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Why Your Next Read Should Be a Novella

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Click here to hear Tyler talk about novellas on this week's episode of Interabang Podcast!

“No man’s land”; a term popularized during World War I, a place you dare not reside without risk, an open target. In fiction, the literary “no man’s land” is certainly the novella: too long to be a short story, too short to be a novel. To publish a novella is usually to sneak it into a short story collection (think George Saunder’s PASTORALIA or Jhumpa Lahiri’s UNACCUSTOMED EARTH, both of which open with novellas). Novellas are also read as the start of what must surely be a longer work to come. How could this possibly be finished if it’s only 80 pages? The simple answer: it is finished. This is the completed work; this is the chosen form. We give too much prestige to the novel. It is not the only serious fiction being written.

Can we attribute the lower readership of novellas to economics? An example may be Transit Books pricing a single novella of Andres Barba’s and a collection of four of his novellas both at $15.95. This example continues across the market, many novels and short story collections, though double or triple in page length, costing the same as a novella. Wanting more “bang for your buck” feels like a great obstacle for novellas to overcome. But if we as readers have this view, then we are simply affirming that length equals quality, equals “worthy of my time,” equals financial support. This is a dangerous view of literature.

If it’s not entirely economics, could it also be cultural? When we think of The Great American Novel as a concept, we immediately recognize it as something epic, something of length and complexity and bravado like Delillo, Franzen, Steinbeck, Faulkner, etc. (authors with similar demographics are used here intentionally). America is consumed with the substantial, think Biggie size, the Gulp, our high school football stadiums, the McMansion vs the tiny house. We rarely place emphasis on the understated, the miniscule, the minimal. And this is not to say novellas are quiet and meek and recoiling; this is hardly the case. But on the bookshelf, they are physically overpowered by an INFINITE JEST. There’s no prestige that comes with finishing Hilda Hilsts’ novella WITH MY DOG EYES, but think of the readerly respect we give someone who has finished INFINITE JEST or ULYSSES. Is this pursuit of prestige an American virtue that even filters our reading selection?

I draw the cultural distinction after a recent conversation with the Japanese novelist and translator, Masatsugu Ono, whose most recent novel LION CROSS POINT won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize. His novel happens to expand only 120 pages, so I asked him if this short form was intentional. He explained most Japanese novels take place between 100-120 pages, dictated by their publishing market. To me what appeared to surely be a choice of form was simply an author working within their cultural publishing norms. Based on American publishing houses’ output, the short form popular in Japan is an inferior product here. It will take American readers being open and willing if the novella is to flourish. Or, like Melville House, it will take a press taking a risk and publishing novellas against market convention. The publishing house’s Art of the Novella series (publishing canonical as well as contemporary writers) is an earnest campaign to champion the form. And it seems to be working. Catapult press is also releasing a series of novellas with a focus on the craft of book making. Perhaps we will see a surge of American writers publishing novellas, but for now it is mostly international translations, a parallel to Ono’s comments.

As booksellers, we are here to push readers to take a chance on works outside of convention; this is one such push. The experience of finishing an entire work in one sitting with the conflict and character of a traditional novel is exhilarating and impressive. How can we not be in awe of telling more with less? And in a time where attention spans may feel shaky, novellas are a fantastic way to ingest literature without having to put a book down only to return to it perhaps days or weeks later. I also feel because novellas are not expected to carry as large of a presence, there is less pressure on the writer to make it something that lives up to an imagined expectation. Perhaps the short form allows the writer to truly feel unrestricted, less constrained to make something that can sell. This purity is why writers start writing in the first place: because it’s limitless and just fun. If you don’t expect to be picked up by a major publisher for your novella, maybe that’s when you can really make the work you’ve wanted to. To par this argument down to its simplest: replace one novel on your summer reading list with a novella and see what happens.

Glaxo Cover Image
By Hernan Ronsino, Samuel Rutter (Translated by)
ISBN: 9781612195674
Availability: NOT IN STOCK - Usually arrives in 7 - 14 business days
Published: Melville House - January 17th, 2017

Argentinian native Hernan Ronsino’s novella GLAXO is a multi-perspective mystery, switching from characters, voice and time to unravel the secrets of a group of men living in a small town. Smartly composed and structured, GLAXO is a full look at loyalty and self-preservation during war.

Such Small Hands Cover Image
By Andrés Barba, Lisa Dillman (Translator), Edmund White (Afterword by)
ISBN: 9781945492006
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Transit Books - April 11th, 2017

A true master of the novella form, Barba’s SUCH SMALL HANDS is a tightly wound and eerie look at what we’ll do for love and human connection. Set in an all-girls orphanage, the story takes a turn with the inclusion of Marina whose parents have recently died in a tragic accident. What happens once she gets there is haunting. The pinnacle moment comes when Marina wants everyone to play a game she’s made up. Good luck getting it out of your head. Barba is stunning.

Cove Cover Image
ISBN: 9781936787845
Availability: NOT IN STOCK - Usually arrives in 7 - 14 business days
Published: Catapult - April 10th, 2018

A man wakes up adrift at sea after being struck by lightning. His memory has lapsed and he must get back to shore, to a life he’s now barely connected to. COVE is in the tradition of man vs. nature literature, but Jones transcends his version with stellar writing and observations. Every word feels essential, and the experience you’ll have with this work is one where you simply enjoy how Jones has pieced together language. If you like Paul Harding’s Pulitzer winning TINKERS, COVE is your next pick.

Animals Eat Each Other Cover Image
ISBN: 9781938604430
Availability: Backordered
Published: Dzanc Books - April 3rd, 2018

Elle Nash’s debut describes the relationship a girl embarks on with another couple, an experiment really. The narrator has no name of her own and is soon completely controlled by the couple’s desires. This novella circles in on our desperation for love and acceptance and how we may lose ourselves to become whatever others want. Reckless drug use, a dead-end Radio Shack job, Satanism, Nash has created a very specific world to explore relationships with no boundaries.

Fever Dream: A Novel Cover Image
By Samanta Schweblin, Megan McDowell (Translated by)
ISBN: 9780399184604
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Riverhead Books - March 6th, 2018

A winding, chaotic story pieced together through the memory of a woman lying in the hospital. How did she get here and who is she talking to? FEVER DREAM is a book driven by voices from all directions. Haunting, nightmarish and just weird, Schweblin looks at motherhood in a challenging way and gives the reader an experience hard to replicate.