Stephen King, in the afterword to his 1982 four-novella bind-up Different Seasons, calls the novella ‘an anarchy-ridden literary banana republic … to make even the most stout-hearted writer of fiction shake and shiver in his boots’ because, he says, ‘as far as marketability goes, you in a heap o’ trouble’.
It’s always been that way, at least until recently.
The word ‘novella’ lost its italics and properly arrived in English around 1902, and publishers have been keeping it at arm’s length ever since. Because it costs about as much to make a smallish book as it does a medium-sized one, and there seems to be a perception that bookbuyers buy books by the kilo.
While I can’t recall anyone ever telling me that they loved a book because it was so heavy, or so thick, or so long, even the great writers and their famous novellas have endured the industry’s teeth-sucking format fears. Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s first appeared in Esquire, then had three short stories added to it to make a book. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness began life serialised in Blackwood’s Magazine, first appeared in book form as one of the ‘other stories’ in Youth: a Narrative and Two Other Stories and continues to be published with other material. Worthy material, maybe, but let’s admit that it’s mostly there as the bulking agent it is.
This identity crisis is only compounded by the word ‘novella’ appearing to derive from ‘novel’, even though it’s the other way round, and by the reluctance of some to believe the novella exists at all.
In 1992, Richard Ford edited The Granta Book of the American Short Story. It met with acclaim and Granta signed him up again, for a book that I’m betting was originally slated to be The Granta Book of the American Novella. Not in Ford’s hands though. Under his close scrutiny, the very concept unravelled and slipped through his fingers, admittedly in an erudite and quite scholarly way. The more he thought about it, it seemed, the less amenable the novella was to pinning down. And the more he cornered academics in offices and hallways and demanded definitions, the more they shrugged their sloping tweed shoulders and mumbled into their beards.
‘I’m not mad at the word – I just don’t know what I might mean if I used it,’ Ford ended up saying, in his highly readable introduction to what became, wait for it, The Granta Book of the American Long Story.
What next? The Granta Book of the American Medium Story? Stories of middling length, each one with a protagonist who communes with the dead? I take his point – some stories are like short stories, but longer. They take a little more narrative to do their business. But I think that only goes so far. I don’t see them stretching and stretching until, at some arbitrary point, they trip over a line and become novels.
There is a risk, in the search for a bulletproof novella definition and rules that are absolutely adhered to, of forsaking the possibility of a template less absolute, but nonetheless with sufficient consistency, validity and utility to be worth examining further. The writer who can see the novella as a work different from the short story and from the novel is in a stronger position to use the intermediate prose form well and write it powerfully and distinctively.
The novella goes deep, even though it doesn’t go long. The novella embraces detail and uses it as a tool, rather than paring it back in the way a short story demands, or pumping it up and bloating a modest story with showy scholarship. (We don’t need all your research in there, guys ... Yes, fine, you drank a bear’s blood, but it’s also cool to invent things. And not tell us everything.) A novella is a small world, but it can be an intense one – a world richly layered, full of rocks to turn over, thoughts to riff on in a telling way (something Richard Ford does perhaps better than anybody, but that a short story, or short-story editor, would typically set some limits on).
The novella form suits stories with a focus on the protagonist, a point-of-view anchored inside his or her head, and the quiet transformation on offer when light hits a truth from a new angle. For the writer, it’s a chance to commit to that character, and build and build and build, before and during the writing. And it’s through that commitment and through delivering the specifics in a manner deeper and broader than the short story allows – making room for gestures, for spaces and unvoiced thoughts, for minute details that will light a fuse – that wider truths can be alluded to and become present and extrapolate. The universal comes through respecting the specific at a degree to which the novella is entirely suited.
A typical short story, at its heart, will have one piece of business to do. It might do it cleverly and not always directly but, since Poe’s time, we’ve been told we aren’t to waste a word doing it. There’s room for allusion and implication, but not to marshal an army to achieve it. With a novel, other ideas are recruited in numbers to push, shape and complicate the path taken by the first. As well as its impact on the central narrative, each of these has its own trajectory and requires its own attention and resolution.
The novella gives the writer an opportunity to attempt something structurally different that seems, to me, to lie genuinely between those two positions. It can be a chance to ‘nest’ one narrative in another, in a way that reveals more about both. Or a chance to bring two significant and not obviously complementary story elements together, each with weight and purpose and its own narrative momentum, but each also with the muscle and agility to go to work on the other – pushing, pulling and bringing the truth to the surface in interesting and sometimes unexpected ways.
And perhaps this is its time.
In 2000, Stephen King, of the famous ‘banana republic’ quote, ensured that the first commercial ebook was a novella. Unlike Different Seasons, he didn’t hold Riding the Bullet back until he had three other novellas to bind it up with. Its publication as a stand-alone enovella was perhaps the first clear statement that, in preparing an ebook for market, none of the size issues connected with paper books applied.
Meanwhile, the audiobook has evolved from being a seventy-dollar box of cassette tapes and a non-mainstream reading experience to being a digital file playable on a device we all carry around with us. Audible, now the audio division of Amazon, has become the biggest employer of actors in New York, and listeners around the world downloaded 1.6 billion hours of content from its outlets last year. While many of these are non-fiction titles and novels, audio presents a huge opportunity for the novella, which is perhaps the ideal length to lure podcasters to try the audio experience.
While technology has changed the range of opportunities available to the novella, it has also changed the lives of readers. To the already busy lives of the late twentieth century, we have added Facebook, YouTube, Minecraft, Netflix and many, many more claimants to our free time. It’s no surprise a lot of us are reading less.
Fortunately, at a time when many in the publishing industry see challenge, others are prepared to flip the coin and see opportunity. Kindle Singles was designed for works of novella length and has sold millions of copies. In Australia, both Seizure and Griffith Review have built pipelines to link novella writers with novella readers.
Perhaps, after being a poor fit with the publishing style of the entire twentieth century, this is the ideal time for a movie-length read that fits in a pocket or on a device we all carry, and is engrossing while it lasts but done in an evening, or a domestic plane flight, or a day’s commuting.
Gotham, 1 May, Inkerman & Blunt, $19.99
The Wisdom Tree series will be available to download as audiobooks from May 2016 from audible.com.au/WisdomTree.