Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Novella Hunter

I scanned the shelves. Not reading the titles and only occasionally tilting my head to the right, I made steady progress. At times, my head tilted as my hand reached up for a book -- not a thick brick, but a slender sliver.

Best done in used book stores to avoid sticker shock, novella hunting yields wonders. The fat spines reel past my vision. Classic titles on slender spines catch my eye: The Great Gatsby, The Heart of Darkness, The Old Man and the Sea, Animal Farm, Of Mice and Men, Master and Man, Bartleby the Scrivener. And personal favorites beg me to buy to give to friends: The Fly-Truffler, The Club of Angels, Silk, The Lover. For such a misunderstood form, the novella hunter has an abundance to bag.

The same hunt can be done in a big bookstore, but the price is dear. Though slimmer than the double quarter-pounder novel, the novella costs the same as a novel, much like in wine shopping where 250ml bottle of dessert wine may cost as much or even more than a regular 750ml bottle of red wine. Like a dessert wine, the novella compresses its sentences and its words are hand-picked. Everyone bends an elbow for water, toasting with beer is common, and a few enjoy wine, but even fewer sip dessert wines. As any winelover will tell you, a Bordeaux may blow you away but only a Sauterne, particularily a Chateau D'Yquem, can be called the queen of wines. It must be sipped, too much would be too exquisite for any palate.

With any talk of wine and books, prose runs purple. And it becomes excessively so with considerations of the the novella. No definition suffices. Scholars propose plot limits; publishers submit page limits; contests recommend word counts. One author calls his one hundred page book a novel; another calls her two hundred page book a novella; a third dead one calls his fifty page book a nouvelle.

Publishers avoid using novella on book jackets to keep the price high, or they use it to justify the high price. Literary critics avoid writing clearly about it (and anything else). Novelists avoid it so that their books won't be blurbed as slim gems. Should we trust the author when he calls his book a novella? Doesn't the intentional fallacy prevent a reader from trusting what the author intends? Should we trust the publisher who only wants to justify the price?

If the book is perceived as being high-brow, the book will be a novella with a novel price markup. If the book is low-brow or somehow doubts itself, the book's title must have A Novel underneath it, almost as a foundation and a justification. Whom do we trust? How do we know what the book is to be called? Is it a novel, a short novel, a novella, a long story, or just a short story?

Who can claim authority? There exists no Novella Panel of North America to settle the score. As far as I know, the French have yet to award a special prix for the only novellas. Though the word has Italian origins, do the Romans travel literary roads seeking it? As the Delphic oracle urged self-knowledge, each reader has no choice but to choose for one's self. For every definition, there is a counter-definition. A reader may be unable to define exactly what a novella is, and actually have no real need to do so, but he knows one when he sees one on the shelf.

So the novella sits on shelves like Beethoven's Fourth Symphony, which Schubert described as a slender Greek maiden between two Norse gods, the genre-bending Third and the colossal Fifth. The gods roar and spread their thick arms demanding your attention, but ignore them and quietly recollect yourself. Scan the horizon for slender elegance, not brutal bombast. When you spy one you'll know it ... tilt your head and reach up.


ibeeeg said...

Wow! I never really though about a Novella vs Novel. Now mind is turning and I can see a challenge for myself in the future.

Chris said...

I'm glad that I got your mind turning! Happy hunting!