Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Novella: Some Tentative Suggestions

As a lifelong student of the short story, I have always been interested in its closest narrative neighbor, the novella, which began with Boccaccio’s innovative short form in The Decameron and became quite a different fictional form when it was expanded by Romantic German writers in the nineteenth century. Several years ago, I created and taught a seminar in the novella form, focusing on classic examples of the genre from Europe and America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. At the request of one of the readers of this blog, I have gone back to my notes about the novella and have developed the following tentative suggestions about the form that may or may not be helpful in situating the novella somewhere in between the short story and the novel.

In the Jan/Feb, 2010 issue of Poets and Writers, the editors note that there are precious few places writers can place a story that is too long for a literary magazine and too short for a traditional book publisher. They mention One Story and Melville House Publishing as two such places and then call attention to a new publisher, Madras Press (, founded last fall in Brookline, Mass. This nonprofit press publishes individually bound novellas in paperback originals, at about five or six dollars each, with proceeds going to a charity of the author’s choice.

The critical problem of the novella is that it is a genre with many names, but little or no description. Variously called the short novel, the novelette, the nouvelle, the novelle, and the novella, with no real distinction between these terms except perhaps country of origin or personal preference, its usual (not very helpful) definition is that it is longer than a short story and shorter than a novel. Those who dare a more prescriptive definition usually place its length between 20,000 and 50,000 words.

The most cogent comment on the form, often cited by critics with much agreement but little elaboration, is the famous remark made by Henry James in his Preface to The Lesson of the Master. Calling the novella, on the dimensional ground, for length and breadth, “our ideal,” James says that its “main merit and sign is the effort to do the complicated thing with a strong brevity and lucidity—to arrive, on behalf of the multiplicity, at a certain science of control.” The comment has led to the (also not very helpful) observation that the novella has the novel’s complexity and the short story’s control. But is the “complexity” of the novel the same kind of complexity in the novella? And is the “control” of the short story the same kind of control as the novella? Does the novella deal with a type of subject matter unique to it, or does it make use of a unique kind of control, or both, or neither?

Although generic criticism is distrusted by many readers who fear the critic will try to delimit the work and dictate the shape future works may hold, the fact of the matter is when a reader comes to a work of literary art he or she already has certain expectations based on past experience. A reader does not read a novel expecting the same kind of experience he or she has when reading a short story. When reading the hybrid form called the novella, the reader is not quite sure whether to bring to it the expectations he or she has always brought to the novel or the expectations he or she has always brought to the short story.

Without going into the convoluted and esoteric pros and cons of genre theory, which I have studied for years, I simply assert that I agree with C. S. Lewis, who once said, “The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is – what it was intended to do, and how it is meant to be used!” If one does not formulate some means of knowing this, then one can say nothing to the purpose about it, and indeed may run the risk of misunderstanding it entirely. Furthermore, I simply assert that basically I agree with the great Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset that genres are “certain basic themes, mutually exclusive, true aesthetic categories.” For example, according to Ortega, the epic is not so much a poetic form, as it is a “basic poetic content that reaches fulfillment in the process of its expansion or manifestation.”

Based on my own inductive study of many of the classic nineteenth and twentieth century novellas, I have tentatively formulated the following hypotheses about the typical plot, character configuration, and setting of the novella form.

Plot: The basic action is that an ordered situation broken up by disorder. Dostoevsky’s ”Notes from Underground” illustrates this tension, as does Unamuno’s “Abel Sanchez” and Conrad’s “The Duel.” See also Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” D. H. Lawrence’s “The Fox,” Gide’s “Pastoral Symphony,” Wright Morris’s “Love Among the Cannibals,” Melville’s “Benito Cereno,” Carson McCuller’s “Ballad of the Sad Café.” In all these works, a character is leading a normal life, until one day something enters that life and breaks it up. A crisis is initiated; something has to be done; someone has to make a choice of nightmares. In initiation stories such as Conrad’s “The Shadow Line,” Alberto Moravia’s “Agostino,” and Turgenev’s “First Love,” one is introduced to the irrational. In James’ “The Pupil,” one is drawn into the irrational, but steps back. In James’ “Beast in the Jungle,” one realizes too late. In Conrad’s “Typhoon,” one confronts it and deals with it. In Katherine Ann Porter’s “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,’ one wants to escape into an absolute of death/eternity.

What is this irrational invasion? In “Bartleby the Scrivener,” it is Bartleby himself. In Bellow’s “Seize the Day,” it is Tamkin the magician. In Mann’s “Mario and the Magician,” it is Cipolla. In Mann’s “Death in Venice,” it is Tadzio and Venice itself. In Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer, “ it is Legatt, the second self. In Faulkner’s “The Bear,” it is the bear. In Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” it is the great fish. In Porter’s “Noon Wine,” it is Hatch and Helton. In Joyce’s “The Dead,” it is Michael Furey.

Character: The number of characters in the novella is almost always limited to two or three. Additional characters usually function as choral response for the interactions of the two or three major characters. In many cases there is only one character caught in a dialectic with other aspects of the self. The action then is almost always an internal one, a lyric action in which emotional or psychological states are objectified in dramatic characters. Ivan Ilych is alone of course, for in facing death one is always ultimately alone. Gregory Samsa’s sister represents a side of himself that he fails to incorporate. The same can be said of Tolstoy’s “Master and Man” and Unamuno’s “Abel Sanchez,” both of which depend on the Cain/Abel “Am I my brother’s keeper motif?” Other dualities include: Lennie and George in Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” Tommy and Tamkin in Bellow’s “Seize the Day; Nick and Gatsby in “The Great Gatsby”; the captain and his double Legatt in “The Secret Sharer”; Neil and Brenda in Roth’s “Goodbye, Columbus,”

Triangular relationships are also common. In “Benito Cereno,” it is Delano, Babo, and Benito. In “The Fox,” it is March, Banford, and Henry. In “Ballad of the Sad Café,” it is Macey, Lyman, and Amelia. In Turgenev’s “First Love,” it is the son, the girl, the father. In Gide’s “Pastoral Symphony,” it is the pastor, the wife, and the girl. In “Billy Budd,” it is Vere, Billy, and Claggart. In “The Dead,” it is Gabriel, Gretta, and Furey.

Setting: The setting is usually a microcosmic, closed world, somehow cut off from the everyday world of normal reality. Or else no physical setting is actualized at all. For example in “Notes from Underground,” the first part simply asserts it is from a mouse hole, but no physical description from which the underground man speaks is given. In “Metamorphosis,” the only outside world there is a bleak view of a hospital and the lighted drawing room of the family to which Gregor is drawn o three significant excursions from his room.

A social or historical setting seldom plays a direct role in the novella. The physical setting of “The Shadow Line,” “Typhoon,” “Benito Cereno,” “The Secret Sharer,” “Billy Budd,” and “The Old Man and the Sea” is of course that shifting amorphous source of the primitive, the sea itself. Physical, social, and historical settings play little role in “The Pupil,” “Beast in the Jungle,” “Pastoral Symphony,” “Abel Sanchez,” “Death of Ivan Ilych.” Actual place settings play symbolic roles in “Heart of Darkness,” "Mario and the Magician,” “Love Among the Cannibals, and “Ballad of the Sad Café.” This is also true of the hotel in “Seize the Day,” Wall Street in “Bartleby,” Venice in “Death in Venice,” the party and the hotel room in “The Dead,” the prison camp in “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” East Egg, West Egg, and the Valley of Ashes in “The Great Gatsby.”

Tentative Conclusion: Based on my reading of hundreds of novels and novellas and thousands of short stories, I believe that the novella is closer to the short story both in theme and technique than it is to the novel. So, for me the question is not what makes the novella shorter than the novel, but what makes the novella longer than the short story. The central issue is what kind of “complexity” is involved in all three forms. To run the risk of oversimplification, I would hazard the following distinctions. The complexity of the novel is social, historical, and cultural. The complexity of the short story is psychological, mythical, and lyric. The complexity of the novella is psychological, mythical, and philosophical.


Ann Graham said...

Thanks for the essay, Charles. I agree that the first problem is assigning an--agreeable to all--appellation to any art form. I guess the way our minds begin to assess experience is by naming and categorizing. I also appreciate the quote you shared from C.S. Lewis.

Lee said...

Thanks for this. Perhaps some reactions soon.

Dorothy Johnston said...

Great essay! Thanks so much. I have been struggling with the novella form for years, and have recently returned to it, this time, I hope, with more success.