Con­sider the Novella


Poets and Writers - - Features - by dou­glas trevor

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.

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