let’s hear it for lean and intense

my novella, Inishbream, in Helene Francoeur's beautiful turbot-skin bound edition
my novella, Inishbream, in Helene Francoeur’s beautiful turbot-skin bound edition

It occurred to me, talking to John as we walked over for the mail today (ask me about community mail boxes! I honestly can’t take the fuss about them, the suggestion that it’s the end of civilization as we know it, the end of safety for seniors – there are seniors in our neighbhourhood, John included, and like us, they’ve never had home mail delivery; if they can’t collect their own mail, a neighbour will do it for them…), that my reading lately has been largely novellas. I’ve written two posts about them – Hetty Dorval and Deep Hollow Creek are, to my mind, both novellas – and I’ve spent quite a bit of time (for desperate reasons) perusing publishing websites to see who on earth might consider a manuscript comprised of two novellas. (Yes, mine!)

And once I realized that I was reading novellas, and thinking about novellas, I began to see them everywhere. Last night I read David Gilmour’s new book, Extraordinary. I hadn’t meant to. I liked his book about watching films with his teen-aged son but I haven’t much liked his fiction. I did read his interview in Hazlitt last September (http://www.randomhouse.ca/hazlitt/blog/gilmour-transcript) and found it utterly distasteful. He’s entitled to his opinion(s) of course but nothing he said about writing and reading made me think I’d enjoy his latest book. But when I saw it at the library yesterday, I picked it up, read the jacket copy, and checked it out. It took me an hour and a half to read it last night and I don’t regret the time spent at all. It’s good. It moves along so well and the writing is crisp and clean. And you know what? I think it’s a novella. It’s brief – perhaps 50,000 words – and is essentially a conversation between a brother and a sister. Each character is vividly drawn and the dialogue is convincing. It has a novella’s sense of time and place, that contained and concise elegance.

One of my favourite novellas is Joyce’s The Dead. It’s perfect. I read it once a year and each time I’m both moved and inspired. And more. Surprised to find a sentence I hadn’t remembered and how its perfect fit within the narrative made it so organic to the piece as a whole that it took a fifth or tenth reading to actually see it. I love what Ian McEwan said about The Dead in his wonderful piece on the novella in the New Yorker magazine (http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/10/some-notes-on-the-novella.html):

I’d swap “The Dead”’s concluding pages for any fifteen from “Ulysses.” The young Joyce surpassed himself. I sometimes fantasize that on my deathbed, celebrated phrases from this novella will see me out: “I think he died for me”; “one by one they were all becoming shades”; “the time had come for him to set out on his journey westward”; snow “softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves”; “snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.’ There could be worse final moments.

I’m looking forward to reading the Canadian poet Gillian Wigmore’s recently-published novella, Grayling. I think highly of her poetry.She writes deeply and beautifully from her northern landscape –

4. fraser (fort george)

meet the clang and stink of the black train bridge

dripping the rain into the broad brown river

can trees be proud?

the cottonwood aren’t quitters

they draw the river up their roots

reach high towards sky

travellers in metal cars untouched

by river life, rife and humming

down below (from “Five Rivers: Under Bridges” in Soft Geography, Caitlin Press, 2007)

– and I anticipate that she will bring that attentive eye and ear to prose as well. And I am full of admiration for Gillian’s publisher, Mona Fertig at Mother Tongue Publishing, who unapologetically advertises this new book as a novella. (From the catalogue copy: “A lean and intense tale that takes the reader to haunting depths.  A seminal and brilliant addition to a neglected genre.”)

An argument for the novella

As a writer who loves the novella, I am always interested to read what others have to say about the possibilities of this strange and lovely form. Most recently there’s this:

http://blogs.publishersweekly.com/blogs/PWxyz/2013/12/09/what-is-this-thing-called-novella/

Although I wonder why the default suggestion seems to be that they are a perfect size for ebooks, I am glad to know that novellas inspire panels at literary festivals, debates online and off, and much discussion about length and the parameters of plot. I wish publishers weren’t so afraid of them. I have two out now, as a single manuscript, making the rounds. How would we market these, seems to be the lament — and although I understand it in some ways (a small book in a culture driven by excess and hype), I have to wonder where that old bold spirit went, the one that motivated publishers to take on unlikely titles and market them in the same way they would market anything: as necessary and vital books, not as something to apologize for. Years ago Jan and Crispin Elsted made a beautiful book of my novella, Inishbream, with wonderful wood-engravings by John DePol:

inish2

 

And Goose Lane Editions published a lovely trade edition of the book a couple of years later. I never felt that the manuscript was treated with anything less than respect as a work of literature rather than a abbreviated version of a real book. And for the New Year, my wish is that I find an equally congenial home for Winter Wren and Patrin.

It’s a perfect time of year to re-read James Joyce’s elegant example of the novella, The Dead. In his essay on the novella in the New Yorker last year, Ian McEwan wrote about The Dead: “A simple binary structure (a party, a hotel room) supports the evocation of an entire social milieu (decorous and fractious by turns) with extraordinary warmth. They seem to play out in real time, the dancing and singing at the aunts’ annual dinner, the family tensions, the barbed exchange about national identity.”