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The Sweetness of Short Novels

By (February 1, 2010) 7 Comments

This is the introduction to a feature which will delve into a different short novel each month, revisiting classics and considering neglected masterpieces. To read the inaugural essay, on J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, click here. To suggest a short novel for inclusion in the series, write to ingridnorton@live.com.

“It was too short. Remember this. Never write a book under sixty thousand words.”

Those sentences weren’t spoken by a jaded MFA professor to her student. Rather, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote them to a friend when his third novel, 50,000 words long, failed to sell as well as his lengthier first two. His third novel — The Great Gatsby, that is.

Fitzgerald’s anxiety that Gatsby had been too short symbolizes everything that is tiresome in conversations about short novels (a term I favor over the more rarefied “novella,” which implies a too-clear break between itself and the novel and thus invites vexing categorical hair-splitting). Too often discussions of length are concerned with publishers and awards, not with aesthetic merit.

In “Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Write Novellas,” a New Haven Review essay, writer Gregory Feeley laments that the novella has become “the Rosalind Russell of American Literature, liked by all the guys but never asked out on a date.” Gone is the era when The Saturday Evening Post would publish William Faulkner’s The Bear in its entirety, Feeley sighs. Too long for modern magazines and too short for book publishers, a form which “accommodates dramatic development with compactness” is well-nigh extinct. Except for a few authors who’ve already established themselves with longer works, novels of less than 200 pages are “driven into various niches of American publishing, like tiny creatures escaping predators.”

In flatmancrooked, Deena Drewis narrates a nightmare scenario, in which a promising and credentialed young author meets a big-time book agent for the first time. All is going wonderfully, until she admits that the brilliant manuscript in her hands is (ack!) 40,000 words long. Short novels are hard to sell, Drewis explains. Because page count doesn’t change the retail value of a book, publishers assume hefty novels seem more worth the money, to say nothing of prestige. “The reasoning,” Drewis writes, “is that the book buyer’s mental process resembles that of a fast food consumer: for an extra fifty cents, you get twice as many fries; for an extra two dollars, you get three times as many words. It’s what economists refer to as ‘perceived value.'”

Of course, we cannot isolate writing from commerce. The long, multi-volume novels the Victorian age flourished because of the spread of magazines, which enabled “baggy monsters” like Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield to be serialized; Alexander Dumas, paid by the line, famously padded out installments of his novels with short exchanges of dialogue to increase the line count. Short stories prosper or disappear along with the venues of magazines and anthologies.

But in that case, the hand-wringing about the difficulties of publishing short novels is due to become obsolete. Much has been written about the dwindling attention span of the millennial generation, used to reading on laptops and i-Phones (and now the onslaught of various dedicated e-readers). In the aforementioned article, one can almost hear Drewis high-fiving her colleagues as she announces that tech-savy flatmancrooked is unveiling an imprint called “New Novellas.” In coming decades, it is indeed possible that the boot will be on the other foot, with long, epic novels becoming rarities, while shorter novels take center stage. What is certainly becoming clear is that web publication makes more fluid the old exigencies of length. When things are published and read online, the old questions of scarce magazine space and what is fit to be bound in a book drop away.

This kind of turning point is a good time to examine what distinguishes short novels aesthetically and substantively from their longer counterparts. Google “novels” and “length” and you will find tables of word counts, separating out novels from novellas, even from the esoteric and still shorter “novelette” — as though prose works were dog show contestants, needing to be entered into proper categories. But when it comes to writing, any distinctions that begin with an objective and external quality like size are bound to be misleading. The delicate, gem-like jigsaw of Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Ray could not be more unlike the feverishly cunning philosophical monologue of Albert Camus’ The Fall, but both novels are about the same length. In a 2006 essay interrogating the critical bias that long, sprawling novels are more serious and ambitious than their shorter counterparts, critic and poet Meghan O’Rourke points to short novels like Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. She phrases the question admirably: “What exactly makes a novel small, aside from its length? And if we don’t know, is the term more of an obstacle than an aid in taking stock of great literature?”

And yet, we do sense a difference between long novels of several hundred pages and shorter ones, even if it is elusive. When Fyodor Dostoyevsky realized that Crime and Punishment was outgrowing the short work he’d planned and becoming a work of several hundred pages, delving into the lower layers of Muscovite society instead of concentrating within Raskolnikov’s conflicted consciousness, he switched from first to third person and got in touch with his editor.

Long novels have expanse to interweave plots and subplots. With length comes room for tangents and wide tableaus. They have what Jane Smiley describes in 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel as an immersive quality, slowly creating a world we can wander through. In Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native, central character Eustacia Vye only appears on page 60, after five chapters describing the wild English heath where the story is set. A shorter novel, on the other hand, has less time to establish its setting; it must earn a reader’s belief quickly. A long novel thrives on “multiplication of incident, proliferation of character” and authorial digressions, noted fine and fierce critic Philip Rahv. The short novel, on the other hand, is a form which “demands compositional economy, homogeneity of conception, concentration in the analysis of character, and strict aesthetic control.”

Within the bounds of that form, much is possible. In The Art of the Novel, Henry James points out that blue-prints and narrow categories hinder the creation of great art, which stems, after all, from an author’s distinct and idiosyncratic impression of the world. Discussions of form are by nature post-hoc. “The form, it seems to me,” he wrote, “is to be appreciated after the fact: then the author’s choice has been made, his standard has been indicated; then we can follow lines and directions and compare tones and resemblances.”

Comparing “tones and resemblances” as James suggests, we find different resonances between the shorter masterworks. It is no coincidence that many of the most famous philosophical novels are short. Voltaire’s Candide; Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground; Franz Kafka’s The Trial and Metamorphisis; Camus’ The Fall and The Stranger; Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha; Par Lagerkivist’s Barabbas; Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts. Through concentrated plots and narrative intensity, these works explore great questions of identity and awareness. Short novels are perfect for focusing on an idea and its implications in the world. Dostoyevsky’s great big novels (The Idiot, The Brothers Karamazov) are certainly philosophical, but the ideas and themes they explore are many and multifaceted, whereas Notes From Underground, while complex, probes the limits of rationality and self-reliance with searching intensity. The “homogeneity of conception” Rahv calls the strength of the short novel provides perfect canvas for exploring ideas through narrative.

But shorter need not mean philosophical. A smaller narrative can also provide occasion for careful structuring, for clockwork calibrations of plotting and character. It is harder to lose a narrative thread in small space, easier to tie that thread into a bow across 150 pages than across 500. Poet Randall Jarrell tartly defined the novel as “a prose narrative of a certain length that has something wrong with it.” But the greatest flaw of brief, finely-wrought works like The Great Gatsby and The Bridge of San Luis Rey may be that they feel too flawless. Shorter forms, Zadie Smith recently wrote in a Guardian essay about the essay, lure us with the promise of perfection.

Over the next year I intend to revisit many of the aforementioned novels along with more obscure books, considering their qualities of intensity and stylistic rigor, examining what is shared across the spectrum of short novels and what is distinctive in each work. The first essay in the series is on J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country. Carr’s novel demonstrates the self-containment and narrative fluidity which inhere in shorter novels. A Month in the Country is written from mood more than from action. It concerns the fleeting summer Tom Birkin spends in the north of England restoring a medieval wall painting. Concentration on one brief period of time enables Carr to bring out layers of emotional complexity and build a tale of fragile and true contentment.

Just as Birkin labors over his painting, bringing out shades and colors, so I will try to make vivid the strengths and weaknesses of the works I pick. The two criteria for inclusion are brevity and quality. What I propose to offer is not a taxonomy of short novels but an investigation into the myriad uses of the short form. Not a science or a history, but an appreciation. As James, author of some of the greatest novels of the 19th century, both short and long, put it, “The only obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel, without incurring the accusation of being arbitrary, is that it be interesting.”

Ingrid Norton
has written for publications including Dissent, The Chronicle of Higher Education to Soundcheck Magazine.