Don’t write a novella, I am told. A novella is really just an “unfinished” novel, I am told, or it is the form that is the diminutive of the novel, the novel’s daughter, the novel’s little sister. They are only published in groups, I am told, because no one will pay for long-form fiction that’s too slim. The “they” is professors, agents, editors, classmates, colleagues. What they mean, of course, is that the novella feels small, and in literary publishing, particularly in the U.S., fiction that is small means feeble, trivial, minor. But I am here to argue for literary elegance, for the aesthetic potential of the economy of words. I am here to argue for the taut book and the small press.
When we try to define the novella, it happens in two not entirely useful ways: either by length, which is arbitrary, or by what it isn’t: not novel, not short story. Yet all other genres are identified by their method of operation, their grammar, if you will. If we were to give the novella such an identity, we might conceive of it as an exercise in the most difficult constraint the long-form fiction writer can imagine: write a book that uses less to say more.
From Judith Leibowitz’s Narrative Purpose in the Novella: “Whereas the short story limits material and the novel expands it, the novella does both in such a way that a special kind of narrative structure results, one which produces a generically distinct effect: the double effect of intensity and expansion.”
Don’t write a novella, I am told, but as I am working the material on the page, as I am opening possibility, I find myself embracing implication to its exhaustion, attempting to make the prose increasingly more succinct. It becomes a sort of challenge: How can I purge my work to fit ten pages into one calcified, crystallized paragraph? How can I distill the story into its most potent form?
James Wood had noted novellas are “fiercely composed and devoutly starved.” Kyle Semmel notes novellas are “controlled,” and “tight,” and “characterized by framing.” Leibowitz says, “The novella is eminently a narrative of suggestion.”
We could say then, that if the novel is a “loose baggy monster” that loiters and lingers, the novella is a ghost or constellation, gesturing and proposing. Where the novel embraces digression, the novella embraces negative space.
But the characteristic that makes the novella most distinct is its adherence to Edgar Allan Poe’s Single Effect Theory, which argues that, because a story can be consumed in a single reading session, it does a better job of haunting us. Poe argues this is true of the short story because the reading experience is not interrupted by setting the book down, by dismantling the reader’s suspended disbelief which is required of the novel. The novella has the capacity to create in readers the visceral effect of the short story, doing so not over the course of several pages but through the vehicle of an entire book. This is “the double effect of intensity and expansion” that Liebowitz notes is specific to the novella—it harnesses concision and brevity to craft a storyworld through which one is both carefully guided and also free to be lost.
Don’t write a novella, I am told, because it is underdeveloped, minor, negligible. Write a novel because the novel is the novella’s father, the novella’s older brother. Don’t write a novella, I am told and what I hear is this: don’t write a novella because it is feminine.
From Carole Maso’s Break Every Rule: “If writing is language and language is desire and longing and suffering and it is capable of great passion and also great nuances of passion—the passion of the mind, the passion of the body—and if syntax reflects states of desire, is hope, is love, is sadness, is fury and if the motions of sentences and paragraphs and chapters are this as well, if the motion of the line is about desire and longing and want; then why when we write, when we make shapes on paper, why then does it so often look like the traditional straight models, why does our longing look like for example, John Updike’s longing in its formal assumptions: why a story is, a paragraph, a character. Does form imply a value system? Is it a statement about perception?”
In a recent interview with the New York Times Book Review, Teju Cole said that the novel is “overrated” and that the writers he is most interested in “find ways to escape it.”
I believe that form does imply a value system and it is time to disrupt that value system, to complicate the rubrics and subvert the codes, and I believe the novella could be the genre for doing this. So I say: Do write a novella, if it beckons, and give it a home in a slim book with a small press (I bow down before you, Dzanc). Write a novella as a way of writing out of and against convention, a way of writing despite and beyond.
(Photo credit: richard_b, via Morguefile.)