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  • James Ward

Slim novels

“When the book wars sweep across the galaxy, and the blood of publishers runs down the gutters of every interstellar metropolis, the resource we fight for will not be paper, or ink, or even money. It will be time. For our readers, time is the precious commodity they invest in every book they decide to purchase and read. But time is being ground down into smaller and smaller units, long nights of reflection replaced with fragmentary bursts of free time. It’s just harder to make time for that thousand-page novel than it used to be, and there are more and more thousand-page novels to suffer from that temporal fragmentation. Enter the novella, an old form with a new lease on life.” (Carl Engle-Laird at, the science-fiction publisher).

Is this really the age of the novella? Probably not. If ‘that thousand-page novel’ is gripping enough, and divided effectively enough into chapters, there is no reason why it should lose out to ten hundred-page novels. Any more than say, a twenty-plus-episode-per-season, multi-season TV series like The Good Wife should lose out to one hundred twenty-minute one-off dramas. It takes time and commitment to ‘get into’ a novel. With a big novel, that’s an investment you can carry forward for a long time. You might not want to repeatedly cash it in after only a brief stay.

Are more novellas being published? Well, there are lots of ‘indies’ on Amazon and Kobo, but on close examination, many of those turn out to be single episodes in a ‘series’. They are one big novel chopped into smaller chunks and published in temporal sequence – rather in the way a lot of nineteenth century novels used to appear.

In fact, it ought to be difficult to write a novella. All decent fiction centres on characters, and these take time and space to develop. Characters in turn imply settings, which, described convincingly, require attention to detail. And a variety of things needs to happen. How to achieve all that in less than 40,000 words? The twin threats of woodenness and banality continually lurk. And mostly – so the evidence suggests – they pounce and devour the victim.

All this may sound trivial, but I think it has implications for the novella that have generally gone unnoticed.

Think for a moment of all the best novellas you have read, or look at the list on Wikipedia. I think what you will discover is that well-wrought, eventful novellas present the protagonist as a cipher or symbol – much more than do novels. In this way, the best novellas resemble religious literature such as Pilgrim’s Progress or The Divine Comedy, or classical tragedy like King Oedipus, as much as they resemble modern, Flaubertian novels like Ian McEwan’s Solar or Zadie Smith’s The Autograph Man, or (to give a more popular example) Val McDermid’s The Wire in the Blood. There is, and has to be, an intensity of focus in the novella that endows everything – even if the author doesn’t intend or want it – with a surfeit of meaning.

I may be able to illustrate this from a selection of my own favourite novellas. A caveat: I don’t think it’s always possible to say precisely what the elements of a well-crafted novella ‘stand for’, any more than it is always possible to say what a poem ‘means’.

Bonjour Tristesse looks unproblematic at first sight. The story derives its power from the apparently propitious situation of its seventeen-year-old protagonist. What we might call ‘the world of Cécile’ manages to combine a sort of unreflective free-love, and youth, and sunshine-at-the-beach, plus a rootedness in a very specific time and place: the Riviera in the 1950s. Somehow, even today, these things epitomise a certain carefree, highly desirable lifestyle, even independently of the novella.

But it would be a big mistake to locate the Representational locus of the novel here. Because the central interest of Bonjour Tristesse isn’t Cécile at all. It is Anne, the woman who comes to stay. Anne combines goodness, beauty and intelligence. Her problem is that she begins to act (in the book) at a time in her life when her contemporaries have all become fixed in their habits, and to some extent, their relationships. Her ‘flaw’ is that she thinks she can start again with a clean sheet. She almost manages it. In the end, she becomes symbolic even for Cécile. Read the final paragraph, if you don’t believe me, then look at the title.

A case can be made for claiming that JL Carr’s A Month in the Country is greater than either The Old Man and the Sea or Of Mice and Men, the two English-language novellas usually considered to be the 20th century’s best. It would be a bold claim. A Month in the Country is about a World War I veteran, Tom Birkin, hired to uncover a ‘lost’ mural in a village church from beneath coats of whitewash. The whole book is thus replete with ready-made religious symbolism, even though Birkin himself is an atheist. As I said above, it is not always possible to say what is represented in a good novella, and that is true here, particularly as Birkin is shell-shocked, and we see the world partly through his eyes. But past and present, war and peace, transcendent and temporal all seem to converge in his restorative activity. There is probably no naming that convergence.

Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is also greater than is usually admitted, even though it has received lots more attention than anything Carr wrote. In 2017, Jean Brodie is eerily contemporary. Today, we would call her alt-right: an idealist who assimilates traditional and left-wing virtues, and even manages to convince us, up to a point, that she is an anti-authoritarian rebel with whom we can identify. And she grooms young people. What she represents existed in the 1930s – Brodie was based on a real person – and it exists today. Disturbingly, for all anyone knows, it may be always with us.

Is it possible for an extremely well-written, highly symbolic novella to fail? Yes. When the symbolic elements prevail over psychological realism. A good example of this is Carson McCullers’s The Ballad of the Sad Café. McCullers’s work is often cited as an example of Southern Gothic, and The Ballad fits this model. Its problem is that the characters behave in highly unusual ways, but their motivations are never clear, and we never get anywhere close to being inside their heads in such a way as would enable us to make sense of them.

Are there more bad novellas than good? Yes, certainly.

Are novellas more suited to the modern age than novels? No. If we take the view that modernity requires brevity, then why stop at the novella? Micro-fiction – stories of around a hundred words – should be your logical stopping-point.

But no one thinks like that.

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