An Underappreciated Art

Novellas are still mysterious and beautiful machines to me

– Jo Perry, December 2019

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, Double Indemnity by James M Cain, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, The Old Man and The Sea by Ernest Hemmingway, Animal Farm by George Orwell. All of these are what could be described as classics. All of these are novellas. In the current publishing landscape not a one of them would get a look in. All too short by far to be considered of worth by the mainstream. I do wonder though if that’s the truth, it’s a view that can be formed by taking a walk around your local **insert local brand name of choice here**book shop though. Give it a try and you’ll likely see that the new release fiction section is populated by books of roughly the same size. As if there is a belief that for something to have value that it needs to be of a fixed minimum length. The only shorter books I’ve noticed recently, those that would fall into the novella category, are by established writers, Stephen King (Elevation), Lee Child (The Hero), Ian McEwan (The Cockroach) and Mick Herron (The Drop) all come to mind.

This sort of fixation with length as applies to value, or cost per page if you will, can also be applied to other art forms too. Cinema and TV in particular has started to see films getting longer and longer. Often it would appear for no real storytelling end. I’m a great believer that the story should dictate length, nothing else. I recently re-visited The Godfather and The Godfather Part Two, absolute classics. Both very long films, but neither one feels bloated or overdone to me. The length was dictated by the story being told. Likewise, one of the most memorable films I’ve seen in cinemas in the last couple of years was A Quiet Place. Just shy of 90mins. Wonderful film, extremely tense and imaginative. One that stays with you. Also, a successful sleeper hit. Fahrenheit author Paul Gadsby (find his books here) shares the view, citing a love of “the 90 minute rule” in his excellent blog post on the question What is the Ideal Length for a Book?

Paul also cites the simple yet often overlooked requirement of time when it comes to reading, most readers like to cover a breadth of experience in a year and as Paul says:

I enjoy a sprawling James Ellroy as much as anyone, but if I want to get through 15-20 books a year to give myself a variable literary experience, I need plenty of reads where brevity was the author’s watchword.

In the same way that a film doesn’t need to be 2hrs15mins to justify a cinema ticket because audiences aren’t that stupid, not all books need to be north of 350 pages. Reader’s aren’t that daft either!

What is interesting to me, is that when we talk about readers not being that daft, we can see that organisations truly focussed on the reader do support the novella format. My bias here should be pretty obvious out the gate, I’m talking of course about indie publishers and their willingness to innovate for the story and the reader alike.

Nick Quantrill of Fahrenheit Press takes a similar view (check out his books here):

It surprises me that publishers don’t embrace them more, not least as they’re perfect for e-reading and not about word count. It’s purely about the story and the willingness of the reader to engage. Maybe writers don’t have the time to write them outside of novels, or possibly skills go rusty, but it does feel like an opportunity to find new readers. Innovation is usually found outside of the mainstream, so if the economic model works, it doesn’t surprise me to see small and independent publishers embrace the opportunities they offer

Expanding on this lets take a quick look at the type of readers that are attracted to indie work – I’m going to steal a term from the legendary Chris McVeigh at Fahrenheit – Bookish Weirdos! As Chris said in his recent blog post, Living in the Future:

Here’s a simple two-part test to find out if you’re a bookish-weirdo:

  • Do you know what a TBR pile is?
  • Do you have one?

If the answer to either of those questions is ‘yes’ then you ARE 100% a bookish-weirdo. If the answer to both is ‘yes’ then you’re already beyond hope. If you’re surprised that the question even needed asking then you’re one step away from an intervention from your nearest and dearest.

In the same post, which as an aside if you haven’t read already you really should, Chris makes the argument

If you read 1 book every month you’re already in a tiny minority of the wider population. If you read 1 or more books every week you’ve moved into the realms of weirdly obsessive as far as the rest of the world is concerned. 

And with his serious and varied experience in publishing, its an argument that carries weight. If you want to find out more about Chris’ time in publishing and his story, you can’t go far wrong with the Q&A he did for us that closed out the inaugural #Fahrenbruary last year – that’s here if you’re interested. As a point, it probably starts to tell us why the mainstream is less interested in this format, they are looking to push books that will sell to those that read one or two a year at the most. And well this is legitimate business practice it doesn’t offer those of who are Bookish Weirdo’s that range that we would always like. I’ve always said I’m not anti-mainstream, I just like to look further than that, and have often found amazing stories in the indie world.

All of this slightly garbled thinking prompted me to ask, via the medium of Twitter, what it is about novellas that appeals to readers and authors. Start to turn this on its head a little and rather than bemoan that the mainstream doesn’t seem to like them, which was my initial headspace, celebrate what those of us who engage with and adore the indie world love about novellas. As is often the case when I do this sort of thing, the response was wonderful and humbling. It still floors me when I get a message from an author I admire, not only contributing to my little blog, but looking forward to seeing what I write.

One of the respondents, T.S. Hunter, author of the spectacular Soho Noir series (available from Red Dog Press here) talks about another reason that the mainstream may be less willing to support the format, especially from less established authors.

When I showed a friend what I had achieved last year – six novellas in a new series – he was depressingly non-plussed. “They’re just short books, right? It’s not like you’ve written a full novel, is it?”

 Lucky not to be wearing the wine I had generously poured for him before this conversation began, I wondered why this had offended me so much. After all, I know what I’ve achieved. I know how hard it was to write in that form. Why should I seek the approval of this workshy fop?

 I realised – as I struggled to defend my oeuvre – that it is exactly this snobbery about the novella that makes me want to defend it. If you aren’t a writer, you won’t know how much harder it is to be restricted on length, especially over a series of six or more stories that all have to be the same length. 

I find it quite sad that snobbishness would play a part in the support of the novella especially, as we will come to find, they are not an easy thing to write in large part due to the focus that a shorter story has, there are no extraneous characters or sub plots, no padding, the whole thing has to be focused. That creates an intensity of sorts for the writer but also for the reader.

Ariana D Den Bleyker sums this up perfectly, from both perspectives:

For me, in a novella, nothing is a distraction. There is no filler. And if you read it in one sitting, which you can, you can become immersed in the world of the book from beginning to end. It’s an opportunity to experiment with narrative structure. There’s kind of a manic intermingling of stories, starts, stops, sudden cutting away from one storyline, veering to the next, which I think would lose its appeal in a full-length novel. It can focus fiercely on one corner of the world or of a character’s life, and yet submerge the reader in that focus more completely and deeply – which can be a particularly powerful experience. But because it’s short enough, it can allow for some of the experimentation of a short story without losing the reader

Ariana’s novellas Dark Water and Red Hands are available directly from Fahrenheit press here, I reviewed Red Hands as a part of Fahrenbruary last year, that review is here.

Fahrenheit and Shotgun Honey author Aidan Thorne also picks up on the kind of focussed storytelling that is a feature of the novella. He also makes an interesting comparison to film making, which may also explain why film adaptations of our favourite books are so rarely a satisfying interpretation of a beloved story.

As a writer they’re also perfect. I like to tell my story well and without unnecessary padding. I like to get in and out quick, short chapters, strong characters and let the story do the work. With a novella there’s no where to hide, you have to have a good story to tell and be able to tell it well. I’m also a huge film fan and for me novellas are as close to films as books get, they have to grab your attention and tell a compelling story in a limited space. People have often asked me if I write novellas because I’m limited for time, my response to that is I think it takes longer… I can’t remember who said it but a very wise person once said, ‘we’d have made it shorter, but we didn’t have time’

The kind of focus that Ariana and Aidan describe comes up a lot from others too, but in some cases it also creates a difficulty for authors, particularly those used to working in a longer format. Keeping things short, without losing the detail that brings a reader in is actually more challenging for some than the writing of a longer piece.

Derek Farrell, author of the Danny Bird novels (available here), picks up on this too:

I’d not written any Novellas before Come to Dust (Free from my website) then Death of a Sinner and found the firm challenging till I adjusted my approach. For a novel I’m usually thinking of multiple plot lines, lots of characters and a somewhat sprawling story which makes hiding clues actually easier than a novella where you have to pair everything back to a single plot line, minimal characters and that makes it much harder to do what I do normally. That said, I really enjoyed both novellas and am looking forward to doing some more soon. I’d compare the novel / novella split to a cinema movie versus a tv show. Both are opportunities for great storytelling but both come with their own challenges.

T.S. Hunter expands on these challenges and how we works through them:

Pacing is important. Light and dark, fast and slow, it all needs to be in there, but in the novella you have far fewer pages to play with to create that roller-coaster ride your readers want. When I write, regardless of the form, I begin with ten bullet points which detail the beginning, middle, end, and pivotal points in between. The trick with the novella is to flesh those points out as much as you would in a full-length novel, but in a third of the number of words. I think it’s an excellent exercise for all authors to try, just to realise how much we tend to flannel when we have the space…

Something that Derek mentions here also caught me eye, and its kind of linked in with the concept of focussed storytelling, he mentions minimal characters. For me that’s also a part of the appeal as a reader. A lot of novellas in my experience stay with a character throughout, rather than jump from one perspective to another. I enjoy this kind of storytelling getting to know a character in this way is compelling, you feel as though you are experiencing life through their eyes, it gives a familiar realism to the writing. As a reader its also interesting to have the same information as a character at all times, often that is not the case. As a reader you are more of an observer than a passenger which gives you more information than your character has. Sometimes that makes for very exciting storytelling, but as we saw Paul Gadsby comment earlier, as readers we want a range of experiences in our reading and the novella offers something that a full-length novel doesn’t.

We’ve touched on length as a factor in what makes novellas so appealing and the joys and challenges this can bring, two authors who responded also made interesting points about the novella as a half way house between the short story and the full novel. Turning first to the incomparable Jo Perry:

Is it a long short story or a short novel? Having written only one I am not sure of anything but suspect that the novella delivers a bit of both forms, i.e. it offers novel’s deeply realized characters, but fewer of them, and has the novel’s impressiveness with a short story’s intensity of focus and essential, bare-bones intensity. For me short stories are about ideas, the idea being a plot that inexorably arrives at a place determined in the first paragraph. The novella not so much. Like the novel, it could go many ways and only arrives at its destination after some half turns, returns and surprises (for the writer) and the reader. The surprise the short story delivers is its inexorable ending when a the revelation happens and like a play the stage then goes dark. The novella moves differently. It can move against expectation throughout. It isn’t like a play. It ends in a different way. The novella doesn’t contain the heavy infrastructure of a novel that navigates time through generations. The novella seems well suited to navigating the temporal shallows.

(Jo Perry is author of the fantastic Charlie and Rose series, all of which are available from Fahrenheit here).

Nick Qunatrill picks up on similar themes, the varying experiences of short stories, novellas and novels…

For me, novellas are an opportunity to experiment with a different way of telling a story. Novels are often multi-faceted with many sub-plots and tangents to explore, usually a six-to-twelve month body of work. Short stories are naturally the opposite of this with a first draft potentially produced within a single sitting, a snap shot of a given world. Novellas can be a halfway house, but more importantly, they offer the writer an opportunity to examine a particular issue or plot in a boiled down and focussed way – a challenge in itself.

Aidan Thorne also kindly offered his views as a reader, as well as a writer, of novellas…

The novella is the perfect book for the modern era where time is pressured and attention spans are diminished. I got into novellas through Number 13 Press (now F13) and it really opened my eyes to a form of reading that was perfect for me, something I could sit down with for a whole afternoon if I had the time and finish in one sitting, or if I had a long train journey a book to keep me company and complete inside that journey’s length. I love to read, but I find that quite often it now takes me over a month to complete a book because of all the other things vying for my attention, with a novella I’m always done within the week.

We have seen a lot here about the focussed storytelling, that combined with the ‘read in one sitting’ length of your typical novella paints a picture as to why readers are growing more and more fond of them, even if the mainstream isn’t. In my case, I can read one on a Sunday afternoon, propped up in my reading chair, I can read one in a days’ worth of commuting – about half on the way to work and the other half on the way home (assuming I still have the head space by that time of day!). I love that you can get involved in a story over a short space, often a memorable one that stays with you, in fact for me some of the more memorable stories I read are in this format. The lower wordcount, engaging you with less space somehow makes for an impactful story. Novellas represent a wonderful form for the reader, and as is so often the case its great to see indie publishers leading the charge with a resurgence in this under appreciated format.

I’m going to leave you with some words from the lovely Sarah, who has been a huge supporter of Red Dog Press and the Soho Noir series via her blog Lost in the Land of Books, she sums all of this up beautifully.

I love Novella’s because they are the perfect size. Easy to pop into your bag, bring you out a reading slump. And let’s face it, I have read some cracking novella’s this year that I have loved and one of which is my series of the year. Just read a whopper of a book and want something a bit lighter and different then a novella does the job.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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