Slippery eel

My favorite literary form is the one that’s hardest to define, and the one that’s practiced by even less people than playwriting is these days. I’ve loved the novella for a long time, which I suppose is why the book I’m most excited by lately is Philip Roth’s brand-new Everyman. He’s one of my favorite writers, but I found that I couldn’t get through his 2004 The Plot Against America. It’s on my shelf looming at me, and I even enjoyed the first 50 pages, but it’s the one before PlotThe Dying Animal, all 156 pages of it—that I’ve read three times.

So, I was pleasantly surprised to read Roth expand on the idea:

Mr. Roth declined to talk about what he was working on now except to say that he thought it would be about the same length as Everyman. He explained: “The thing about this length that I’ve particularly come to like is that you can get the impact of a novel, which arises from its complexity and the thoroughness of detail, but you can also get the impact you get from a short story, because a good reader can keep the whole thing in mind. Motifs can be repeated, and they will be remembered.”

Precisely. Everyman is 192 pages, but he might as well been discussing The Dying Animal, which manages to capture the sexual revolution, the pain and fear of aging, and the aftermath of the 1960s upon contemporary America in less than space than histories four times its size.

But what, exactly, is a novella? Wikipedia gives a go at defining it, but its entry concerns the battling over definitions as much as it actually, you know, defines it. Its weak-kneed summation is “a narrative work of prose fiction somewhat longer than a short story but shorter than a novel,” and it notes that different countries have conflicting standards about the form. Google lists the myriad of definitions. Melville House Books reprints classic novellas, but even it doesn’t try to define the form. (And Melville includes in its “The Art of Novella” series a 224-page novel by Dostoevsky, which even I think is too long for consideration.) Since both the Roth books I mentioned are over 150 pages, for instance, why do I consider them novellas rather than short novels? What differentiates one from the other? For that matter, what differentiates a novella from a long short story?

No one really knows. In terms of codification, it’s a slippery eel. This hasn’t stopped the term from being used frequently. I’m in an exploratory mood, so what follows is my experience with the novella and, by corollary, one more attempt to pin it down.

Let’s start with exploding perhaps the most basic measurement of the form: page count. Page count can’t be the single defining factor of the form, since a book’s page count is decided by the margin size, trim size, font size, etc.—i.e., details of publishing that have sometimes little to do with the actual word count and, thus, the amount of text of a given book. A longish short story can easily be inflated to novel size. Both Everyman and The Dying Animal are small, cozy-looking books—crouching tigers, both of them—with generously sized fonts and margins. (In fact, their interior designs are almost identical.) Given tighter margins, less space between lines, smaller text, and a more standard trim size, both books could’ve clocked in at under 100 pages. I get the sense that the designs were created to make them more approachable and readable, sure, but also to justify their $20+ price tags.

Given this, page count can only be one of several considerations. Even so, any fiction over 175 pages is, in my view, a novel and not a novella. So, Everyman is out and The Dying Animal is in.

Are you beginning to see how arbitrary this all is?

The size, though, does tend to influence how three things—time, characterization, and space—are handled in fiction. The compression and/or teasing of these elements, I think, can give us a sense of what the novella actually is beyond its physical thickness.

Although I’d read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart for high school classes, I read my first novella for pleasure, Nicholson Baker’s Room Temperature, in college. I’m not sure why I picked it up at the school library, but I suspect the size had something to do with it. Maybe it was the intriguing, Magritte-like cover. Maybe it was the Philadelphia Inquirer blurb: “It’s hard to find an analogue for Baker’s combination of intellectual playfulness and lyricism. The music of Erik Satie comes to mind. Also peanut butter and bacon sandwiches—something weird and wonderful about which you can only say, ‘Try it. You’ll like it.’”

I’d tried peanut butter and bacon sandwiches. I’d liked them. Yes, that’s as unhealthy as it sounds.

It turns out that these sandwiches are a favorite of the book’s protagonist. He has other quirks. He once played the French horn so long that he almost passed out from lack of breath. He finds it sexy as hell that his wife doesn’t use a washrag in the shower, but instead just lathers the soap bar directly on to her skin. (Weirdly, I like that in women, too.) He ponders those air tubes the city puts at street intersections, which cars run over. The frequency of such runovers determines the traffic light patterns that will be sequenced at these intersections, and the protagonist tries to affect them by running over them with his bicycle, and then wonders if the lighter weight of a bike will register differently than a car. He tries to compensate for this by jumping up and down on the tubes.

As with Baker’s other books, most of which are novellas, the details are microscopic and finely tuned. Room Temperature technically takes place in 20 minutes, as the protagonist gives his baby daughter Bug her bottle and rocks to sleep. Forced to be stationary, he looks around the living room, and nearly every object and every movement Bug makes triggers a memory from the past. The 116-page book is a series of meanderings, sometimes nostalgic, sometimes hilarious, occasionally heartbreaking. But it takes place in compressed time, even as it evokes a whole life. This is true of Baker’s The Mezzanine (a ride up an escalator), Vox (a phone call between two horny singletons), and Checkpoint (a fevered, real-time conversation between two people in a hotel room).

Most novellas aren’t as chronologically concise as Baker’s work, to be sure, but—as with short stories—time is of the essence. In the novella, you might experience a year in the life of a character, or maybe even a few years, but almost never will you get the whole life.

Georges Simenon wrote a lot of novellas—over 100 of them. His Maigret detective novels are classics of compressed time. Like most mysteries and suspenses, the Maigret plots unspool briskly. Simenon’s prose is terse, with very few physical descriptions and to-the-point dialogue. The clock, as they say, is always ticking, even in his books about marriage and romance.

It’s not just the compressed time that makes a novella a novella, but also that novellas tend to engage directly with the idea of time. Suspense and horror are usually dependent on time—we fear something’s going to happen at any moment; something bad will or will not happen if the hero doesn’t respond to something in time; minutes can seem like hours, and vice versa, when the noose is tightening. It’s not for nothing that Franz Kafka seemed to specialize in novellas, that Stephen King’s best fictions are novellas, and that the unbearably tense and ultimately horrifying Heart of Darkness is a novella.

Even when novellas don’t fall into these genres, time is often a major character. Take Naomi Mitchison’s near-perfect Travel Light, a 135-page sparkling gem. In January, I called it a “breakneck ramble through the whole of Western civilization.” The book traces the maturation of Halla, a young girl born in pre-medieval times who is raised by bears, then dragons, and finally humans. It slowly dawns on us that the girl lives somewhat outside of time. The world passes through the Dark Ages to the cusp of the Renaissance, but Halla is only a young woman at book’s end. Through a single observer, we see the rise of Western civilization. The pacing’s so casual that I didn’t initially realize how uncanny the book is.

So, clearly, novellas don’t deal exclusively with compressed time. Alice Munro’s “Carried Away” (from Open Secrets) covers a woman’s entire life, in odd and elegant fragments, in about 50 pages. Novella maestro W.M. Spackman—it’s almost all he did—spins tales of full lives in A Presence with Secrets and As I Sauntered Out, One Midcentury Morning… His prose scintillates and shimmers so thoroughly—it’s as light, refreshing, and sneakily intoxicating as champagne—that his experiments with time, tense, and point-of-view (all of which sometimes change within a single paragraph) seem less groundbreaking than they really are. Like Munro’s novella, though, Spackman works in fragments. A Presence with Secrets gives us various characters’s reminiscences about one Hugh Tatnall; we see him from several angles, at critical junctures in his life. But we never glimpse the true Tatnall nor see the world from his perspective. In the end, he is, as we all are to outsiders, what the title insists.

Time is either compressed or consciously fragmented in novellas. In Andrea Lee’s masterful Sarah Phillips (114 pages), we see the title character—an upper-middle-class black woman—at various stages of her life. The novella’s not told chronologically—indeed, each story works on its own—but it works as a singular bildungsroman.

All things said, though, there are plenty of novellas that don’t fit this criterion, in which a lot of time elapses and which don’t seem to be consciously playing with the very concept. Jim Harrison’s best fictions are his five collections of novellas—at 15 novellas over the course of almost 30 years, he’s the American master of the form, and certainly the contemporary writer most dedicated to it. Though he’s often concerned with aging and the passage of time, he’s not exactly interested in its mechanics.

Rather, he’s interested in time’s effect on his characters, one of which is almost always the Michigan landscape itself. If time compression and manipulation are key components of the novella, so is compressed characterization. The novella allows this barbaric yawp but only up to a point. Robert Altman-esque petri dishes, full to bursting with main characters and engaging hangers-on, don’t often find purchase in the novella. The novella’s length allows for an even more microscopic examination of character than the short story, in that the former’s got room for several epiphanies over time. We see a character evolve over time but the form’s not suited for showing us how a community changes. The novella allows for deep focus, but not 70mm panoramic views.

Every novella I’ve mentioned so far concentrates on a single character or relationship. I can only think of a good novella that deals with more than four protagonists: Spackman’s A Little Decorum, for Once. it’s a bedroom farce with bite, and jabs at postmodern theory and the decline of modern mores. (This is an irony that Spackman would chuckle at—he’s a delicate, but dedicated, experimenter with style; and his entire oeuvre might as well be called an elaborate defense of adultery. But never mind.) Its characters tumble in and out of each other’s beds, but the environs are circumscribed and everyone knows each other. Hell, some of them are related to each other. The book rarely moves outside of a few well-to-do blocks in Manhattan, and the protagonists range, class-wise, from the rich to the very rich.

Space, whether physical and social, is the final element that needs to be squeezed in the novella. Of course, I already mentioned Travel Light is an exception to this rule, but it fits my rules of time and characterization. Most novellas takes place within a contained geography—a town, a neighborhood, a living room—even if the characters recall far-flung events. We see this in novellas both contemporary and deep into the past. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) traverses deeper into Africa, its narrative focus gets tighter and more constrained; the continent seems to psychologically close in on Marlow. Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929) is similarly claustrophobic as Clare’s carefully constructed world, built on the untrue assumption that she’s white, begins to implode. (The whole thing takes place mostly in Harlem, anyway.)

So I think I’ve got it. A novella is a literary work in prose under 175 between 40 and 175 pages that compresses, calls attention to, and deeply focuses on at least two of the following three elements: time, characterization, and space. It’s conscious that it can expand, as the novel does, on one of those three elements, but understands that fooling around with all three is untenable for the form.

At least, I thought I had it.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been rereading two of my favorite New Yorker writers—Joseph Mitchell and Lawrence Weschler. In Mitchell’s Joe Gould’s Secret, he expands on an earlier character sketch about Gould, a homeless man who claims to be writing a multi-volume encyclopedia/history of the world. It turns out that it’s all a lie; Gould is just obsessively writing and rewriting the same two or three pieces. Mitchell’s discovery of this fact is funny, humane, and sad. At first Mitchell is understandably pissed that Gould lied to him, but then he comes to empathize with him. It’s one of the best character studies ever written.

Weschler, like Mitchell, concentrates on detail-oriented, carefully (though casually, to glance at them) structured profiles of movers and shakers beyond the public eye. His 60-page rumination on a forgotten avant-garde painter (“Shapinsky’s Karma”), an eccentric museum curator (“Jensen’s Shangri-La”), and a musical lexicographer (“Slonimsky’s Failure”) enrich our understanding of these men, but also the cultures in which they operated.

These profiles have narrative propulsion and structure, literary merit (Mitchell and Weschler are better prose stylists than most literati writing in the English language), and fit all of the criteria I’ve mentioned, except for one.

The pieces are nonfiction.

Like I said, the novella is a slippery eel. And an electric one at that.

What follows are some of my favorite (relatively) recent novellas, beyond the aforementioned. I’d love to hear other suggestions.

“Again” by Stephen Dixon, from I.

All four Brown Dog novellas by Jim Harrison—there’s one in every novella collection except Legends of the Fall

“Stone Animals” by Kelly Link, from Magic for Beginners

“Pastoralia” by George Saunders, from the story collection of the same name

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation,, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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One Response to Slippery eel

  1. Pingback: I wrote a little novel | Quiet Bubble

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