Though I never caught wind of any genuine controversy (certainly nothing that came close to the scope of the controversy the judges’ statements sparked), after Julian Barnes won this year’s Man Booker Prize for his “short novel” The Sense of an Ending (my review here) there were still questions about whether the book was long enough for the prize, which goes to the “best eligible full-length novel,” “full-length novel” never being defined. The Sense of an Ending is only the second-shortest book to win the prize, the shortest being Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore (my review here). Shorter ones have been finalists, including J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country (my review here) and even William Trevor’s “Reading Turgenev,” which is one novella that forms his book Two Lives.
Anyway, when Barnes won, there were a few interesting bits of commentary on The Guardian website, one from Laura Bennett called “When is a short novel a ‘novella’?” (here) and one from Claire Armistead called “When is a novel not a novel? When it’s a novella” (here). Each uses Barnes’ win to think about the novella’s bad reputation. Publishers don’t like novellas because they don’t sell, so either they don’t publish them or they call them “short novels.” In Bennett’s piece, Armistead is quoted as saying, “[The term novella] has fallen into disuse because it sounds like a patronising diminutive – without the scope of a novel or the discipline of a short story.” In her own piece, Armistead says, “I wonder whether part of the image problem of the English-language novella, at least, is the association of length with vigour.”
In the comments below Armistead’s piece, John Self quotes Saul Bellow’s introduction to Something to Remember Me By, Bellow’s book of three novellas:
Some of our greatest novels are very thick. Fiction is a loose popular art, and many of the classic novelists get their effects by heaping up masses of words. Decades ago, Somerset Maugham was inspired to publish pared-down versions of some of the very best. His experiment didn’t succeed. Something went out of the books when their bulk was reduced. It would be mad to edit a novel like Little Dorrit. That sea of words is a sea, a force of nature. We want it that way, ample, capable of breeding life. When its amplitude tires us we readily forgive it. We wouldn’t want it any other way.
Yet we respond with approval when Chekhov tells us, “Oddly, I have now a mania for shortness. Whatever I read — my own or other people’s works — it all seems to me not short enough.” I find myself emphatically agreeing with this. [. . .] At once a multitude of possible reasons for this feeling comes to mind: This is the end of the millennium. We have heard it all. We have no time. We have more significant fish to fry. We require a wider understanding, new terms, a deeper penetration.
Rather than just list a few of my recommendations this month (which I still do below), I wanted to see what people think of novellas. Me? I love them. Many of the best books I’ve reviewed on this blog are novellas, which neither lack the scope of a novel or the discipline of the short story. I’m sometimes surprised at commenters here and there who say they don’t like novellas (or short stories). One on this site, intrigued by a short book, had the courage to admit, “I generally do away with the short reads because I feel like it is rarely done well.” I think this is a prevalent misconception, similar to the misconception people have about contemporary literature in translation. All things considered, the large English novel is rarely done well either, so usually the problem is not the novella (or the literature in translation) but that the readers are generally unaware of what’s out there (so they don’t buy them, so publishers hesitate to publish them, so they get even less attention, and so on).
But the great thing about this day and age is that novellas that are done well are readily available, so there’s no reason to avoid them.
What are your thoughts on the novella? Do you read them? Do you avoid them? If you avoid them, why? And have you read enough of them to form a solid opinion?
Here are some of my favorites I’ve reviewed on this blog (I’m not holding myself to five this month).
- First Love, by Ivan Turgenev (original review July 3, 2008). I read this in one rather short train journey, and I still remember it vividly. A masterpiece of world literature from a time when the term “novella” didn’t have negative connotations. Today this would be called a short novel. Whatever the case, it goes for the gut.
- The Pathseeker, by Imre Kertész (original review January 18, 2009). This is a selection from Melville House’s fabulous Art of the Novella series (actually, this one is from the Art of the Contemporary Novella series). A strange book that avoids talking about its subject directly, and is all the more powerful for it.
- A Month in the Country, by J.L. Carr (original review March 8, 2009). I recommend this book all the time, so you’ll see it again. Best if you just read it.
- An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, by César Aira (original review May 29, 2009). And yes, I’m going to continue pushing Aira until more of you read him. I’ve reviewed five of his books, each a novella, and I’m tempted to list them all right here.
- By Night in Chile, by Roberto Bolaño (original review July 24, 2009). This is the novella that started to shift my opinion of Bolaño. I started reading him with his mammoth novel 2666 (my review here). That large book captivated my mind, but when I finished it I was disappointed. I didn’t understand it. Slowly (well, over the course of a year) I came to understand it more. By Night in Chile helped.
- The Invention of Morel, by Adolfo Bioy Casares (original review September 7, 2009). I know, I’ve recommended this book recently too, but this only goes to show how serious I am when I say that some of the best books I’ve reviewed on this blog are novellas (and literature in translation).
- Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton (original review May 7, 2010). I thought this book was headed to the rather conventional, somewhat romantic ending (and I was loving it notwithstanding). It didn’t end there, though; instead Wharton gives us the most devastating ending I can imagine.
- Daisy Miller, by Henry James (original review May 17, 2010). I have read this one countless times, and just thinking about it now I’m feeling the urge to reread it again. A charming tragedy.
- Not to Disturb, by Muriel Spark (original review July 12, 2010). Not the strangest Muriel Spark book I’ve read, but disturbing enough to make this list. I should have recommended it yesterday.
- Bartleby the Scrivener, by Herman Melville (original review February 11, 2011). I read this one for the first time earlier this year, and I now know why I felt like I was missing out: “I would prefer not to.” I get that reference now. But more important are many of the other aspects of this brilliant novella.
So there are some of my favorites. Have you read any of them? Are you tempted to read more novellas?