“38,000 words,” John O’Hara once wrote, “tells all that you need to know about certain people in certain circumstances so that those people become figures in the reader’s personal library.” Henry James called these narrations nouvelles—works of fiction longer than short stories but shorter than novels. The French term was soon Americanized to “novella.” Whatever you call them, mininovels are the literary flavor of the month. This fall novellas by Mona Simpson and Steve Martin appear as single books that are respectively 167 and 130 pages long. Denis Johnson’s last “novel,” The Name of the World, was only 129 pages. Early next year, Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist (Scribner), his first fiction since Underworld, will clock in at 128 pages. DeLillo also calls The Body Artist a novel. What’s in a name?
Plenty, according to Mona Simpson. When the bound galley of Off Keck Road (Knopf) proclaimed itself “a novel,” she had the designation changed back to novella. “I definitely conceived the book as a novella,” she says. Long before she’d written Keck, she’d taught a course at Bard on the novella, assigning works like Flaubert’s A Simple Heart and Henry James’s The Beast in the Jungle. “I’ve always loved the novella’s singularity of purpose, its certain starkness.” Off Keck Road is more plain than stark, a tale about several decades in the lives of two spinsters living in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Simpson’s Jamesian exploration of men and women who should become lovers, but don’t, is well suited to the brevity of the novella’s form. If the book were any longer, the pleasure of Simpson’s simple observation of, say, how exotic a liverwurst sandwich with the crusts cut off can seem to an unworldly Wisconsonian would need to be supplemented by melodrama or kinky sex.
Simpson never intended Off Keck Road to be a single book. “Who’ll pay $19 for such a short book?” She didn’t want to surround her novella with short stories as in John Updike’s new book, Licks of Love (Knopf). She felt collections of stories should have thematic unity: “I didn’t think the novella with my stories made a coherent offering.” Keck might never have seen the light of day if her editor at Knopf hadn’t printed up a mock catalog that listed her novella as a fall offering. She relented.
No one will go on record about the marketing strategy behind big/little books. Publicists radiate nervous silence at the suggestion that the e-mail generation only has attention spans for these “Slim-Fast” narrations. This flourishing of the novella may very well just be a spontaneous occurrence like, say, a meteor shower. At any rate, the proliferation of slender fiction is a complete turnabout from John O’Hara’s 1960 speculation: “Men and women . . . want their money’s worth when they buy a book, and [the] first test of a book is its avoirdupois,” as in a doorstop book like DeLillo’s 827-page Underworld. DeLillo’s The Body Artist is 707 pages shorter. A three-page obituary appears near the beginning, and that dead character’s life reads like the involved synopsis of the monster plot you’d expect DeLillo to have written instead of this curious tale of a woman who may or may not be alone in a rural house situated in Stephen King’s Maine. Because DeLillo’s shaggy ghost story must be read in one sitting or its mood is lost, he probably could have called his novel a “tale.” As for that other N-word (novella), you can almost hear DeLillo’s editor, Nan Graham, turn up her nose as she muses, “I would erase that word from the vocabulary if I could.”
Her distrust of the word makes sense if you consider that The Great Gatsby is only 13 pages longer than The Body Artist. When push comes to shove, perhaps the word represents a state of mind rather than a specific number of pages. Steve Martin, for one, didn’t have the cojones to say, “Hot damn, I’m going to write a novel.” Instead he wrote a novella. OK, OK, I exaggerate. His editor, Leigh Haber, confesses that “it was never Steve’s intention to write a whole novel.” He began “playing around” with a short story about an affair between a young Beverly Hills store clerk and an older software millionaire, and it grew to the stunted length of a novella. As short as it is, Shopgirl (Hyperion) has a Russian novel’s cast of supporting characters. Their background stories are hinted at rather than spelled out. At the same time, Martin’s prose flawlessly walks a wire between New Yorker glibness (“A Prada dress is a Prada dress and will always be a Prada dress”) and hard-boiled wholeheartedness (“because he picked Mirabelle out by sight alone, he fails to see that her fragility, which he smelled and sensed and is lured by, runs deep in her heart and is part of her nature, and cannot be separated out for him to fuck”).
“I think the novella is something more writers should consider,” Haber says, and lists off-the-record several novels that “petered out at the end.” Her statement brings to mind The Great Gatsby again. If only F. Scott Fitzgerald had stopped Tender Is the Night on page 112, when Rosemary learns what “Violet McKisco had seen in the bathroom at Villa Diana,” instead of dawdling on for another 200 pages.
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.
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.”