In the seventh instalment of Novella November – Griffith Review‘s month-long celebration of novella form – Brisbane-based writer Daniel Young explores the vague middle-space occupied by novellas.
A winner of The Novella Project VI, Young’s novella ‘Shanghai wedding’ was published in Griffith Review 62: All Being Equal – The Novella Project VI.
WHAT EVEN IS a novella? One person’s long short story is another person’s novella, and one person’s novella is another person’s ‘slim novel’, so let’s forget the semantics and explore what kind of patterns the form tends to throw up. Is there some set of novella-like qualities that flourishes in this vague middle-space between short stories and novels?
There is an intensity of focus which comes from pruning away the minor characters and sub-plots you’d find in a traditional novel – an intensity that can manifest itself by maintaining focus on a single protagonist (or the relationship between two protagonists), a compact timeline, a continuity of mood and style, or some combination of all these. The impact of these qualities is only enhanced when the reader is able to inhale results in a single sitting.
Films often use short stories as their starting point: a spark that sets up a world, a character, a situation, then built upon to create something larger. Novels are often too unwieldy – as devoted readers we’re all familiar with the disappointment caused by the cuts and changes that film adaptations demand, and it seems such adaptations are better suited to serialised TV. Novellas, on the other hand, align with film quite neatly. A feature film is designed to be watched in a single sitting, and many novellas are best experienced in the same way. A successful film sets a consistent mood throughout using the visual language of cinematography, while novellas achieve the same with prose style and other narrative techniques. Some might call Brokeback Mountain a long short story (10,000 words), or The Great Gatsby a slim novel (47,000 words), but I think the ease with which both have been translated to film is a sign that they both occupy this middle-ground of the novella.
Novellas can also be a site of experimentation and play, in ways that don’t work at greater length. Tony Davis’s ‘The flight’, published in Griffith Review 50: Tall Tales Short, is written in the second person and set almost entirely in a plane cabin. This would be too claustrophobic in a novel; it would work only if interleaved with other sections, relieving the reader with shifts in tone and perspective – A Loving, Faithful Animal (UQP, 2016) by Josephine Rowe does exactly this. In ‘The flight’, the claustrophobic second-person narration mirrors the claustrophobic setting, producing a psychological effect that’s perfectly suited to the story of a paranoid, Assange-like digital whistleblower attempting to flee Australia.
None of the patterns I’ve observed while reading novellas are rules, and ultimately it doesn’t matter which category we slot a work into. What really matters is that publications are providing space for these stories, and that readers are engaging with them – and they are!