on the other side of the glass.

‘It seems we can never give up longing and wishing while we are thoroughly alive.  There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good, and we must hunger after them.’
George Eliot

‘If anything is fit to be called by the name of reading, the process itself should be absorbing and voluptuous; we should gloat over a book, be rapt clean out of ourselves, and rise from the perusal, our mind filled with the busiest, kaleidoscopic dance of images, incapable of sleep or of continuous thought.’
Robert Louis Stevenson

‘I just want to write songs that make people feel loved.’
Brian Wilson

 ‘To compose a novel is to set different emotional spaces side by side – and that, to me, is the writer’s subtlest craft.’
Milan Kundera

‘Writing is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.  One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.’
George Orwell

‘Go boldly forward and write the email to Australia and the world that says, Your position is not sustainable.  You cannot keep going in this direction.  Something is going to give: it may be your relationships, it may be your infrastructure, it may be your children, or it may be you.’
John Marsden

‘Like most comic novelists, I take the novel extremely seriously. It is the best of all forms – open and personal, intelligent and inquiring.  I value it for its scepticism, its irony and its play.’
Malcolm Bradbury

‘I’ve discovered that it is enough for a single note to be played beautifully.’
Arvo Pärt

‘Never state what you can imply.’
Jean Cocteau

‘Find the place where passion and precision are one.’
WB Yeats

‘The first paragraph brought the tingle of expectation I know when theatre lights dim.’
Pam Skutenko (in a review of Dorothy Hewett’s A Baker’s Dozen, Overland 164 2001)

‘Before you start writing a book make sure you’ve got something to say.’
Manning Clark

‘Novels are always about time.’
Margaret Atwood

A certain Ernest Hemingway

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.

Yes, I need you, well, I need your help.

I’m currently writing a feature article for The Canberra Times on the problem child of literature – the novella.  It seems to me that down the ages the novella has had a tendency to well and truly punch above its weight.  Stories like 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 a massive impact on Western literature and each has very firmly found its place in the literary canon.  But are they long short stories or short novels?  For example, my 1993 Arrow Classic edition of The Old Man and the Sea contains references to this amazing gem being a short story, a long short story, and a novel.  It’s a bit like a motor-bike manufacturer describing its latest model as a mono-cycle, a very fast mono-cycle, and an open-air rocket on wheels.

I’m intrigued about all this because by some extraordinary miracle I’ve written one, a novella, that is.  I had no idea what I was doing when I wrote the thing other than I just sat down to tell a story and by the time I’d finished it I had 40,000-word manuscript on my desk, a manuscript, I was convinced, would have a life in the bottom drawer.  To me, Fall On Me feels like a novella because it has a focused scope, which is common to the short form of the story, but it also has narrative depth (at least I bloody well hope so), which is common to the longer form.  Further, it might have a moral purpose, but who I am to judge.

I’m also intrigued with the novella because it is such a misunderstood little beast, and I completely love misunderstood…anything really.

But enough about me.

What are your thoughts on the novella?  How would you define the thing?  When you choose fiction to read, do you prefer the expansiveness and long journey of the novel?  If you’re a fan of the novella, do you have a favourite?

Do you not care about definitions?

Do you not care at all – would you rather just go fishing?

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