Slim-Fast Fiction

Tracking the Novella Trend

Two decades ago, Jim Harrison's novella Legends of the Fall stole the novel's last bit of exclusivity, epic grandiosity. Harrison's tale of cowboys-riding-into-WW I was so majestic it would have become too ponderous for even Brad Pitt to stomach in a longer work. While for years Reader's Digest Condensed Books proved that lurking inside many mediocre bestsellers are pretty good novellas, Harrison reminds us that a novella proper is more than a meager page count. There is something dangerous about the narrative choices the writer takes. Mona Simpson pushes the envelope of simple observations without becoming banal. If Steve Martin's novella had been a page longer, it would have been mawkish; a page shorter, dismissible. In fact all of the novellas mentioned consist of narrations that are too precious to extend any longer than they do.

Whatever you call them, mininovels are the literary flavor of the month.
illustration: Ming Ong
Whatever you call them, mininovels are the literary flavor of the month.

If you could create a great novella just by cutting text down to 38,000 words, then every Reader's Digest Condensed Book would be a masterpiece. A disappointing recent novella is Mark Salzman's Lying Awake (although it claims to be a novel, clocking in at 192 pages with very wide margins and small pages). Salzman's tale of a nun's neurological crisis mines austere territory similar to Mona Simpson's (Catholic spinster women), but his sentences plod along with little enthusiasm. Salzman cut and reworked Lying Awake (Knopf) from a much longer narrative, while Simpson's novella grew to its slight length and stopped. Simpson, herself, was always sure she was writing that enigmatic form known as a novella. "I've written novels. I know the difference," she says. Then she smiles. "This was too much fun."

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