Friday, March 14, 2008

Exploring the Novella

I’ve stumbled upon another reading challenge that I can’t resist. The Novella Challenge, hosted by Trish, calls for participants to read six novellas between April and September. This challenge appeals to me for two reasons. First, there are a number of books of the required length that I had already planned to read or reread in the near future, a few with a view to including them on next year’s Law & Literature syllabus. Second, I’ve long been puzzled by the novella form.

What exactly is a novella? One website that I came across defined it as being “longer than a long short story but shorter than a short novel.” Not very helpful, but very much in line with the general tendency to define the form primarily by reference to length. In setting out the terms of the challenge, Trish defines the term novella as encompassing works of between 100 and 250 pages. Elsewhere, I’ve seen a span of 60 to 130 pages delineated. My own conception of novella length falls somewhere in between, perhaps 75 to 175 pages. Of course, all that these divergences demonstrate is how arbitrary it is to define a literary form simply by length.

I note that there are a number of books on my shelves that appear to be novella length, but which the authors and/or publishers have explicitly, via a subtitle, proclaimed to be novels, for example, Every Eye by Isobel English (152 pages), and Travels in the Scriptorium by Paul Auster (145 pages). I recall, as well, that there was some debate as to whether Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach (167 pages) ought to qualify as a contender for the Booker prize given that the rules of the competition restrict eligibility to “full-length novels.” My own perception of On Chesil Beach is that it is indeed a novella by virtue of both its length and its scope. But many others disagreed, including the Booker committee and judges who included it on the 2007 shortlist. On the other hand, I’ve seen Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie referred to as a novella and, while it clocks in at a mere 127 pages, I would count it as a novel by virtue of its complex structure. I have also seen James Joyce’s “The Dead” labelled a novella and, given that it’s a story of only 40 odd pages which anchors a linked short story collection, that just seems nutty to me. To my mind, it’s an exemplar of the short story form.

All of which is to say that it’s got to be about more than page count. I’ve spent a good bit of time thinking and reading about the formal distinctions between the short story and the novel. Does the novella have more in common, formally speaking, with the short story or with the novel? Or is it its own creature, with its own formal attributes? Participating in The Novella Challenge will be a fine kick-start for me in exploring these questions.

To meet the challenge, I plan to read (or in some cases, reread) at least six of the following classics:

Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart;

Chinua Achebe, No Longer at Ease;

Honore de Balzac, The Unknown Masterpiece;

Albert Camus, The Outsider;

Henry James, The Aspern Papers;

Thomas Mann, Death in Venice;

Herman Melville, Bartleby the Scrivner;

Carson McCullers, The Ballad of the Sad Café; and,

Katherine Anne Porter, Noon Wine.

I would also like to read some contemporary novellas. I don’t have many specifically in mind though. My sense is that it’s even harder to get novellas published than short stories these days and that, when novellas do get published, they’re generally buried within a short story collection so that they may not attain an independent identity in readers’ minds. A new Canadian small press that is bucking this trend with a novella series is Quattro Books, and I will definitely be checking out some of their offerings. I also have A Bright Tragic Thing by Elyse Freidman on my TBR list (a novella published as part of her recent collection Long Story Short). Other suggestions of contemporary novellas for me to read are most welcome.

Finally, to help me muse on the formal attributes of the various books I’ll be reading, I plan to delve into the following academic studies that I picked up at my university library:

Judith Leibowitz, Narrative Purpose in the Novella;

J.H.E. Paine, Theory and Criticism of the Novella; and,

Mary Doyle Springer, Forms of the Modern Novella.

Here too, I’d welcome recommendations of articles or books on the novella form.

Thanks to Trish for hosting The Novella Challenge and starting me off on a grand new reading project, and also to Eva who brought the challenge to my attention.


ravenousreader said...

I just joined this challenge too (the only one I've allowed myself other than the Short Story Challenge).

In doing a little research on the form, I came across the Britannica Online article which talked about the form originating in the Middle Ages as a "short, well structured narrative based on local events that were humorous, satiric or amorous."

At my local library today, found (in the new releases stacks) a book called The Diving Pool, Three Novellas by Yogo Ogawa. According to the blurb, this is a "haunting trio of novellas about love, fertility, obsession, and how even the most innocent gestures may contain a hairline crack of cruel intent."

Cam said...

The novella is a concept I've stuggled with. I've never been happy with any definition I've read. I don't think anyone can agree. I think of Things Fall Apart as a novel, and Bartleby as a short story. The Great Gatsby is another work that has been the subject of the novella or novel debate. I don't have the answers; I look forward to reading what you discover.

litlove said...

As for contemporary novellas, I enjoyed Joyce Carol Oates' Beasts and Alan Judd's The Devil's Own Work, and you know I adored Gabriel Josipovici's Everything Passes. I'm very tempted by this challenge, but I'm not so good at reading what's on a list. I might just read some novellas anyway! Oh and might I encourage people to read the original 19th century novellas that started the trend - anything by Theodore Storm, for instance.

LK said...

I too have heard good things about Diving Pool -- something I do want to read.

I read Good Women: Three Novellas by Jane Stevenson. It was amusing.

Mark Thwaite said...

Like Cam, I've never come across a definition of novella that really suited. It seems to me that it is used to justify a short novels shortness (a short novel sounds like it doesn't contain enough words; novella is invoked to excuse the shortness!) or promote a short story's ambition.

Regardless, Bartleby's my fave!

Kerry said...

I recommend "The Hunters", which is two great novellas by Claire Messud.

monster paperbag said...

My own perception of On Chesil Beach is that it is indeed a novella by virtue of both its length and its scope. --> i would agree..

rob mclennan said...

novella? read mine! ha.

currently rereading Elizabeth Smart's By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept, a magnificent short novel; and what about Sheila Watson's The Double Hook? It ain't that long.

A while ago, Priscila Uppal recommended a little novel called Silk by Alessandro Baricco; an extremely lovely thing...

alberta rob

Eva said...

I'm excited about this one-we'll both be reading the McCullers! I really enjoyed the Camus, and I'll be interested in your thoughts on Death in Venice. I think if I reread it now I'd really like it, but I was a bit too young to appreciate it at the time.

Tinsku said...

Hi, I just discovered your blog and wanted to add that there are pages and then there are pages. The page count depends often very much of the chosen layout and design of the work. A poem can be squeezed to fit one page or spread to, say, fill three. So is the decision between a short story, novella or novel then made by the printer or graphic designer? Does the writer have a say in it? I think the content should matter, otherwise it's too random, and the categories lose their point.

Big Book, Big Evil said...

I found the Novella Challenge through your blog. Joined a little late, but I'll just have to hunker down and read!

I noticed that you read some critical material on the novella form. Any comments on them?

I've started a novella blog: Big Book, Big Evil. Please stop by!

Tynia Thomassie said...

I'm an AP literature teacher and usually I end the year with literary circles. I teach seniors -- all very strong readers, but I also ask parents to share the same book, then we have a potluck dinner.

Seeking a novella that centers around African-American family, that is contemporary, also literary. MUST be literary, besides a good read. REALLY love turning kids on to authors who are contemporary versus authors they've come to think of as the African-American canon. Any ideas?