I’ve decided to use this blog post to expand my thoughts on the novella, and to add some new ones.
There’s been much talk of the novella being the perfect form for the digital age, both for reading and adaption to the screen.
‘Given that so much of the world suffers from a rapidly eroding attention span perhaps the novella is overdue for a new breath of life.’ (David Henley)
‘The form of the novella lends itself far more easily to (film) adaptation because of its focus on a single character, its concentration and shorter length. For the digital generation accustomed to the ninety-minute narrative, the novella fits neatly into the limits of the two-hour cinematic time frame.’ (John Dale)
I think many of the current claims made for and about the novella are dubious. In my view, people who enjoyed reading John Grisham on the train in print form will continue to do so on their tablets or ereaders; while those who enjoyed literary novels and short stories will continue reading those. The fact that you can’t finish a blockbuster on a single train journey will be neither here nor there. I’m not so sure about movie adaptions. We will have to wait and see.
But what I am sure about is that a good novella requires the same sustained concentration as the best short stories, and that this is a result both of their compression and their subtlety. Of course, not all of us are capable of sustained concentration on the train or tram, but that’s a separate point. There’s always the alternative of staring out the window, or studying one’s fellow passengers, heads bent over their tablets, or talking on their mobile phones.
I have just reviewed, for Kill Your Darlings, an excellent novella, Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary, shortlisted for the Man Booker prize. You can read my review here.
An earlier post on the novella, written when I reviewed Julienne van Loon’s Harmless, can be found here.
I wonder if it’s true that novella writers can’t get away so easily with sloppy construction and banal language as blockbuster writers can, that the tightness of the form somehow precludes this, or is simply not attractive to those who can’t help themselves from becoming long-winded. Alice Munro’s Nobel win may shed more light on fiction’s shorter forms, and there’s a great deal that those who wish to practise them can learn from her.
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.