June 11, 2012

Celebrating the novella, all month long


The Emerging Writers Network is 11 days into its “Novella Month” campaign, which celebrates the novella as a literary genre and highlights contemporary as well as classic examples of this, one of literature’s most mysterious and plucky forms.

Some claim the novella’s roots stretch back to the 10th century, when the Arabian Nights was serialized, or during the Renaissance, when French and Italian authors began dabbling in the form. But most scholars agree that the novella really began taking shape in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when German writers started writing narratives of varying lengths that, like novels, were propelled by characters and plot and themes, but were scaled back, more focused, content to chronicle a smaller number of characters and a single, unwavering plot line.

One of the first novellas I read was Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, which in a brisk 114 pages documents the death of a Russian magistrate whose final days are spent swimming in a sea of memory, despair, and confusion. By constructing the story around a single plot point — Ilyich’s death — Tolstoy is able to expand upon the story, including such major themes as morality, faith, personal character, and love. What at a superficial level appears simply to be a tale about one man’s death becomes a much larger exploration surrounding the meaning of life. Indeed, as an article in the Guardian from 2007 reports,

The Death of Ivan Ilyich is probably his best-known work after War and Peace – and with good reason. It is one of the most lacerating works of literature ever written, a hard, pitiless stare into the abyss, not just of death, but of human nature. It is one of those works that’s essential: not because reading it means you can tick off a cultural milestone (much in the way that people imagine that one day, perhaps in retirement, they can tick off War and Peace), but because without it you’re missing part of the picture of what it means to be human, and not just in late 19th-century St Petersburg, but now.

It is a superbly precise piece of work, devastating at the level of the sentence … We learn early on that Ivan Ilyich, a judge, had spent the last three days of his life screaming continually; and then Tolstoy takes us into the nightmare, from its very beginning. It is an examination of a life not well lived, and the consequences of it. And as a memento mori it is terribly effective. Death, as Empson said, is the trigger of the literary man’s biggest gun, and only the best marksmen should deal with it …

And therein lies the novella’s seduction. While often dismissed as lacking the depth or redeeming values of longer work, it is actually a succinct and effective storytelling method that, when done well, presents the reader with a unique experience, one that achieves more by saying less.

But if less is more, and the novella a superior way of delivering it, why has it struggled so long to gain traction? Perhaps because the novella — what is it, exactly? is not easily defined.

That’s not for lack of trying, though. Here are some definitions of the novella, as understood by practitioners of the form, taken from the Emerging Writers Network.

From Matthew Simmons, author of Jello Horse:

I read a book some time ago called, I think, Twelve German Novellas, and in the intro it mentioned that early on “novella” was not just a way to refer to a length, but a style as well. A novella, it said, was a longer short story, concisely plotted, and with a twist somewhere in the middle that sends the story careening off in an unexpected direction.

Now, I haven’t read that book in quite a while. I could be misremembering. (I am very likely misremembering. I feel like I have a terrible memory.) But even if I am misremembering this, I have decided at this point not to go back and find out if this is, in fact, what it says a novella is, because I like thinking that this is what a novella is. I have published one, and have drafts for two more novellas, and I have always followed that definition when writing them. And I have always, when I have picked up another novella, hoped to read a thing that fits that definition.

Because, really, doesn’t that sound like exactly the sort of thing you’d like to read?

JA Tyler, author of The Zoo, a Going:

Obviously, as a publisher of novel(la)s, we are in love with the form. And here is a short definition of the field as we see it, as well as a fun misconception we’d love to address:

Since our start, Mud Luscious Press has called a ‘novella’, a ‘novel(la)’, and most wrongly assume that those parentheses are an attempt to highlight the ‘la’ as a reference to the poetry, the ‘song’ of the works we publish. And while this is a nice, if wholly unintended consequence of those parentheses, they are in fact meant to highlight the word ‘novel’ embedded within novella, a reminder that well-written novellas are novels in all sense of the word: they have fully formed narratives, engaging characters, subtle and strong motifs, and all the other wonderful magic of a good book; and for us, the extra special beauty of a good novel(la) is that it does all of these things but in a more finite space, forcing the text to live, in our opinion, a tad more vividly, with a somewhat greater punch to the readerly throat.

Daniel Torday, author of The Sensualist:

In 1964, in ruling on the Jacobellis v. Ohio obscenity case, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said of pornography: “I know it when I see it.” I count myself in what I assume is the small minority of Americans who prefer novellas to porn. I also like the Stewart-test for novellas. Sure, they’re longer than a short-story and shorter than a novel and either bigger or smaller than a breadbox. But they also probably have some aesthetic proclivities: one central plot line rather than tending toward the opening out of subplots (room for Anna and Vronsky and Levin, but not hundreds of pages of Levin scything fields). A short-story-like attention to the condensed sentence (go try to cut one verb from Train Dreams or Goodbye, Columbus.) Some chance they’ve been unfortunately crammed in with some short stories, or call themselves “novels” but seem to be in inexplicably large point size.

But this is all the reader’s point of view, and I’ll end by saying as a writer, it’s probably best to avoid taxonomy. Potter Stewart never made any pornography (thank God!). I’m not sure if this is accurate, but I like to tell my students that writers can fall into two camps while generating prose: painters or sculptors. Painters layer image, meaning, brushstrokes– all of which accrete over time, and can require that every sentence is just so before the next one comes. Sculptors can’t get down to sculpting until there’s a lot of clay/granite to cut into– and a whole lot of material gets swept to the trash end of day. I know myself to be in the sculptor camp. I might have 400pp of a story at some point, but if, when I start chipping away, I find the final product needs to be 144pp, so be it. If the Supreme Court wants to call that a novel, or a novella, I just say: happy to have something that feels complete, and has answered all the questions it has posed with some degree of satisfaction.

Additional features from Novella Month include reviews of The Mimic’s Own Voice, by Tom Williams, and other contemporary novellas, as well as recommendations, like Richard Russo’s Interventions and Cynthia Ozyck’s The Shawl.

Melville House, of course, is no stranger to the pleasures of the novella. In fact, we pretty much wear our hearts on our sleeve with the Art of the Novella series. One title from this series that I cannot wait to have in my hands is Machado de Assis’ The Alienist.

I read the University of California press’ version, released in 1972 as The Psychologist and translated by W.L. Grossman, last weekend. It’s a knockout story, and de Assis, if you’re not yet familiar with his work, puts on a show unlike I’ve seen in recent memory.

The Alienist tells of a brilliant physician named Simão Bacamarte who in the late 1800s sacrifices a prestigious career to return home to his poor hometown outside Rio de Janeiro and dedicates himself to the budding field of psychology. Bacamarte opens the first asylum in Brazil, hoping to crown himself and his town with “imperishable laurels.” But the doctor begins to see signs of insanity in more and more of his neighbors, until suddenly everyone is a potential patient, and enemy.

The Alienist is a striking example of a satirical novella told in prose that is darkly humorous and nearly clinical in its precision. It’s not to be missed, and should be added to your reading list alongside many of the titles recommended from Novella Month, happening all June long over on the Emerging Writers Network.


Kevin Murphy is the digital media marketing manager of Melville House.