This is the last week of the Italian school year. When the final bell rings tomorrow, that’ll be it: no more lessons until mid-September. I have a little impromptu celebration planned for this evening (if that isn’t a contradiction in terms), as a result of which today’s post will be mercifully brief. Given that I’ve just cracked open a bottle of Soave, it may also rapidly descend into complete unintelligibility (hic). You have been warned.
I just know I’m going to regret this in the morning. Oh well. Carpe diem, and all that. Anyway, on with the post…
The novella: unloved, unappreciated, and all but unpublished. It’s the Cinderella of the publishing world, condemned to stay at home whilst its by-no-means-ugly sisters, the short story and the novel, get invited to all the glittering parties.
In some ways, of course, it’s understandable. Short stories are just the right length for inclusion in newspapers, periodicals and anthologies. Full-length novels can be packaged as doorstop-sized books, all broad spines and big writing, that just invite readers to pluck them off the shelves. The novella can perform neither function with ease. It is both too long and too short, too detailed and too concise, too much and too little.
Or is it, as in Goldilocks and the Three Bears, just right? (I seem to have fairytales on the brain today. Perhaps it’s something to do with my current reading material: Italo Calvino’s Italian Folktales.)
The novella, after all, has a long and prestigious history. What is Boccaccio’s Decameron, if not a collection of novelle? And a large number of novellas have become classics. Of Mice and Men; Breakfast at Tiffany’s; Animal Farm; The Old Man and the Sea; The Time Machine; The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; Heart of Darkness … these are just some of the most famous examples, the ones that spring most readily to mind. There is much to be said for the humble novella, it seems.
Authors’ minds are usually brimming with ideas. Some are viable, others are not; those that come to fruition are highly variable and intensely individualistic. Some are suited to the short story form, and others to a novel-length treatment. Still others are different. They won’t necessarily stretch to 100,000 words, and nor can they be condensed into 5,000; but 20,000 or 30,000 words might be ideal. This is where the novella comes into its own. The novella retains something of the short story’s “focus”, and yet also incorporates something of the novel’s scope, with room for greater characterisation and description, and the opportunity to develop themes more fully, than a short story would allow.
Recently, discussing the novella with my writing friend Paul Sutton Reeves, I compared the novel to a panoramic, 360° landscape shot, and the novella to a more focused, detailed study of a particular feature within that landscape. I’m not convinced that this photographic comparison is a particularly good one on reflection, but at the same time I can’t seem to get it out of my head. A short story is, perhaps, a quick snapshot, a brief development of a single theme, event, or character. (One of my own short stories can be downloaded for free here, if anyone’s interested.) The novel allows the author to “zoom out”, so to speak, and examine several themes, characters and occurrences, and their relations to one another. The novella includes something of both these approaches and, by combining both smaller scale and greater length, allows for a story to be developed with both focus and depth.
Perhaps it is, indeed, the best of both worlds.
What do people think?