October 17, 2012

We’re just going to say it: there is nothing unmanly about the novella


Ian McEwan with a lot of non-novellas

At the Cheltenham Literary Festival this weekend, Ian McEwan confirmed what we here at Melville have felt for a long, long time: novellas are not a problem.  Not a weird literary growth, the undesirable mini-pumpkin of the bookshelves: too small to eat, carve up, or display. The Telegraph has the story:

The author told an audience at Cheltenham Literary Festival over the weekend, “If I could write the perfect novella I would die happy.”

McEwan said that publishers and critics feel there is something ‘unmanly’ about a novella: “Whenever I’ve handed in a novella there’s always someone to give you a kick in the shins, as if you’ve made a mistake. Many of the writers we love the most, we love for their novellas: Death in Venice, by Thomas Mann, The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James, The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka.”

McEwan believes that brevity appeals to readers, because “you can hold the whole thing structurally in your mind at once.”

McEwan is, incidentally, out promoting his new book Sweet Tooth, which includes a character who is nominated for a literary prize for their novella, and, lest anyone has forgotten, his own 166-page On Chesil Beach was nominated for the Man Booker Prize in 2007. It’s hard to believe that anyone is kicking his shins over at Jonathan Cape, but it’s true that the prejudices of publishers against certain shorter formats often run deep — the Telegraph quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald commenting on the low sales of The Great Gatsby: “It was too short,” he wrote to a friend. “Remember this. Never write a book under 60,000 words.”

And Poe, too, was similarly discouraged from writing stories by Harper & Brothers; they suggested that “if he will lower himself a little to the ordinary comprehension of the generality of readers, and prepare… a single work… they will make such arrangements with him as will be liberal and satisfactory.” I can hear the voices of an H. & Bros editor now: “Bulk it up, for god’s sake! Can we make it a 450-page debut novel with a blurb by … hold it, hold it … Sir Walter Scott?”

But literary history has often proved the market wrong, and we’ve got 42 beautiful examples of that right here, for your manly flouting.



Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.