Avid watchers of the bookish pages will have noticed Nick Earls, who was a bloody big deal in my youth, has just released the first of a series of five novellas and has been all over the paper and virtual broadsheets talking about this thrilling new form. Inkerman & Blunt are the publishers, and it’s more a package than a book – a novella comes out each month for the next five months, and all five have been recorded as audiobooks by stalwarts of the Aussie soap and telly-drama scene.
Meanwhile, Seizure recently announced the winners of its fourth year of Viva la Novella. This competition produces ridiculously gorgeous books, delicious little physical objects that demand stroking (and, hopefully, purchasing; I say this because I’m a past winner). In its third year, Viva la Novella produced Marlee Jane Ward’s Welcome to Orphancorp, which has been shortlisted for the Aurealis and Norma K Hemming speculative fiction awards, shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Awards and won the Victorian Premier’s Awards. It’s a pretty big haul for such a little book.
Perhaps even more astonishing was the inclusion of a book that is not only a novella, but an experimental novella, in the Stella Prize longlist. Jen Craig’s Panthers and the Museum of Fire is a fascinating and strange little book put out by Spineless Wonders, following a writer who shares a name with the book’s author as she walks from Glebe to Surry Hills to return a manuscript that she wasn’t supposed to have read but secretly has. Nothing happens and a great deal goes on. Panthers unsurprisingly didn’t make the shortlist – Australian literary prizes are notoriously conservative – but still, it’s a bit of a win for novellas.
In his many interviews, Earls proposes that the novella hits the sweet spot for an audience who’d rather read a tweet than a novel – they’re short enough that you can get through them before you get distracted. They’re also an excellent length for adapting to film or telemovie (and rights are available for Formaldehyde, anyone who’s reading…). I don’t know if the ‘short enough you won’t get distracted’ argument holds up – if a book’s gripping it’ll hang onto you whatever its length (witness the three volumes of The Captive Prince I devoured in about a week, refusing to eat, sleep or talk to anyone for the duration); if it’s dull, even if it’s tiny, you’ll ditch it on the slightest provocation.
But the thing is, despite the uptick in novella-themed column inches and the claims this is the book-size that will Bring Back Reading, it’s a form that’s been around, celebrated, read and loved since forever. You may well know that a whole bunch of the classic ‘novels’ are really novellas – most famously the ‘greatest novel[la] ever’, The Great Gatsby. But did you know that Nicholas Spark’s The Notebook, which was on the best-selling novel lists for over a year or something ridiculous, is – True Shocking Fact – really a novella. It’s a mere 38,000 words (or the same length as Formaldehyde which – not that I’m bitter – I was told several times by publishers was too short to be worth publishing. No one buys short books, they reckoned).
I love long books. I love short books. I’ll read just about anything, let’s be honest. Oh, except All the light we cannot see; don’t make me read that thing again. But because lists are fun, here are my favourite short books which may or may not be novellas.
- Coming through Slaughter, by Michael Ondaatje
- Come Inside, by GL Osborne (it says on the cover it’s a novel, but no way)
- Slade House, by David Mitchell
- We have always lived in the castle, by Shirley Jackson
- Dept of Speculation, by Jenny Offil
- The wife of Martin Guerre, by Janet Lewis
- Bruno Kramzer, by AS Patric.
- Too Loud a Solitude, by Bohumil Hrabl
- Three men in a boat, by Jerome K Jerome
- Eugene Onegin, by Alexander Pushkin
How about you? Do you refuse to read any book shorter than 55,000 words, and do you call publishers beforehand to check the word count of any book you’re thinking of buying? Or do you love short books and think all those books I’ve listed above are actually way too long?