Don’t get me wrong, I like to lose myself in a big, fat novel. My first and still-favourite author is Charles Dickens. Not long ago I managed to get through Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and a couple of doorstops by the wonderful Australian writer Tim Winton. But I love the short novel form.
It’s true that in these last years I myself have moved towards writing rather short novels, which gives me a vested interest of sorts. But the truth is that I love the experience of reading a novel less than two hundred pages long. For inspiration I have a shelf of short novels by my desk. Among them can be found: Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, Russel Hoban’s Turtle Diary, Yasmina Reza’s Adam Haberberg, Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night, Bobbie Ann Mason’s Spence + Lila, Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore, and Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams. There’s a great variety here and they remind me of how much can be done in a short space. I also have a few that are short enough to be called novellas: Elena Poniatowska’s Dear Diego, Cesar Aira’s The Linden Tree, Peter Handke’s The Afternoon of a Writer, Patrick Suskind’s The Pigeon, and Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl. These have more the feel of long stories.
There’s a strong tradition of the short novel and novella in Europe, especially in German (von Kleist’s Michael Kohlhass, Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice) and French (Collette’s Cherie, Francoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse, Marguerite Duras’ The Lover). More recently Japanese women writers seem to have taken to the form, from Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen to the recent Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. I certainly don’t think of it as a particularly American form, or a Canadian one. Here we usually give awards and attention to bigger, more “ambitious” books, often with a historical sweep. But I can think of at least a couple of notable exceptions in Johanna Skribsrud’s The Sentimentalists and Andre Alexis’ Fifteen Dogs.
For me, these small books have the best qualities of the short story, such as succinctness, narrative agility, and innovation. They leave out the padding, the excessive description and unnecessary subplots. They allow more room for the reader to breathe and to imagine. And yet they also have what stories usually don’t with their fuller character portraits and more developed atmosphere and action.
I remember vividly my first experience of a short novel. I was twenty-one, living for the year in an attic room in the suburbs of London, England. I spent one long, rainy evening devouring Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. No putting the book down until tomorrow or the next day. No forgetting what the relationship is between two characters. It was total emersion. (Perhaps it helped that the cellphone hadn’t been invented yet.)
I’ve never believed that one form is superior to another and just as I think it’s silly to claim that the short story is greater than the novel, so I make no special claims for the short novel. Each has its particular pleasures and I welcome them all. Of course we all have our personal likings and no doubt the sort of writerly qualities possessed by those who write short novels happen to be appealing to me as a reader. But if you’ve avoided reading short novels, believing that they aren’t involving enough or “important” enough, then I suggest you try a few. I’ve mentioned more than a few titles here and I recommend all of them.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.