In Praise of the Novella

Ian McEwen sticks up for the novella. I think it’s a branding problem: “novella” just sounds like something that couldn’t manage to be a novel. But they are often better than novels . . .

I believe the novella is the perfect form of prose fiction. It is the beautiful daughter of a rambling, bloated ill-shaven giant (but a giant who’s a genius on his best days). And this child is the means by which many first know our greatest writers. Readers come to Thomas Mann by way of “Death in Venice,” Henry James by “The Turn of the Screw,” Kafka by “Metamorphosis,” Joseph Conrad by “Heart of Darkness,” Albert Camus by “L’Etranger.” I could go on: Voltaire, Tolstoy, Joyce, Solzhenitsyn. And Orwell, Steinbeck, Pynchon. And Melville, Lawrence, Munro. The tradition is long and glorious. I could go even further: the demands of economy push writers to polish their sentences to precision and clarity, to bring off their effects with unusual intensity, to remain focussed on the point of their creation and drive it forward with functional single-mindedness, and to end it with a mind to its unity. They don’t ramble or preach, they spare us their quintuple subplots and swollen midsections.

To sit with a novella is analogous to watching a play or a longish movie. In fact, there’s a strong resemblance between the screenplay (twenty odd thousand words) and the novella, both operating within the same useful constraints of economy—space for a subplot (two at a stretch), characters to be established with quick strokes but allowed enough room to live and breathe, and the central idea, even if it is just below the horizon, always exerting its gravitational pull. The analogy with film or theatre is a reminder that there is an element of performance in the novella. We are more strongly aware of the curtain and the stage, of the author as illusionist. The smoke and mirrors, rabbits and hats are more self-consciously applied than in the full-length novel. The novella is the modern and post-modern form par excellence. Conrad’s famous contribution to the tradition is typical. It begins with exquisite artifice, in “luminous space”—Marlowe gearing himself up to tell his story while he and his friends sit in a yacht at anchor in the Thames estuary at dusk. As the light drops, the notion of darkness is set before us, and will be relentlessly pursued through a hundred pages or so.

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A much needed and well-deserving defense: novellas constitute some of the best works of literature.

I remember Dorothy Parker writing that in the U.S we tend to measure quality with a yard stick. Thus, short stories (and novellas) are less treasured than novels. Perhaps our sense is that anything less than 200 pages is not as economically sound as a fat novel. Sad.

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