It’s The Length That Counts
Ian McEwan seems to function better in novella form, and told an audience at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival that he believes “the novella is the supreme literary form”. “Many of the writers we love the most, we love for their novellas: Death in Venice, The Turn of the Screw, The Metamorphosis”.
The novella can be defined as a work of 25,000 words, and allows authors to concentrate on the quality of the prose. But in the past, surely many books would have qualified as novellas – the works of Evelyn Waugh are virtually all short, for example, with the exception of the Sword Of Honour trilogy. Paper shortages after WWII also led to shorter books, and more intense, concentrated bursts of writing. Graham Greene and JG Ballard, HG Wells and Margery Allingham all wrote short, and how about Ed McBain, whose books now look positively tiny? And Stephen King’s novellas are far, far better than his immense longform tomes.
I would argue that it’s a harder form to master because every word must count – the increased length that publishers often demand makes stories baggier and less well-defined. Certainly my weakest books have been my longest, usually because past publishers have specified a certain page minimum. ‘Red Bride’, probably my longest, barely found a readership.
But, as McEwan points out, novellas are frowned upon by publishers who see the form as inferior, probably second-guessing the reading public, who may feel cheated at not having 500 pages to wade through.
But if the so-called novella gets a bad rap, why doesn’t the blockbuster novel? JK Rowling’s first arguably adult book (500+ pps) would have benefitted by some serious cutting, and it’s generally true that most modern popular novels that hit the 500-700 page mark are defined more by their length and scope than their quality.
I’d certainly prefer to deliver short highly polished books, but publishers and more importantly the public have come to consider size as a prerequisite to ‘getting your money’s worth’ from a novel. But it’s the shorter, more condensed reads that I return to again and again.