I write “return” with a degree of critical care. Did the novella ever leave? If yes, why had it gone? Or maybe it was never really big at all, and therefore isn’t making a return so much as a début. All of this is unclear to me. But what has become definitely apparent is that there’s been a recent surge in interest for novellas. The form is infamously tricky to define, of course. A novella is supposed to be book-length, because it can be published on its own, but not quite novel-length. But then, does the novella exist at all? Maybe it’s just a long short story, or else a short novel. In terms of content and form — this has nothing to do with length — I have certainly found this true on some occasions. Some novellas, like Ethel Wilson’s “Tuesday and Wednesday” and “Lily’s Story,” which are collected in her Equations of Love, feel like short stories that have been inflated. In terms of emotional resonance and narrative breadth, they remain, well, a little short. Other novellas, like James’ The Aspern Papers, are much shorter than novels, but pack the punch of longer, more ambitious works.
Some clues as to the return of the novella:
To begin with, there was Julian Barnes’ first Booker victory in October with The Sense of and Ending, which was the shortest book on the shortlist, and has been called a novella by some. Also, last year, the Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris inaugurated the Paris Literary Prize to celebrate the novella, which is awarded to a work of fiction between 20,000 and 30,000 words. And let’s remember how much ink was spilled a few years ago about Robert Bolano’s posthumous masterpiece 2666, which is really 5 interlinked novellas. Also, the American short story genius Jim Shepard’s most recent collection, You Think That’s Bad, contained a novella titled “Gojira, King of the Monsters”, which was also published separately as a stand-alone book. As for publishing houses, Penguin has of course recently had a lot of success with elegant collections of short books: Penguin Great Ideas, Penguin English Journeys, Penguin Great Loves… Last year, they came out with Mini Modern Classics, 50 short pieces of fiction, published as their own, lovely little books, to celebrate 50 years of Penguin Classics. What’s great about the selection is that the editors have generally chosen little-known stories; letting them stand on their own gives them some well-deserved visibility. To be fair, a lot of the stories that make up the books in the series are actually short stories, not novellas. Moreover, from what I can see most of the volumes collect more than one story. Borges’ The Widow Ching—Pirate, for instance, also includes 5 other stories from the Argentine master. The design for the collection is very nice, playing off the silver, black, and white of the traditional Penguin Modern Classics, with much bigger author pictures on the back covers. Penguin has also released 5 production videos for the series: they’re great fun to watch.
More directly novella-related, perhaps, Melville House, which is becoming increasingly renowned for great books and great designs, has published a collection of books called The Art of the Novella, featuring, among many others, Jacob’s Room, by Virginia Woolf, The Awakening, by Kate Chopin, Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville, and 5 different stories entitled The Duel (by Casanova, Checkhov, Conrad, von Kleist, and Kuprin). The whole series is a great idea, and is perfectly executed: the choice is varied and classic, and the designs are remarkably simple and fresh. Their selection is sometimes a little wobbly in terms of form, however: I’m not entirely sure The Hounds of the Baskerville, for instance, is usually considered to be a novella, but that’s another story…
All this attention on novellas is wonderful; for one thing, novellas are awesome. They’re short enough to be read in a few sittings and to be quite focused aesthetically, but they’re also long enough that they have the time to creep into the brain of the reader; they cut out their own space and demand that their issues be addressed. I have a short-standing theory that the act of reading happens en deux temps. Maybe this only happens to me, but I feel like I always need a short period of adaptation when I start reading a book, not really to get used to the characters and the setting so much as to adjust my reader’s ear to the rhythm of the writer’s voice and the linguistic rules of the book’s universe. I believe this is why I can’t immerse myself completely in a book and read long swaths of it in one sitting until I’ve passed a certain point (sometimes this point comes early, sometimes later, never after the midway point) — then all is well and I can drive on to the end, perfectly attuned to the story’s music. The advantage with novellas is that they’re so short and well-formed that even a reading en deux temps can occur quickly. You can begin with two or three short sittings to start immersing yourself in the world of the story bit by bit, like a swimmer gradually dipping his limbs deeper and deeper in cold water, and then finish off the rest of the story in a single, smooth dive. The novella invites you to do all of that in one day, or even a few hours. Ideally, I would suggest leaving a night’s sleep in the middle to allow the shift to occur and finish the novella the next day — it makes the experience last longer.
Long-winded, baggy novels are great, but I have a particular fondness for the tight focus of short books. Among my favorite novellas are Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Alice Munro’s “A Queer Streak”, Mann’s Death in Venice, James Joyce’s “The Dead”, Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, Henry James’ “The Lesson of the Master”, Elizabeth Bowen’s “The Disinherited”, Maupassant’s Boule de Suif, and Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. Some of these straddle the line with the short story or the novel, but the long and short of it is that they’re just the right length. Plus, they’re all exquisite and quick to revisit. Between lengthy dinners and short shopping sprees, why don’t we all dip into a novella for the Holidays? Happy reading!