The Return of the Novella, the Original #Longread

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Longer than a short story but shorter than a novel, the form has been the ugly stepchild of the literary world. But that's starting to change.

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Melville House

Publishers like short stories, and they love novels. But when a writer submits a mid-length work that falls somewhere between two genres, booksellers balk and editors narrow their eyes. This is the domain of the novella, an unfairly neglected literary art form that's been practiced for centuries by celebrated writers—from Charles Dickens to Jane Smiley to Alain Mabanckou—yet faces an ongoing struggle for commercial viability. "For me, the word denotes a lesser genre," literary agent Karolina Sutton told The Guardian in 2011. "If you pitch a book to a bookseller as a novel, you're likely to get more orders than if you call it a novella."

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Mid-length works suffer from a koan-like criticism: They're too short and they're also too long. Novellas hog too much space to appear in magazines and literary journals, but they're usually too slight to release as books. If a reader's going to spend 16 bucks, the notion goes, he wants to take home a Franzen-size tome—not a slim volume he can slip in a jacket pocket.

As a result, a broad canyon yawns between the viable long story (10,000 words) and the short novel (60,000 words). This is the 50,000-Word Abyss, and anything that falls within it is generally considered untouchable. Most novellas—when they're published at all—are snuck into short story collections. That, or they're consigned to novella ghettoes: three or four mid-length tales forced to live in close quarters, bound and sold as a curiosity.

This trouble extends even to proven mega-sellers. In his scathing Afterword to Different Seasons (1982), his own ghetto of four novellas, Stephen King characterizes himself as a "maturing" writer who could "publish his laundry list if he wanted to." But his novellas? No takers.

"I couldn't publish these tales because they were too long to be short and too short to be really long," he lamented. King illustrates his point with a geographical metaphor: The short story and novel are like two respected nations sharing a vast, ill-defined, and sordid border region. "At some point, the writer wakes up with alarm and realizes that he's come or is coming to a really terrible place," King intones, "an anarchy-ridden literary banana republic called the 'novella.'" It's a dark place for a writer to be, and most feel they must keep going, or else turn back.

Perhaps even more damning than these publishing mores is the lingering aesthetic criticism that haunts the form: A pervading sense that novellas are still not finished, that some measure of necessary pruning, or ballasting exploration, remains undone. Surely, the inability of some writers to go the distance—or, conversely, to edit—has resulted in a flood of bad slush-pile novellas, which do not help the genre's reputation. But even disciplined professionals rarely get the benefit of the doubt. Most writers feel pressure, internal and external, to scale up or pare down to a "suitable" length.

In other words, revise or rewrite the novella out of existence.

NOW THE BELEAGUERED GENRE, at long last, has found a worthy and consistent champion: Melville House Publishing, whose "Art of the Novella" series is an ongoing celebration of the form. The Brooklyn-based press offers 47—and counting—novellas from writers like Cervantes, Jane Austen, Anton Chekhov, Joseph Conrad, Mark Twain, and Virginia Woolf. Specifically drawing attention to the novella's brevity, diversity, and lineage of distinguished practitioners, the series is the first of its kind.

Each sleek, modernist edition comes suited in a monochrome cover with French flaps. There are no blurb quotes, no graphics or illustrations. Just the author's name, the title, and on the back, a pull quote. At nine dollars each, they're a steal.

Some offerings—this alone is testament to the novella's underdog status—have not previously appeared in English, like Marcel Proust's "The Lemoine Affair." Many are overlooked treasures that have languished in obscurity for years—now revived in new translation, or renewed through updated presentation. With a few exceptions, these stories have never been published as standalone books until now. If you're scouring for a forgotten classic by your favorite canonical writer, or a lost masterpiece by a downtrodden should-have-been, this series is for you.

In its early days, Melville House not only bet against the prevailing wisdom that novellas can't sell—they wagered that novella sales could be the driving engine of their brand and business. "It was greeted as a really numbskull idea by our sales team," co-founder Dennis Loy Johnson told me, in an interview.

Johnson likes to champion the long-shot, the underdog, the also-ran. His company is named for Herman Melville, the Great American Novelist who very nearly never was: Moby-Dick was first in a string of supreme critical failures, and Melville died obscure and penniless. Johnson's website MobyLives.com, which has since been subsumed into MHPbooks.com, was one of the Internet's first book blogs. Its title suggests that hope springs eternal for literary culture. "The whale survived, unlike his detractors, who had harpoons," Johnson wrote on the "About" page. "Similarly, the literary arts will survive, are surviving, these confusing times." This belief informs not only the novella series, but another Melville House project, The Neversink Library (die-hard Melville fans will note another allusion here)—a collection of lost, forgotten, and "foolishly ignored" books from around the world.

In this context, it's not surprising that the novella—impractical, unpublishable—is dear to Johnson. He traces his long, tortured love affair with the form to his days as a graduate student in the Iowa Writers' Workshop. "When I was there," he said, "it felt like all of us were writing novellas, then putting them in the drawer because it was hopeless to place them anywhere." He was daunted by the genre's limited viability—and yet the idealistic prospect of novella-writing pleased him. "It always struck me very romantically," he said. "A pure writerly exercise that was only for the love of writing. We had no expectations our novellas would ever circulate."

I asked him who his novella-writing colleagues were, hoping to hear some now-bold-faced names among them, but he was loath to tell me. "Most of them disappeared," Johnson said. "Probably because they were writing novellas."

JOHNSON HAD A BRIEF PRAYER of giving the form its due. Teaching a novella course at a college, he pieced together an anthology based on his syllabus. "It was a survey stretching from late 19th-century stuff like Chekhov to modern-day examples, such as Tobias Wolff," he said. The Paris Review, at the time, was trying to launch a book publishing line, and acquired the anthology. But the new press folded, like so many of them do, and Johnson's anthology, which was to be called Big Fiction, never saw the light of day.

"The Art of the Novella" dates from 2002, when Johnson's own fledgling press—founded with his wife, Valerie Merians, in 2001—was still running on credit cards. "At that point, Melville House was a company that Valerie and I were running off our kitchen table from a 3rd-floor walkup in Hoboken," Johnson told me. Their first book, Poetry After 9/11, had been a surprise hit, and the callow publishers were looking for their next big thing.

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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