Ge­ordie Wil­liamson con­sid­ers the resur­gence of the novella

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­ordie Wil­liamson is The Aus­tralian’s chief lit­er­ary critic.

THE novella is ‘‘ the per­fect form of prose fic­tion’’, Booker Prizewin­ning nov­el­ist Ian McEwan de­clared in The New Yorker re­cently. Com­pared with the novel, it is ‘‘ the beau­ti­ful daugh­ter of a ram­bling, bloated ill-shaven gi­ant’’. He wrote of Voltaire and Solzhen­it­syn, DH Lawrence and Alice Munro. He sin­gled out the achieve­ment of James Joyce’s The Dead and sang the praises of novel­las by Henry James, Joseph Con­rad, Thomas Mann and Franz Kafka:

The tra­di­tion is long and glo­ri­ous. I could go even fur­ther: the de­mands of econ­omy push writ­ers to pol­ish their sen­tences to pre­ci­sion and clar­ity, to bring off their ef­fects with un­usual in­ten­sity, to re­main fo­cused on the point of their cre­ation and drive it for­ward with func­tional sin­gle-mind­ed­ness, and to end it with a mind to its unity. They don’t ram­ble or preach, they spare us their quin­tu­ple sub­plots and swollen mid­sec­tions.

All this was sur­pris­ing to learn from a man whose rep­u­ta­tion as per­haps the se­nior fig­ure in con­tem­po­rary English lit­er­a­ture rests on his nov­els: the epic his­tor­i­cal mode of Atone­ment, for ex­am­ple, or state-of-the-cul­ture works such as Satur­day. It was as if a cruise ship cap­tain had sud­denly an­nounced his pref­er­ence for sail­ing dinghies.

But if we take a longer view of McEwan’s ca­reer a dif­fer­ent writer ap­pears, one who bears out a love of the shorter form. His 1978 de­but ‘‘ novel’’ The Ce­ment Garden is just 138 pages long, yet it in­tro­duced a wholly new note into con­tem­po­rary English fic­tion. The au­thor’s ac­count of four chil­dren, or­phaned sud­denly by the death of their mother, who en­tomb her corpse in the base­ment of their sub­ur­ban home to avoid be­ing taken into care, is shock­ing, not for the at­mos­phere of squalor and psy­cho­log­i­cal un­ease, or even the trans­gres­sive sex­u­al­ity that is re­lated. Rather, it is the clear, ele­gant, pre­cise means with which McEwan de­scribes events: he plays the pu­rity of the novella form against the ooz­ing cor­rup­tion of the nar­ra­tive.

The re­sult was rad­i­cal, the fic­tional equiv­a­lent of those three-minute-long punk sin­gles mak­ing their first ap­pear­ances in record stores.

Nor did McEwan aban­don the novella form. In­stead he nested shorter nar­ra­tives within his longer works. Think of the ex­tended, hal­lu­ci­na­tory en­counter with a pair of sin­is­ter hounds that caps his 1992 med­i­ta­tion on Euro­pean his­tory, Black Dogs. Or the aw­ful speci­ficity brought to bear on the long se­quence in The In­no­cent (1990) in which the pro­tag­o­nists are obliged to dis­mem­ber the body of a mur­dered ex-hus­band and stuff it in cases for dis­posal. Per­haps most fa­mous is the open­ing of En­dur­ing Love (1997): a long chap­ter where a bal­loon ac­ci­dent un­folds in hor­ri­fy­ing slow­mo­tion. A decade later, On Ch­e­sil Beach was the first ti­tle by McEwan to bear the de­scrip­tion ‘‘ novella’’, but really it was only the first to re­move the fic­tional pearl from the larger set­ting of the novel and present it sep­a­rately.

Why has it taken McEwan so long to come out of the closet and ad­mit his love for the form he de­scribes as be­ing ‘‘ be­tween 20,000 and 40,000 words, long enough for a reader to in­habit a world or a con­scious­ness and be kept there, short enough to be read in a sit­ting or two and for the whole struc­ture to be held in mind at first en­counter’’?

I’d ar­gue this has a lit­tle to do with the resid­ual cul­tural ca­chet of the novel and a great deal to do with the struc­tural de­mands of pub­lish­ing in re­cent decades.

Novel­las have fallen out of vogue pri­mar­ily be­cause of a per­cep­tion they don’t sell. Too long to be wedged into a short-story col­lec­tion, too short for the full-spec­trum mar­ket­ing push given to longer (and so more ex­pen­sively priced) fic­tion, novel­las have fallen be­tween the twin stools on which lit­er­ary pub­lish­ing usu­ally sits.

This is not the first time a shift in the length of fic­tions has been dic­tated by the mar­ket­place. In the 1890s changes in copy­right and the cal­cu­la­tion of lend­ing li­brary fees led to the de­cline of the three-decker novel typ­i­cal of Vic­to­rian lit­er­a­ture and a shift to sin­gle-vol­ume works. So the 1899 publi­ca­tion of Con­rad’s novella Heart of Dark­ness not only pre­saged the lit­er­ary devel­op­ment we call mod­ernism, it also re­flected new fi­nan­cial im­per­a­tives fac­ing Bri­tish pub­lish­ers.

The fi­nal decades of the 20th cen­tury saw a sim­i­lar shift. The older model — of smaller, long­stand­ing pub­lish­ers whose ca­reer-long as­so­ci­a­tions with their au­thors meant they were will­ing to pub­lish ev­ery­thing from es­says to wine-cel­lar notes, even if th­ese re­sulted in a fi­nan­cial loss — broke down by the 1980s. Agents, rather than edi­tors, emerged as the fig­ures to whom au­thors owed long-term al­le­giances. In re­turn, agents pushed pub­lish­ers hard for the best deals for au­thors. Com­mis­sion­ing edi­tors work­ing for ‘‘ lit­er­ary’’ im­prints in­creas­ingly un­der the own­er­ship of in­ter­na­tional con­glom­er­ates — or­gan­i­sa­tions for which the bot­tom line was king — un­der­stand­ably de­manded works from au­thors that max­imised the pos­si­bil­ity of sell­ing well. Short sto­ries and novel­las did not make best­sellers.

McEwan’s ca­reer neatly maps this al­tered land­scape of An­glo­sphere pub­lish­ing. Af­ter two well-re­ceived short-story col­lec­tions in the mid-70s, at the fag end of the older pub­lish­ing model, the au­thor shifted to nov­els un­der the mod­ern, cor­po­rate regime, where he has re­mained al­most un­til the present. It is an in­di­ca­tion of his hard-won em­i­nence that he was able to write a novella in 2007 and have it pub­lished. Lesser-known au­thors would have found it dif­fi­cult to have a work such as On Ch­e­sil Beach brought out by a main­stream pub­lisher, ir­re­spec­tive of its lit­er­ary merit.

In the five years since, how­ever, things have changed markedly. The dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion has sub­verted this long-es­tab­lished pub­lish­ing par­a­digm. Af­ter decades dur­ing which a group of in­ter­na­tional pub­lish­ing con­glom­er­ates of­fered ever-higher pay­ments for ex­po­nen­tially hefty nov­els, the dig­i­tal as­ter­oid hit.

In the ex­plo­sion’s wake, a new breed of

pub­lish­ing mam­mals cau­tiously left their bor­rows and tree-tops to walk the earth.

The re-emer­gence of the novella is tied in­ti­mately to th­ese changes. As any­one who digs into this year’s Man Booker Prize short­list will know, it is the newer, smaller, more avowedly ex­per­i­men­tal in­de­pen­dent pub­lish­ers that are in­creas­ingly re­spon­si­ble for to­day’s sur­prise best­sellers and suc­ces d’es­time. Three of this year’s six short­listed ti­tles were pro­duced by in­de­pen­dent presses. Each of th­ese spe­cialises in lit­er­ary fic­tion and short sto­ries of the kind that doesn’t fit the usual cat­e­gories. Buck­ing­hamshire-based And Other Sto­ries pub­lished Deb­o­rah Levy’s crit­i­cally lauded Swim­ming Home. The same firm also pub­lished Juan Pablo Vil­lalo­bos’s Down the Rab­bit Hole, a scant, 70-page novella trans­lated from the Span­ish and con­cerned with the child of a drug lord locked away in a com­pound who likes hats and yearns for a Liberian pygmy hip­popota­mus. It has been widely re­viewed and uni­ver­sally praised, and Far­rar Straus and Giroux has just pub­lished Ros­alind Har­vey’s English trans­la­tion in the US.

In­deed, sim­i­lar out­liers have first ap­peared in the US. Paul Hard­ing’s de­but novel from 2009, Tin­kers, was pub­lished by the Belle­vue Lit­er­ary Press, a non-profit ded­i­cated to pub­lish­ing books at the in­ter­sec­tion of the arts and sciences so tiny it op­er­ates out of a sin­gle of­fice in the famed Man­hat­tan men­tal hospi­tal. Ig­nored by main­stream pub­li­ca­tions, Tin­kers gath­ered a fol­low­ing via word of mouth and the en­thu­si­asm of book blog­gers. In 2010, Hard­ing’s com­plex, ele­giac med­i­ta­tion on the last days of a dy­ing watch­maker won a Pulitzer prize for fic­tion. It is a lit­tle more than 40,000 words long.

Yet it is in Aus­tralia that some of the most dra­matic shifts to­wards long-short fic­tion have oc­curred. Both the up­start lit­er­ary mag­a­zine Seizure and the es­tab­lish­ment jour­nal Grif­fith Re­view have em­barked on novella prizes in re­cent months. The lat­est Grif­fith Re­view, edited by Ju­lianne Schultz, con­tains a half­dozen novel­las cho­sen by a panel of judges from hun­dreds of sub­mis­sions.The qual­ity of works by au­thors such as Ed Wright, Lyn­del Caf­frey and Chris­tine Kear­ney is grat­i­fy­ingly high, and the sub­ject mat­ter of their con­tri­bu­tions thrillingly wide-rang­ing. It is as if the shift in length per­mits a con­comi­tant free­dom of ap­proach, a lib­er­a­tion from the novel’s longestab­lished dog­mas.

The most devel­oped lo­cal ef­fort to bring the novella (and shorter non­fic­tion mono­graphs) to pub­lic promi­nence has been un­der­taken by Gi­ra­mondo, an in­de­pen­dent pub­lisher based at the Univer­sity of West­ern Syd­ney. Gi­ra­mondo Shorts is a new im­print for the firm, de­voted to a se­ries of brief works. Again it is the kind of project that re­lies on the economies of scale per­mit­ted by short-run print­ing to pro­duce rel­a­tively cheap runs of niche ti­tles. In the months since the im­print’s in­cep­tion Gi­ra­mondo has pub­lished Eve­lyn Juers’sThe Recluse, a multi-stranded ac­count of 19th-cen­tury Syd­ney ec­cen­tric El­iza Don­nithorne, who per­haps pro­vided the model for Charles Dick­ens’s Miss Hav­isham; Chris An­drews’s trans­la­tion of Varamo, a brief work by Ar­gen­tinian writer Ce­sar Aira; and Street to Street, Brian Cas­tro’s foray into the novella.

It is this last work that best in­di­cates the ways in which the novella tends to un­der­mine the set­tled hi­er­ar­chies of the novel. In his New Yorker piece, McEwan made a point of cel­e­brat­ing Joyce’s The Dead as the great novella. Yet, as US critic David Ulin noted in re­sponse: ‘‘ This is the sort of hi­er­ar­chi­cal think­ing the novella stands against. It seems self-de­feat­ing . . . to rank a cat­e­gory that is it­self un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated, that we come to, when at all, on its own terms.’’

Cas­tro takes this no­tion and runs with it in Street to Street, which traces the later life of a failed poet, teacher and hus­band named Bren­dan Costa, whose end­lessly de­layed project on the life and work of Syd­ney poet, racon­teur, al­co­holic and aca­demic Christo­pher Bren­nan grows into a melan­choly es­say on artis­tic dis­ap­point­ment. For Costa, whose decade of re­search into Bren­nan has been stymied and whose dreams of po­etic great­ness have drunk­enly re­ceded along­side those of his drunken, cen­tury-old hero, it is only by be­com­ing a con­nois­seur of fail­ure that he can prop­erly hon­our his sub­ject.

The story of the ef­forts characters un­der­take to make a place for them­selves in the world has been, for much of its his­tory, the stuff from which nov­els are made. Cas­tro’s painful and frag­men­tary ap­proach — 150 small-for­mat pages — speaks elo­quently of lives for whom the world makes no such ac­com­mo­da­tion.

It is this sense of mod­esty in pro­por­tion com­bined with ec­cen­tric­ity of sub­ject mat­ter that is the real plea­sure of the novella. Its con­densed ar­chi­tec­ture con­cen­trates the virtues of the form in un­ex­pected ways. In­deed, it is the clar­ity and swift­ness with which such sto­ries are obliged to un­fold that of­fers the fi­nal and most per­sua­sive rea­son for the novella’s re­turn.

In re­cent years, the con­tem­po­rary novel’s in­creas­ingly gar­gan­tuan sprawl has felt like a rear­guard ac­tion. Fic­tion has sought to com­pete with the vast tranches of data held and dis­sem­i­nated by the dig­i­tal, much as lum­ber­jack Paul Bun­yan set out with an axe in com­pe­ti­tion with the steam-pow­ered saw, with sim­i­larly ex­haust­ing and ul­ti­mately hope­less re­sults.

What has be­come in­creas­ingly clear is that the novel, how­ever ex­pan­sive its scope or wellinformed its con­trol­ling in­tel­li­gence, can­not hope to com­pete with the world wide web.

One of the pri­mary ob­jec­tives of the novel — to trans­mit use­ful in­for­ma­tion about the world — has been over­whelmed by a more ef­fec­tive medium.

The web also of­fers some­thing very dif­fer­ent from the ana­log-era read­ing ex­pe­ri­ence typ­i­fied by the novel. Nov­els re­quire time and con­cen­tra­tion; their com­mu­ni­ca­tion is nar­row­band, sus­tained be­tween one mind and an­other across days, weeks or months. Our browser win­dows, by con­trast, are de­signed to lead us ever side­ways, not deeper in. We read on­line with a slight at­ten­tive­ness, one that slides lightly across mul­ti­ple pages just as an in­sect skates across the sur­face ten­sion of a pond.

Whether it is the satir­i­cal pes­simism of Voltaire’s Can­dide, which first ap­peared in 1759, or the ur­bane philo­soph­i­cal di­a­logue of Aus­tralian au­thor David Brooks’s The Con­ver­sa­tion, just pub­lished by the Univer­sity of Queens­land Press, the novella has thrived on brevity. For a time-starved gen­er­a­tion, glut­ted on con­tent but starved for co­her­ent nar­ra­tive, th­ese nar­ra­tives of­fer a rare breather. Af­ter the end­less, anony­mous cock­tail party of the web they are a bot­tle of wine shared with an old friend: in­ti­mate, en­gaged and pre­cious in their dis­tinc­tive­ness from the daily chat­ter of our work­places and so­cial net­works.

‘‘ The novel is too ca­pa­cious, in­clu­sive, un­ruly, and per­sonal for per­fec­tion,’’ McEwan wrote. But the novella can and does as­pire to a to­tal vi­sion, one where the heart and head act in ideal con­sort, where form and con­tent are held in a ten­sion closer to po­etry than prose. Their re­nais­sance sug­gests lit­er­a­ture has not been swal­lowed by the in­ter­net but, rather, re­vealed anew in a dif­fer­ent and wel­come guise.

Ian McEwan has cham­pi­oned the novella

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