Wednesday, March 9, 2016

How Do You Want Your Fiction? Long Or Short ?

Even though the form has an honorable history, in recent years, the novella seems to have fallen out of favor.  And, even though we honor Of Mice and Men, The Shawshank Redemption, Death in Venice, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Heart of Darkness, The Stranger and many more short classics from the past, publishers are adamant about their 60,000 to 80,00 minimum word rule for a manuscript to be considered unless the writer is a member of the best-seller’s club.  Stephen King or James Patterson could publish napkins, though Patterson would have a co-writer, bless his talented and prolific heart. Jealousy is not pretty.

Why the minimum?  Maybe because of production costs (set-up, handling and the whole launch business), publishers need to get $30 retail for a hardbound book no matter how thick. Readers, it seems, are reluctant to pay that amount of money for what they perceive to be half a book or less. There is an underlying “cost per word” logic to all this, conscious or unconscious. We are prey to packaging.

Dickens was paid by his publisher so much per word.  No fool, he wrote long books. Before cheap communication technology, when people used Western Union to send important messages across the country, they were charged by the word. So they wrote short messages, eliminating all but absolutely essential words. Even today we look at word pricing. Using that standard, however wrong-headed the logic might be, the novella at $29.95 for 100 or so generously leaded pages doesn’t give readers their money’s worth. Today in order to be published at all, writers produce longer books. The temptation to pad,  or add water, is hard to resist in such an environment.

We have already forgotten that much of the fiction published not too long ago were  “pocket” books, thin bodice rippers, romances, mysteries and westerns that fit into men’s breast pockets and women’s clutch purses. There are a few retro publishers trying to revive this concept, often with great style and panache. But all in all, short books, whether genre or “literary,” (an argument for another day) are still battling the fat blockbuster model. Perhaps not lost on this is that those thin books of previous decades, often in drug stores on revolving metal racks, were roughly the size of a smart phone.

Thin books, especially pulp fiction, prompted a style. The style was often “telegraphic,” that is prose as short and direct as possible, eliminating unnecessary words, most often adjectives and adverbs. That’s one way to shorten books. To some extent, we could call the art of the novella, “achieving shortness,” or “honoring brevity.’ But a novella might also merely encompass a smaller slice of time in which a story takes place or in which philosophical arguments are examined.  In some cases a well-written, smaller story represents a greater one.  Do we need the greater one?  Of course we do. Perhaps we need to deal with historical perspective or generational issues.  A novella may not work.

But I’m 70 and I’m running out of time.  But even if I weren’t … if I were 17, how much time would I have, given the unlimited alternatives of art and communication?  Might I really think about stealing three or four days from my allotted existence — devoting that time instead to Thomas Mann’s Joseph And His Brothers at 1,492 pages?

Writers of skinny books occupy many spots on my favorites list in large part because they write skinny books..  Georges Simenon is at the top of it. Not his Inspector Maigret series. He wrote 200 novels, all relatively slender volumes and 75 about Maigret. He wrote 150 novellas that had nothing to do with his famous detective, though many of them had to do with criminal behavior.  I like those.  

Instead of having universal endless knowledge of the characters and the need to express it all, there is a sense f voyeur in Maigret’s, of a delicious peeping Tomism. When I read, (actually when I write as well), I’m siting in the darkness outside a stranger’s window observing what is happening in the lit interior. There is brevity in description because there are limits to what can be observed in time and space (as life really is) and a writing style that appears to be very direct, almost telegraphic.  The writer writes what can be seen and heard.  The reader interprets. Short books. Where are the contemporary versions of this?

I apologize for not remembering the source; but a while back there was an informal poll asking readers if they would purchase a novella and if not, why not? The overwhelming response was ”no.”  While many didn't want to give up that fat book that would take them days to read, presumably on a big soft sofa in front of a fire with a glass of wine, the reason most gave for not wanting a novella was that they are too expensive for what they get.

But times have changed. For all the horror the Internet and E-books have wrought on the romance of reading, I believe there are now opportunities for the novella to bloom again. It might be the perfect form for an E-book for the more mobile, less materialistic, increasingly time-challenged reader.  And the electronic book does not require anywhere near the production cost of a book in print. The novella I argue is the best choice for that flight from San Francisco to New York or those city-to-city train trips in Europe and Japan. Complete in a sitting. How many novellas can you carry in one small electronic reading device? Certainly all 150 of Simenon’s novellas.

The truth is I am puzzled by the slowness of the public to gravitate toward the smaller work. The system and the culture at large must adjust to the changes, I guess. For example, major reviewers rarely touch any book unless the first edition is in hardback.  If the publishers aren’t producing hardback novellas and reviewers are avoiding E-books launches, the system is stacked against them both.

The evolution or revolution is not without pain either. How do we, or can we incorporate the bookstores and libraries into the process? These two entities are the very roots of the book reading culture throughout the world. How do we not lose them? We know that technology often moves faster than the ethics needed to cope with changes.  I suggest that in terms of general values, quickened technology can risk our losing sight of valuable traditions.  (There are serious discussions about the need to teach cursive handwriting.)

One more: How can we apply some sort of quality (however you define it) filter to the tsunami of self-published books without squelching the beauty that technology is affording new talent? How can we get publishers, bookstores, reviewers and others to present novellas as legitimate in whatever format (ink or electronic) they take?

Perhaps, that is for the marketplace to solve.  Meanwhile, there is a practical opening for books of all lengths. And it is time the novella reclaims a prime position. Literarily, it has always been legitimate even as it has been unwelcome here in the U.S.A. where we keep falling for the bigger is better philosophy of everything.

As a writer, in the last few years I have moved in the direction of the novella.  It has given me new joy in writing in what are my otherwise waning years. Writing a novella is a different challenge.

To paraphrase Ian McEwan in a New Yorker article, while the novel is often sloppy, the novella, he says is “the perfect form of prose fiction.”  I would add or qualify that statement, though I’m hardly qualified to do so, by saying that the novella is more likely to be made perfect.  To be perfect requires the reader and writer to conspire perfectly, also harder to do in the more rambling novel.

With a few novellas under my belt, I am continuing in that vein with a new series for Orca Publisher’s Rapid Reads program dedicated to short, easy-to-read fiction (under 20,000 words). The first was The Blue Dragon last September, which is to be followed by The Black Tortoise in March, 2017.  My most recent release  (May 1) was the final book in my Shanahan series, Killing Frost, a shortish novel.

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