“Why don’t you write a few thousand more words?” a friend asked me, after I finished writing Airmail. “Your book is too short. People want value for money.”
I tried to explain that ‘padding’ my book with a few thousand extra words would not make it a better value read, just a more tedious read. I tried to explain that a clean, succinct novella made for a rollicking read that didn’t need to ramble.
But my friend was unconvinced, until I also made the point that in today’s time-poor world, there was something to be said for a book that you could start and finish in one rainy afternoon, preferably with a glass or two of red wine to hand. Just like a good magazine.
Indeed, sci-fi author Robert Silverberg says the novella is “one of the richest and most rewarding of literary forms,” and I humbly agree.
A novella is essentially a short novel. Traditionally between 20,000 and 40,000 words, it is long enough to allow for a complex plot and full character development, but is less likely to sustain multiple storylines or a large cast of support characters.
If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, think Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Ernest Hemingways’ The Old Man and the Sea, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s No One Writes to the Colonel, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. All novellas.
Yet Steven King once called the novella “an ill-defined and disreputable literary banana republic,” citing the difficulties of publishing a work that is too long for magazines and too short to fit the standard definition of ‘novel’.
And I confess it is true, the novella has not been popular in recent years. As bookstore mega-giants like Borders close down, and e-books rise in popularity, an increasingly jittery publishing industry is less likely than ever to take risks with formats that lie outside the tried and tested formulae.
But I put it to the jury that in the rush of contemporary life, the novella is due to rise from the ashes as the predominant fiction format of the twenty-teens.
I enjoy a good Gone With the Wind-esque saga as much as the rest of them. But let’s face it: in an era of Internet degrees, microwave dinners and drive-thru pharmacies, a tome like GWTW can take months to finish. On the other hand, what if you could enjoy a full and satisfying read in the space of two or three stolen hours? This is the gift of the novella to the time-poor reader.
Don’t remove that four-generation family saga from your bedside table. But please spare a little (and you’ll only need a little) time for the humble novella. You may just discover a world you’ll love, in an afternoon that becomes utterly and completely yours.
My question for you: You’re given two hours of interruption-free reading time. What do you read?
Airmail, a new magic realism novella by Naomi Bulger, was published in April 2011, and is available online at Barnes & Noble and numerous other good bookstores. Naomi maintains a blog about writing, creativity and the absurdities of life at www.naomibulger.com, and she promises to write a personal letter of thanks to everyone who buys a copy of Airmail.