Thoughts on the novella: 2 or 3 questions for Lou Mathews

Lou Mathews, whose wonderful novella The Irish Sextet graced these virtual pages, was kind enough, when we asked for his thoughts on the form, to give us an answer that's given us much to think about. And, we think, it's well worth your reading too:

When Failbetter announced its tenth anniversary novella contest, the editors cited what they thought were prime examples of the form – Death in Venice, Heart of Darkness and Miss Lonelyhearts. The first two made sense to me, but Miss Lonelyhearts didn’t fit the category. The first edition of that book, published by Liveright in 1933, is 213 pages. Another copy on my shelf, an early New Directions hardback, was more condensed, with tighter margins and a smaller typeface, but at 142 pages, still short novel length. Then I remembered the edition that introduced most readers to Nathanael West’s classic, the shoddy New Direction’s paperback, first issued in 1950, which combined Day of the Locust with Miss Lonelyhearts. In that edition, with a tiny typeface, miserly margins and no page spacing Miss Lonelyhearts shrinks to 58 pages, novella size. It is not a novella. West intended it as a novel, it was published as a novel, reviewed as a novel, and remains one. Still, the confusion is understandable because it has a style that is similar to that of many classic novellas, an unrelenting intensity and constant forward movement. The speed and focus make it read shorter than it is. As a friend, Steve Erickson, describes the book, it’s like a blade.

Miss Lonelyhearts is not the only example to cross categories. Animal Farm, which is clearly a short novel, is often described as a novella. So is The Great Gatsby. The Old Man and the Sea, published as a short novel, is clearly a novella. The lines are easily blurred because there is almost no consensus on what a novella is. The novella is the least understood and vaguest literary category. Stephen King has described it as "an ill-defined and disreputable literary banana republic." Merriam-Webster defines it as “a story with a compact and pointed plot,” which makes me pretty sure that Merriam-Webster has never read the most famous example of the genre, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Science fiction writers, always the best organized among us, define the novella as having a word count between 17,500 and 40,000 with no restrictions on style.

My own definition is that a novella, printed, is somewhere between 65 and 110 pages. Anything less is a long story, or what used to be called, when published in the pulps, a novelette. Marvelous term, that one. Makes me think of some girl-group from Motown, The Novellettes. They should be booked for every AWP gathering. Anything more than 110 pages is a short novel. I can’t make any generalities with regard to style, because too many of my favorite novellas do meander, or assemble cumulatively in the mind.

It does seem to me that a novella is the rarest of literary forms. Most fiction writers finish a career without writing a novella and a lot of what are offered up as novellas are bloated short stories or abandoned novels. I have attempted two, and the first was really only a bloated short story. There is some sense that the novella is an older form and that most classic novellas were written before the latter half of the 20th century. Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry James, Franz Kafka and Conrad made a specialty of the form. I believe we may be experiencing an un-noticed renaissance in the last thirty years. Melville House, the impeccably tasteful and challenging Brooklyn publisher has introduced its “Art of the Novella” series, with 36 classic and ten contemporary novellas, in slim, elegant editions. New Directions has brought out its own line-up, the Pearl editions. Alice Munro writes them regularly, but calls them stories. Steven King has written 18 novellas. Jim Harrison, the form’s finest modern practitioner has now published six collections of novellas and all of them are good and some of them—Legends of the Fall, Revenge and A Woman Lit by Fireflies—are great. There are probably a lot more out there that I don’t know about, a lot of people seem to be writing novellas, and writing them intentionally. The fact that the Failbetter contest attracted nearly 900 entries continues to startle me. That is about 500 more entries than the Drue Heinz Short Story Prize contest typically draws.

My own recent favorite is Tobias Wolff’s The Barracks Thief. This 101-page classic, published by Ecco in 1984, continues to amaze. It’s a Vietnam War-era novella in which nobody gets to Vietnam and you still get a better understanding of that whole sorry period than from any history or novel I know. The barracks thief, Lewis, is a kind of an anti-Billy Budd, with no saving graces at all, and yet his story tears at you. This novella is also a monumental example of just how much you can shift point-of-view, and voice, within a small framework and end up with a story that is much larger than the parts. Like Rashomon, the conflicting versions of the story assemble in the mind in the same way an impressionist or pointillist painting forms when we reach the correct viewing distance.

The Irish Sextet is my second attempt at a novella, and unlike the first, it wasn’t intentional. The Sextet is part of  a longer manuscript, Shaky Town, which is a work—like Winesburg, Ohio, Cannery Row, The Woman of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor, or Union Street by Pat Barker—that is formed by geographical boundaries. Shaky Town is a fictional neighborhood in Los Angeles. Every character in the book lives in the neighborhood or works there or is passing through. Brother Cyril, the focus of the Irish Sextet, is, at the beginning, a teacher at the local Catholic High School, Saint Patrick’s. The six stories or segments that constitute the sextet were written completely out of order. “Friction,” the fifth in the order, was the first finished. “Spanish,” the first, came next, and then about five years later, the last story, “Barefoot Saints”. This was the story that blocked me, because I assumed that Cyril, after his season in hell, would be prepared to die. He wasn’t. Once I understood that, the rest followed quickly. Not in order, but quickly. “Corporal Punishment,” “Naming,” then “Jesus Was a Carpenter.” It was probably an odd way to work, but logic, in writing, has never been a strong suit. If I knew where I was going, when I started, there would be no reason to write. The process, discovering where these people want to go, is what interests me.