Some thoughts on the novella, and ‘Harmless’ by Julienne van Loon
April 29, 2013 — 2:26

Author: Dorothy Johnston  Category: literary competitions novella  Comments: 2

My review of Julienne van Loon’s novella Harmless was published in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age and the Canberra Times last weekend, prompting me to think again about the novella as an art form and all that’s been said about it over the last few years. As many readers and commentators have observed, the novella has been enjoying something of a come back, due in part to the digital revolution and in part, in Australia at least, to the Griffith Review novella competition, which received more than 200 entries. Julienne van Loon was a judge of this competition, along with Craig Munro and Estelle Tang.



Harmless exhibits one of the classic features of the novella, in that the action is compressed and tightly constructed – a point I make in my review. But what I didn’t go into – 600 words imposes its own kind of compression – was how that action and those characters are made richer for the reader by the scope van Loon allows herself to explore the characters’ past lives and what has led them to their present impasse.

Harmless could have been an excellent short story, tense and full of a sense of impending doom  – not that those qualities are missing from the novella – but it takes longer to reach the climax. It takes its own good time.

While I was writing my own attempt at a novella, called Ashes from the Headland – it made the finals in the Griffth Review comp and you can read more about it here – I was helped in my thinking by an excellent essay called The Novella: Some Tentative Suggestions by Professor Charles May. May talks about various hallmarks of the novella, including ‘an ordered situation broken up by disorder’, a character having ‘to make a choice of nightmares’ and a setting that is ‘cut off from the everyday world of normal reality.’ All of these apply to my novella and to Harmless, a title that contains frightening levels of irony.

It’s a fascinating question, and of course one that will never be answered definitively – how long a work of fiction needs to be in order for the themes and characters to find full and satisfying expression.







  • Very interesting. I was beginning to feel that the novella could be ‘my’ genre, but then, of course, like any other form the definition is so ‘spongy’. Charles May puts a word limit on it – 10-50,000. Maybe. But two of the books he cites as examples of the genre, are also examples of the difficulty in defining it. Faulkner’s ‘The Bear’ is usually presented as a novella, even a story, but ‘The Great Gatsby’ comes to us as a novel. I think we like to talk about these things in the same way that ‘naming’ is so important to us humans. That feeling that something that moves around, has sentience of its own, doesn’t really exist unless we nail it somehow. Like Adam and the beasts and birds and fowls. And I’ve just read a review of the Pervear-Volkonsky translation of Nikolai Leskov’s stories, which from the sound of them exceed in the number of characters allowed. Chekhov admired Leskov – until this translation few non-Russians knew his work or even of it. Many of Chekhov’s stories at least approach the novella in the word count. And what about Joyce’s The Dead?

    May 1, 2013 — 22:36
  • Hello Sara,

    thanks very much for your comment. Nigel Featherstone, who has published two novellas in a row, says (I’m not quoting exactly) that he just kept writing till he felt he’d done justice to the story in his head. This is a rough and ready rule, but perhaps, in the end, the best that writers can come up with?
    While I was writing my novella, I had some sort of organic sense of what I wanted to expand, and the various ‘holes’ in the narrative that I wanted to leave. But I couldn’t have explained this and still can’t.
    So yes, naming is important, sure, but with the novella, the funny thing is that I didn’t feel constricted because I knew it was going to be far too long to offer to a literary magazine.
    I must get hold of that translation of Leskov’s stories if I can. And I haven’t read Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ so I should put it on my list as well.
    Of course, I have no idea whether any of these musings were going through Julienne van Loon’s mind when she was writing ‘Harmless’. It’s a good novella and I hope it finds an appreciative readership.

    May 2, 2013 — 0:59
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