From Our Authors | April 13, 2016
Contributors on Craft: Jacqueline Kolosov on the Novella
Today, the Missouri Review presents the third installment of Contributors on Craft, short craft essays from the writers we publish. This post is by Jacqueline Kolosov, whose omnibus review “The Novella: Four New Collections” appears in our Winter 2015 issue.
On the Spacious Discipline of the Novella
“What I love about the novella is this: it can have the reduced essence of the short story but with the spacious reach of a novel, like a really compelling old person talking on a wide, open porch. And you can read all of it after dinner before bed.”
–Andre Dubus III
Last week in sunny, polluted Los Angeles, some 10,000 writers converged on the convention center for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference. At 4pm on Friday, I found myself on the patio of some upscale commercial hotel talking to Andre Dubus III about getting the ego out of the way in writing, the necessity of empathy for one’s characters (and for each other), wild blueberries, and Toyota’s well-made trucks. Along the way, the conversation turned to his novella collection, Dirty Love, which I reviewed for the Missouri Review in the Spring 2016 issue.
When I asked Andre about the genesis and evolution of that collection, I expected him to tell me that when he sat down to write, he had a sense, very early on in the process, that a piece would evolve into a story or a novel or that jewel, the novella. But what we expect is not necessarily what happens—thank god, right? “Marla” and “The Bartender,” two of the novellas in Dirty Love, grew out of what he called a “failed novel.” In the failed novel, he envisioned a predator character. Marla was to be the predator’s victim (and to an extent she is, given the relationship the novella depicts). The protagonist of “The Bartender” was to be the predator’s father. “So what went wrong?” I asked of those hundreds of pages he shelved and mined over a period of six years. The predator character was forced, Andre said. (And Dubus III can write superlatively terrifying predators as his body of work evidences.) But Marla came alive, as did Robert Doucette, the protagonist of “The Bartender,” and so this economical writer salvaged them from the wreckage of a much larger project. The surprise of Andre’s answer prompted me to rethink and recast a lot of what I’d intended to write about the novella here.
A length of 60 to 120 pages seems to be the most obvious element of the novella. In the words of Henry James, it is amenable to the “idea happily developed” to its own “ideal length.” So a novella has a much tighter focus than a novel. Meaning, it’s about one thing and one to two characters. Place, too, may be circumscribed or unified, and here it’s worth singling out the central sense of place in Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and the title novella in Andre Dubus III’s Dirty Love. In his introduction to The Granta Book of the American Long Story, Richard Ford approaches the novella form from another angle, focusing on its distinction from the short story. Whereas the story requires restriction and intensity, the novella “may have intense effects but wider implications.”
Those wider implications still require economy. And economy is a form of discipline. I am a poet who also writes prose, both nonfiction and fiction. And I’ve written three novellas, but I only consider one to be truly successful. In“Locks,” I wanted to write about Susan, a woman from a lower middle class background who finds herself “trapped” in her marriage to a man who is raising his much younger brother as his own son. The brother/son has a severe form of Asperger’s, and Susan finds herself in the position of caretaker to this boy. She also has a beautiful, troubled daughter who has become sexually active and recently has had an abortion. Susan’s one “hope,” if I can call the child that, is her eight-year-old daughter, also her husband’s child. This child ultimately pushes a Muslim child off some playground equipment and calls her an ethnic slur she picked up from her father, who has racist ideas. I’ve included the complex family dynamics of “Locks” here in order to demonstrate why this novella, unlike the other two, has been successful. To paraphrase Henry James, Susan’s story—her unfulfilled desires and all the ways in which she’s forced to compromise—is “the one idea [un]happily developed to its own ideal length.” The novella form allows me to explore the lives of the son with Aspergers, the troubled teen, and even the husband, but the reader perceives them in relation to Susan’s experience. In a novel, these characters would need, I think, more breathing room independent of Susan.
I’ll conclude by stepping out of craft and into the economics of the novella form. The August 2013 issue of Forbes includes the article “The Novella Economy: Making Novellas Profitable.” Here, author Isaac Marion, who wrote the best selling Warm Bodies and its prequel novella, The New Hunger, acknowledges the ease with which novellas work in a digital age, not because of the convenience of reading them on a tablet, but because page numbers aren’t visible. “The Old Man and the Sea, Fahrenheit 451…many of our most enduring classics are novellas and would probably be rejected by today’s publishers who are constantly pushing the needle from art toward commerce.” It’s a grim admission, one that turns on the belief that many readers who plunk down $16 for a book measure that book’s value in terms of heft—the length of the reading experience—rather than quality.
Maybe. Although many call the novella the perfect narrative form for the time-pressed digital age, big, fat, contemporary novels like Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog or The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski, a 608-page contemporary retelling of Hamlet and Oprah’s Book Club selection, do superbly well. A remarkably long novel, by any standards (including the Victorians), is debut novelist Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which took a decade to write and weighs in at 1024 pages. Intriguingly, a seven-part adaptation of the book debuted on the BBC in May 2015. As much as contemporary audiences love their movies, they love their mini-series adaptations (as in the six-hour version of Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth). It seems to follow, then, that the on-the-move, harried reader might prefer a novella she can read on her smartphone or tablet. But, given the proper allowance of time, she might choose to curl up with a big fat novel that takes days and days to read. The good news: despite all the other forms vying for our attention, we continue to read.
Jacqueline Kolosov is coeditor of Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres (Rose Metal Press 2015). Her poetic memoir, Motherhood, and the Places Between, won the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award selected by W. Ralph Eubanks, and is forthcoming from Stillhouse Press in September. She has published three full-length collections of poetry, too many chapbooks (a form she loves for reasons akin to her love for the novella), and several YA novels. Jacqueline’s stories, poems and essays have appeared in a range of venues including Poetry, The Southern Review, Terrain.org, The Sewanee Review, and Bellevue Literary Review. She is Professor of English and serves on the creative writing and literature faculty at Texas Tech. Find her at www.jacquelinekolosovreads.com.
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