Consider the Novella
MAKING THE CASE FOR A NEW WORKSHOP MODEL
Making the case for a new workshop model.
MA N Y applicants to, and firstyear students in, the MFA program in which I’m fortunate to teach—the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan—see short stories as the default mode of the apprentice fiction writer. There are plenty of logical reasons for this to be the case. Short stories make good writing samples for MFA applications, there are countless venues in which one might hope to publish one’s short fiction, and stories easily accommodate the rhythm and timeframe of a workshop. From a teaching point of view, in contexts in which student work usually takes pride of place, assigning short stories instead of novels, for example, seems both justified and apropos. What better introduction to the craft of fiction than studying the craftiest of genres? The one in which—perhaps a little like Dutch miniature painting—every detail must be painstakingly executed?
As an apprentice genre, short stories are rigid taskmasters, requiring a meticulous command of language, voice, characterization, plot, and action. Short stories demand that something happens in a few pages and that we as readers care about what transpires. The explicit attention that short fiction draws to questions of pacing makes the merits of studying short stories—and trying one’s hand at them—seem perfectly obvious.
In an 1899 letter to the writer Maxim Gorky, Anton Chekhov remarked that “good writing should be grasped at once—in a second.” When asked to explain why he wrote short stories and poems rather than novels, Raymond Carver—a self-described follower and emulator of Chekhovian aesthetics—offered the following advice: “Get in, get out. Don’t linger. Go on.” More recently, the author and essayist Francine Prose said of exemplary short stories that they “make us marvel at their integrity, their economy. If we went at them with our blue pencils, we might find we had nothing to do.”
This sense that a good short story is aerodynamically swift and staggeringly efficient, approaching—if not embodying—perfection itself, is a judgment at which most commentators on the form seem to arrive. In fact, it is rare to find an accomplished practitioner of the short story form who does not emphasize how incredibly difficult it is to work in this genre— one in which the canvas is very small and, therefore, any room for mistakes is scant. Additionally, in some ways, it feels as if this canvas is getting smaller. As anyone who has published short stories consistently over the years has probably noticed, the journals and glossies devoted to publishing such work tend to solicit, and publish, slightly shorter stories every year. Young writers are being asked to work in not only a demanding form, but one that perhaps gets a little more demanding as time passes.
It seems curious to me that perhaps the most challenging of prose genres also serves as the domain in which so many younger writers are encouraged to cut their teeth. I worry a bit that a default emphasis on the short story form in MFA programs can end up discouraging talented writers who might not excel, in spite of their talents, in this demanding domain—that it may dissuade those who might otherwise focus on writing longer works. To be clear, I’m not arguing against the benefits of trying to write short fiction. Submitting oneself to the rigors of revising a handful of pages, and the challenges that inhere in trying to make something happen in these pages, are both crucial skills for writers to develop. Rather, part of what I’m suggesting is practical, and the other part is pedagogical.
Beginning with the practical, I’d like to encourage MFA programs, and the students they train, to more explicitly embrace the novella as an apprentice genre: as the ground zero, we might say, of one’s earliest attempts at writing a story (or even a novel). But first, perhaps it’s wise to try to answer a basic question: What is a novella? Rather than attempt to define the genre according to a specific page length or word count, let’s say instead that it exists somewhere between whatever constitutes a novel and whatever constitutes the most publishable short fiction. Perhaps, for our purposes, we might simply (if somewhat crassly) call it a story whose length disqualifies it from being published in most literary journals or magazines because it is too long.
This, it seems to me, is liberating. Working in a kind of creative no man’s land, the novella writer can allow the work to grow or change as it will, rather than focusing on the strictures of length. Accordion-like, the early draft of a novella might end up shrinking down over time to more of a shortstory size, or it might end up expanding into the domain of the novel—or it could remain in that hazy sphere of novella-length work, let’s say anywhere from 50 to 125 pages or so. Placing emphasis on producing a marketable short story too early can encourage a writer to prematurely shrink a piece that may be better off expanding prior to shrinking, or growing into a more capacious, permanent state. Perhaps, in other words, the novella genre more accurately reflects how often we don’t know, when we embark on a new story, if we have something on our hands that will end up coming in around twenty pages, or something that might require two hundred.
I’d venture that one reason we don’t talk about novellas more—beyond the difficulty of publishing novellas as one might a short story—is that we read novellas all the time in the form of short novels. In other words, while it might seem as if publishing a novella in a top-tier literary magazine is a daunting task, the distinction between novellas and short novels has always been a hazy one, and short novels are just the sort of thing publishing houses love to get their hands on. Justin Torres’s dazzling We the Animals (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011) might be characterized as a novella. The opening “novel” of Edward St. Aubyn’s justly lauded Patrick Melrose novels, Never Mind (William Heinemann, 1992), comes in around 130 pages—certainly on the long side of the novella range, but its pacing and scope (taking place over a single day) share the range of many novellas. This is true for many short novels still regarded as classics, such as The Old Man and the Sea, Heart of Darkness, and Animal Farm, all of which linger in that fertile, murky terrain between the novel and the novella.
My point isn’t that it would be any easier for an aspiring (or an experienced) writer to compose Never Mind than it would be to pen Bharati Mukherjee’s “The Management of Grief” or Edward P. Jones’s short story “Marie,” but that if we commit ourselves in a nonreflective manner to trying to write the perfect fifteen-page story, we might foreclose other possibilities: the chance that a character needs to come into focus over the course of several scenes and pages, or that the central situation of an envisioned story might be not central so much as one of several pivotal moments integral to the narrative.
My modest proposal, then, is for those who teach in MFA programs to make efforts to encourage emerging writers to inhabit the storytelling space I’m associating with the novella—one in which, over the course of dozens and dozens of pages, a story might pivot and shift, even meander, in mesmerizing ways. One of the unintended consequences of emphasizing economy as the emulative aesthetic form is that it can cause us to forget the pleasure of reading stories that bend and twist in such ways—somewhat leisurely taking us where we might not expect to go.
Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), first published in the Paris Review in 2002, strikes me as a great example of the freedom afforded by the novella. In crisp but otherworldly prose, Johnson’s novella follows the character Robert Grainier in and around the northwestern mountains of Idaho on the cusp of what the story proposes to be the end of the Old West. In nine chapters that range in length from six to twenty pages each, we follow Grainier as he works extracting timber for the Spokane International Railway line, loses his wife and baby girl to a terrible forest fire, and acquires a pair of horses, in the process becoming a freighter for people in and around Bonners Ferry. Grainier interacts occasionally with a “Kootenai Indian named Bob;” he is haunted by the images of his lost loved ones, particularly his little girl, Kate, whom he ends up believing survived the fire, becoming the area’s legendary “wolf-girl.” He grows old, never ceasing to grieve the loss of his family. As Train Dreams unfolds, Johnson subtly gestures toward events and developments in the wider world: the 1918 outbreak of the Spanish flu and the rise of the motion picture and aircraft industries. We watch a world change over the shoulder of a quiet man, one who is striking in part for what he has not experienced, what he does not know. As Johnson writes of Grainier: “He’d never been drunk. He’d never purchased a firearm or spoken into a telephone…. He had no idea who his parents might have been, and he left no heirs behind.”
Train Dreams hardly follows Raymond Carver’s dictum to “get in and get out.” On the contrary, as with Grainier’s own thought processes, through much of the story we as readers drift along. There is room, in Johnson’s narrative, for anecdotes and asides, for leaps backward and forward in time, and for unanticipated encounters with the haunting and sublime. In a visit to our Ann Arbor campus several years ago, Johnson recounted feeling pressured by his publisher to make the freestanding version of this novella longer. But one can imagine a longer version of Train Dreams feeling perhaps too meandering, whereas if the novella had been cut down to the size of a short story, it might have been forced to sacrifice much of its meditative quality.
It’s hard to conceive of such a highly realized piece of fiction as Train Dreams in any other form, but as a novella— hovering between the short story and the novel—we can glimpse, Janus-like, qualities of these other genres within its pages. This strikes me as one of the unique values of the novella, even if the mastery of this form is of course no easier than the mastery of any other artistic medium.
What would a novella workshop look like? A few years ago, one of my colleagues in the Helen Zell Writers’ Program, Michael Byers, taught a course on novellas. In Byers’s class, students spent the first eight weeks of the semester reading ten or so novellas to get a sense of the form. Then they workshopped their own novellas, two or three a week, for the rest of the semester. “Most students,” Byers says, “hit the 80-page mark without much trouble and one student made it to about 180 pages—beyond, in fact, the definition of a novella that we’d established.” From Byers’s perspective, the very challenge of trying to write a novella formed part of the appeal. “I presented the idea as impossible,” he says, “and therefore impossible to fail at. So that took the pressure off. In the end, the students were addressing not the workshop or me so much as the form itself. We were all out of the equation, in a sense, just trying to bring something into being that resembled the texts we’d read.”
Perhaps the amorphous properties of novellas—the fact that many writers cannot even agree, for example, on a prescribed length for the genre—are a better starting ground for some emerging writers than the often fetishized short story. Beginning with novellas, the emerging writer can learn to gauge both what it means to develop a longer, more novelistic narrative arc and what is required to shrink a story down to short-story size. An MFA graduate’s first book might end up being a great collection of short stories, but it might very well end up being something else entirely: interlinked or freestanding novellas, a short novel, a long novel, and so on. In its very capaciousness, the novella grants apprentice writers the creative space they might need to think through important questions of craft. And there could be something liberating to be gained from situating oneself in a prose form that so defies prescriptive formulae. Perhaps, in the early stages of a project, when prose writers might not yet know what they have on their hands, it might be useful for them to tell themselves that they’re working on a novella, and leave it at that.
Beginning with novellas, the emerging writer can learn to gauge both what it means to develop a longer, more novelistic narrative arc and what is required to shrink a
story down to short-story size.