Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Allan Gurganus: A Few Words for the Novella

In the 62nd in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, Allan Gurganus, author of Local Souls (Liveright)—a collection of three novellas, advocates the form.

The novel is a forgiving form; its loose clothes can hide your extra ten to twenty pounds. But writing a novella means entering an Audrey Hepburn lookalike contest. There is no faking that caliber of leanness. "Less is more."—More work!

Still, I’m in love with the novella’s very difficulty, its requisite 400 crunches a day. For someone inherently longwinded, the discipline of condensation can lift from narrative generality certain hard-earned abs.

Pascal: No time for brevity
—“I have made this longer than usual only because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”

That famous statement, sometimes attributed to Woodrow Wilson, sometimes Mark Twain, really came from a letter mailed in 1657. It was written by Blaise Pascal. His insight into the painful value of compression sums up what’s most heroic about committing short fiction. No single chapter of a novel need claim formal perfection; the next chapter can take up the slack and promise more. But the novella—in its inexorable single-minded sweep—demands a tight-rope’s through-line economy, unwavering grace. How hard is that? Try reducing ten acres of French lavender into perfume’s single ounce.

What is one, a novella? Randall Jarrell’s all-purpose definition might suffice: “A work of a certain length that has something wrong with it.” If a story runs you up to fifty thousand words, it might have hatched into a novella. Single besieged central character offered with a novel’s depth of specific character.

A novella is more nearly the twin of a poem than the sib of any eight-hundred-page novel. If all novels come laden with saddle-bag asides, the novella must offer its everything at once. Bypassing distracting secondary characters, the novella can focus upon one character’s single wish ripening toward obsession. All the drama can hang upon one pile-driving need or love or mistake. Some might call this form the narrative equivalent of eating tuna fish from a can held over the sink, but it is closer to superb hand-sliced sushi. A novella, containing the best of poem and novel, gives us the whiplash of one and the echoes of the other.

Modern life has conspired to make this orphaned form the belle of our age. Our caffeinated restlessness seems allergic to the three-tier novel. The novella can answer, without compromise, the needs of our nation’s shortened attention spans. —If the death of the novel is wildly overstated every six months, the death of the church is underreported. And its demise has opened epic new terrain to us, the secular atheist fable-makers. So many eternal questions remain unaffiliated; so many comforting rituals go weekly un-enacted. Today’s wisest readers turn to fiction. They are seeking more than some playroom pinball annex to their homes and apartments. They are asking fiction for an eternal distraction from all our usual temporal distractions. Readers now seek some sort of meditated shelter and fresh challenge. Haven’t we all had enough of life’s grocery lists unprocessed? Aren’t we are sick to death of force-fed irony offered as a solution, a protein-substitute?

Every evening I must delete email offers from Christian dating services and Korean penis enlargers (do these outfits work in tandem?). Such purgation feels like nightly sweeping back the sea. As we move toward art, as we turn our backs on the junk unsolicited, we want concision, simplification, a last chance at, yes, purity. We crave a respite from the corrosive adolescent sarcasm that’s become American fiction’s defense against a world of true adult feeling.

On the page at least, we seek the sense that some form of human dignity is still possible on earth. And I’m convinced that fiction can provide what religion, so busy besmirching its choirboys, have epically failed to give.

The novella is the perfect form for this decade of our reading history. These days we all love speed. If we don’t, traffic crowds us off the road. We live overcommitted (against our wills) to multi-tasking. Shorter fiction must satisfy us as only long works used to. Poems show how much can be said in how few lines.

I just noted how many favorite novels are actually short, are really novellas: Heart of Darkness; Death in Venice; The Call of the Wild; So Long, See You Tomorrow; The Beast in the Jungle; Pnin; Billy Budd, Sailor; Animal Farm; The Old Man and the Sea; Ballad of the Sad Café; A Clockwork Orange; The Great Gatsby.

And these works are not simply steroidal stories or stunted novels. The Canadian writer George Fetherling states in an essay that defining a novella as little more than the short novel is like “saying a pony is a baby horse.” Far more than any protracted novel, the novella invokes human speech. As with tales exchanged aloud between living persons, the fictional transaction seems to happen in real time. (Not War and Peace time.) Novellas must complete themselves in a single fire-side sitting. The writer dares not let the reader leave her-his talking presence. There is an urgent button-holing quality in riveting short fiction that gives its best examples huge immediacy.

This very swiftness admits then complements the way we live now. Peter Taylor praised the novella as “a work you can pick up after dinner and finish by bedtime.”

Dr. Seuss: A man of few words
I feel proud of attempting more and more with fewer pages. (Dr. Seuss, remember, wrote his immortal The Cat in the Hat using only a fixed 236 words.) New York publishing continues to favor The Novel as our ideal American form, the basic unit of Fictional Retail. This seems short-sighted, conventional, corporate. It is the kind of non-thinking that often precedes a species’ extinction.

Meanwhile I propose that we live in a Golden Age of American Short Fiction. So much talent everywhere. But our musty fixation with some 1940s macho Great American Novel Blockbuster Doorstop hides from us the abundance everywhere of great gifts at the shorter forms. They are—Darwinian—shaped and carved surfboard smooth by those very tsunami forces battering us all. Forms rendered by and for our frantic if exciting age.

Henry James, whose own genius is most perfectly revealed in his shorter sprints, once praised the form as “the beautiful and blest nouvelle.” The English word “novella’ springs from the feminine Italian form “novello.” meaning “new.”

What renewed form of fiction do we need now? Antique novelty available in a dosage and sufficient wattage for our own keyed-up present-tense.

Yes, a novella remains insanely tough to write. You have one chance and all its musical notes are, as professional singers, say “exposed.” And yet, so many gifted voices now gravitate precisely toward performing with these risks and at this length. The raw test of emotional courage might be what makes the novella so rich for readers, so alluring for writers.

Finally, regarding the tortures of condensation, Woodrow Wilson, of all people, states: “If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation. If fifteen minutes, just three days. If half an hour, two days. If an hour, I am ready now.”

We writers can therefore take more time trying to tell darker lyrical and layered truths in far fewer words. With no loss to literature. Till the world’s attention span slows again for the fattie-acid ten-course feast, we might do well to opt for single-sitting flashes of pure amazing protein.

It is the way we eat now. And live. And read.