Thursday, December 16, 2004

Yo, Novella!

I take my title from the caption of a cartoon in the current (Dec 20-27) New Yorker. It depicts a small, slim volume, standing on the sidewalk with a nervous expression, being accosted by a bunch of big, hefty volumes that are plainly about to start shoving him around.

You don't have to tell me about novellas getting no respect! Lip service, yes: everybody remembers Henry James's line about the "blest nouvelle"; and if you say something at a party about the unique virtues of the novella, everyone will nod solemnly. It would be rude to add, "But of course, you never read them," because the person would be hurt, and retain a sense that you have been unjust to them that any sudden reflection that hey, he's right: I don't ever read novellas! would do nothing to allay. Novellas are like worthy foreign films: everyone is genuinely sincere in their approval of them, sincere in looking sad about what an endangered species they have become, and sincerely oblivious about how the fact that they haven't actually seen one in a theatre in three years may be part of the problem.

Early next year I am publishing "Arabian Wine," which is either a short novel or a novella, depending on where you draw the line. (Award rules in the science fiction world set the border at 40,000 words, about 120 pages in an ordinary book. "Arabian Wine" is something like 40,050 words long.) The works for which I am best known -- "Aweary of the Sun," "The Weighing of Ayre," "Spirit of the Place," "Giliad" -- are all novellas. Some of them have appeared in Best of the Year anthologies, although they are often too long. (Terri Windling wrote in the introduction of one of her volumes of her regret that she could not include "Spirit of the Place.") Novellas are hard to sell: they take up the space of four short stories, which means that the editor has to like one an awful lot.

And it's astonishing how little money you will make from one when you do sell it, or how many of the novellas that the field does make room for turn about to be sixty-page chunks of someone's enormous forthcoming novel. And when someone does speak about the splendors of the SF novella, they will usually cite as masters of the form somebody who isn't actually very good at it, such as Lucius Shepard, an amazingly sloppy writer. One could develop quite a litany of woe on the subject, if one was inclined.

But I'm not! I love novellas, in SF and elsewhere. The novella is my own Narrow Road to the Deep North, and I don't care if it has no cheering crowds lining the way and a big trophy at the end. There are some very nice views from up here.

5 Comments:

Blogger Ken Houghton said...

You do realise that, you, too, can allow non-Blogger people to post.

If you consider that Ronald Firbank's two books of collected novels might combine to 550 pages (nine novels), I still wonder when "novella" was invented.

Anyway, good to see you here. (Sigh; someone else likely to leave DM.)

3:09 PM  
Blogger Madeleine Robins said...

Oh, now...

It's not like Greg (or I) have gone over to the dark side of the Force or something. At least =I= haven't. I'm too afraid of retribution from DM-folk (you know who you are).

3:40 PM  
Blogger Gregory Feeley said...

I did eventually figure out how to permit non-bloggers to post. (I wonder why the default setting is otherwise.)

Who says I am leaving DM? I have no plans to do so.

I think one of Firbank's novels is nearly two hundred pages long, but the rest are half that or a bit less. He wrote almost exclusively at the higher end of the novella range, as Alice Munro does the lower. Hurrah for both of them.

3:57 PM  
Blogger Madeleine Robins said...

I figured out how to let non-bloggers post too. I suspect they set the default that way so that more people will blog with Blogspot. Like the Borg: post and you will be assimilated...

7:46 PM  
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