Why Mormons should embrace the novella

The novella reached its peak in the latter part of the 19th century. The 20th century saw a serious decline in its fortunes for a whole variety of reasons. It is now the 21st century, and I say it’s high time we bring it back.

I mentioned this idea briefly in my review of “Long After Dark,” and then tried to go find where I had posted on it before. I could have sworn that I wrote something in the early days of AMV or perhaps on the AML-list, but I haven’t found anything and this could be yet another of those blog posts that I wrote notes on, but then never typed up (I often write my posts by hand during my long commutes on public transportation). I can’t find the notes either.

So I’m going to attempt to reconstruct my argument that, considering the current state of Mormon letters, the novella is the perfect literary form for the movement(s).

1. Novellas employ narrative frames. As we get further in to the list, I’ll bring up more utilitarian reasons, but I want to start with formal concerns. Typically, novellas use narrative frames and other narration conceits. One of the classic narrative frames used in novellas is where the narrator is on a journey and somewhere along the ways encounters an (often unreliable) character who tells him a tale related to the region. Oftentimes the tale told subverts both narrators (often in spite of moralizing on the part of the narrator) and usually there is a certain amount of tension between the narrative frame and the story at the center of the narration. Narrative frames and/or center narratives can also come in the form of letters, journals, etc.

This use of narrative frames is very well-suited to capturing the Mormon experience. Authoritative, moralizing (but maybe not as moralizing as it would first seem) narrators, the use of documents and history, tales located firmly in place, the experience of telling and hearing are universal, but I think they have a specific resonance in Mormonism. What’s more, Mormon readers tend to be strong readers, readers who reflect their own worldview and experiences back on the work, and narrative framing is a way to allow different readers to have different sympathies and still be engaged by the story, and if the novella is good enough, it should work on both the believer and the skeptic. This is all very theoretical on my part, but I hope it makes sense.

2. Related the above point, Novellas lend themselves to formal experimentation. We could use some of that in the field. It’s also much easier to take formal experimentation in novellas because they are short (quite a bit more on why short is a virtue below) and because they do use narrative frames [which offers a lot of room for experimentation itself].

3. 19th century German critics (The novella was big in Germany in the latter half of the 19th century) considered the novella to be the closest literary form to drama. They had all sorts of opinions about what implications that had for how “good” novellas should be structured (e.g. all novellas should have three acts). Although I certainly don’t think that all Mormons novellas should have three acts, I do think that because Mormons (for a variety of socio-cultural and historical reason) tend to like theater (and along with that plot). Good novellas tend to be tight, well-plotted works. We need to learn how to write that way. Not only will our audiences be more willing to go along with the ride, but it’s good for the soul of the artist, anyway. It’s always easier to write long.

4. Related to this idea of novellas being akin to drama — they are also often quite suitable for film adaptations*. To be perfectly frank, keeping in mind my caveat about my continued refusal to watch Mormon films, it appears to me (from what I have read/discussed) that one of the problems with Mormon film so far is a lack of really good writers. Whether or not those making Mormon films embrace the idea or not, having a pool of novellas that are ripe for film and stage adaption would be a good thing.

5. I should write a separate post on this, but one thing that has really struck me about both Mormon genre and literary novels is how weak the endings often are — even when the rest of the novel is fantastic. Mormon writers need to bet better with their endings, and the novella, because of its length and form, demands a good ending. Think of Henry James “The Turn of the Screw” or “The Dead” by James Joyce or Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” — but the list goes on. I have read quite a few novellas, and granted most of them are by canonical writers, but almost without exception, they have solid endings.

6. And, of course, given all the above, novellas are a great bridge form to novels. Because there isn’t a market for novels and they have fallen out of fashion, Mormon authors tend to get a few short stories published, maybe a collection, and then jump to the novel. This isn’t always a bad thing, but it seems to me that some of our writers. In addition, there are quite a few short story writers out there that publish and then you don’t hear from them for awhile. Maybe they’re all off working on really amazing novels or memoirs, but perhaps they should work some novellas in along the way. Conversely, the novella is a great way for established authors to try a new genre, play around with form, etc.

7. There is almost no market for novellas. I don’t know if one could develop. But novellas are a lot less painful to offer for free than novels. And let’s be honest, much of the best literature that’s been published in the Mormon market didn’t make any (or very little) money for the authors. Perhaps novella collections could become a viable part of the market, but even if not, novellas could be published as chapbooks for not too much expense and sold cheaply.

8. Related to the chapbooks idea — novellas are the perfect thing to serialize. I think Dialogue, Irreantum, Sunstone, Segullah, etc. should all be actively looking for, even commissioning novellas (and, hey, we’re happy to serialize novellas on Popcorn Popping). And serializing a work that is a hot property is a good way to increase the number of subscribers. In addition, I think the novella would work well on the Web (serialized or not), especially if it was presented in a creative format — with accompanying images, music, discussion, glosses/hperlinks, sidebars, etc.

9. Finally, novellas are a quick, yet often satisfying, read — even a one-sitting read. In a culture that places a lot of demands on time, the novella is the equivalent of being able to watch a movie (although not one of the bloated feature movies prevalent these days) or watch an hour-long TV drama. And good novellas are indeed satisfying reads. Don’t get me wrong. I love short stories, too. But I think some of my favorite works ever are novellas — there’s enough to immerse you in a plot and get into the main characters, but without the commitment (and sometimes bloat) of a novel.

So there’s my case for the novella in Mormon literature. What do you all think?

* Indeed, this seems to be a key aspect of BYU’s Lifesong project. They call their works novels, but their novels tend to be short and the line between novella and short novel is rather hard to find. I wonder if they’re a little too focused on the filmability issue, though.

23 thoughts on “Why Mormons should embrace the novella”

  1. This was useful and interesting to read, especially because Zarahemla Books is planning to experiment with a two-novella book later this year. They’re both on a similar theme but by different authors.

    When it comes to reading, downsizing really seems like the way to go in today’s world…

  2. Very cool, Chris. Stephen Carter alluded to this project in response to my review of “Long After Dark.” I look forward to seeing what you all come up with.

  3. I was delighted to see this post because it aligns with my own thinking, but of course adds a lot to it. Since reading it I’ve looked elsewhere and realized there’s more to a novella than merely being shorter and, hopefully, more tightly written than the modern meganovel.

    Still, I think simply making a book shorter, with more story packed into fewer words, is justification enough for recommending the novella. I’m personally watching with great anticipation for the release of a new batch of shorter-than-normal fiction from Zarahemla Books. Also, I’m writing my own book, and I’m determined to make it no longer than it needs to be.

    The most memorable advice Brigham Young gave on public speaking could be translated to every medium of communication: “When you stand up, say what you have to say, and when you are finished, sit down.”

    I’ve been plagued lately by books that are several times longer than they should be, and all because the modern book market is riddled with prejudice against thin books. It’s particularly annoying in nonfiction; I’m reading Wikinomics, which bulks itself out to the obligatory 300 pages by repeating itself incessantly and padding the beginning with 50 pages of blather, not getting to the original research until about page 64.

    Similarly, I recently gnashed my way through Koontz’s Dark Rivers of the Heart, a 600-or-so pager that should have been maybe 200 pages. Maybe 150. So little story, so many words. And frankly, it’s painful on my fingers to hold two inches of pages. I say, let’s have smaller margins and smaller font, if need be, but let even long books be thinner!

    I was only a teenager when I read Charly by Jack Weyland. It was a shock for me to realize recently that that was only an 85 page book. Whatever can be said about Weyland, the writer of the first LDS best-seller was never guilty of over-writing his stories. His later books, such as The Understudy and The Reunion, are delightfully slim, like The Christmas Box but with real plots. Then there’s The Alliance by a young Gerald Lund, well under 200 pages, that’s both interesting enough and short enough to be read in one semi-long sitting without ever getting bored.

    There are some good longer books out there, both published and in the pipeline, but the good ones are packed with story no matter their length. And too many authors want to make a book long just because we’ve been conditioned to think that’s what we should get for our $6.99 on a mass-market paperback. But if the story isn’t long, don’t make the book long. Get up, say what you have to say, and when you’re finished, SIT DOWN.

    May I live by these words, is my prayer.

    Preston McConkie

  4. A lot of interesting thoughts here, William. Conerns about plotting and endings in Mormon lit may be reasons why Mormon novellas would not work. But I like the optimism in the thought that the form will force Mormon authors to shore such things up.

    It would be great to see serialized novellas in the usual suspects (Dialogue, Irreantum, Popcorn Popping, etc.) Also, it would be cool to see somebody sponsor a novella contest. And an AML award for the novella.

  5. Interesting.

    I have some uncontained stuff that was going to be a novel floating around on my laptop and that Irreantum fiction contest is staring me in the eyes.

    Dare I set myself a novella goal? I think I just might.

  6. There’s nothing quite like chiming in on a discussion a year and a half after it took place. But here goes…

    The two places I’m aware of where novellas are quite healthy as a genre are young adult writing (e.g., Jack Weyland) and science fiction/fantasy. Reasons for the former seem obvious: it’s shorter, and the theory is that this will make it easier to sell to teen readers. Usually these are published as stand-alone books.

    In sf&f, the reasons seem rather different. I’m not sure why novella length works so well in sf&f, but many of the most powerful works in the field fit into this length (particularly if you count the novelette as well–William didn’t mention this format, but really, I think a lot of what he’s saying applies there as well).

    I can’t help but think here of Bakhtin’s idea of heteroglossia, or multiple voices, and how it plays out in the novel. Really, Bakhtin would argue, in order to be a novel, there have to be many voices. What, then, of the developed story that needs only one point of view, or perhaps two? The novella is an ideal length for that kind of story.

    For some reason, there seem to be particular tones that work in a novella length, but that would drive one crazy over the length of an entire novel. This is especially obvious with many of the most noteworthy fantasy novellas, such as Tolkien’s _Smith of Wooton Major_.

    I guess what I’m saying is that experimentation aside (of the type that William mentions), I think that the novella may actually be the ideal length for “pure” storytelling. In effect, one often finds that “novels” consist (in reality) of multiple novellas that have been strung, or interwoven, together.

  7. Thanks, Jonathan. I love it when readers restart discussions.

    Absolutely agreed on the novelette as well as your other analysis.

    And I also think that the way the publishing industry has struggled over the months since I posted this only strengthens my argument.

  8. Michael Blowhard rants at length (ironically, I suppose) about the subject: “We’ve been putting up for centuries with pieces of writing that are too damn long just because the book-publishing establishment needed them to be book-length. Enough of it.”

  9. .

    I suspect that when ebooks stop being the future and start being the present, novellas will swiftly move into their golden age.

  10. I would agree that some novels are too long and that the novella is a good format for the fast-paced, modern world, in more ways than one. For one thing, they’re short. As much as I enjoy curling up with a good book, I sometimes can’t get my mind to slow down enough to keep in tune with 400-500+ pages. And for another, they’re short (did I already say that?) and can be easily published and read online.

  11. .

    Yes, but also long enough that it feels okay to pause in the middle. One of the problems with short stories, is it feels dumb to stop part way through, but having enough time to read without interruption can be hard to come by.

  12. Nah, it’s easy, Theric. Just find a place to live that’s a 45-60 minute commute on public transportation away from your job. Or vice versa.

  13. Maybe that’s why I don’t feel like I can get everything read: no public transport from Ogden to Pocatello. And I’m pretty sure reading and driving is frowned upon more than drinking and driving is…

  14. A program like Text Aloud, together with an AT&T “Natural Voice” (or equivalent), “reads” text with amazingly accurate diction (and much like a spell-checker, you can correct mispronunciations). You can hear for yourself at AT&T’s demo page. I especially like the “Audrey” voice.

  15. .

    I do miss my bus commute from Provo to Sandy sometimes. But I wouldn’t trade my ten-minute walk to work for anything.

    And reading and walking is socially acceptable. Mostly.

  16. I was totally ahead of the curve — The Return of the Novella (The Atlantic).

    This quote is right on:

    “Let’s define the novella, this way, then: a narrative of middle length with nothing wrong with it, an ideal iteration of its own terms, that can devoured within a single day of reading.”

  17. Coming back to this yet again, I’m beginning to wonder (after some experiences with short fiction that left me cold) whether I actually like short stories much at all. It may be that most of the “short” fiction I’ve really enjoyed — like Tolkien’s “Smith of Wooton Major,” Asimov’s “The Bicentennial Man,” and Zelazny’s “For a Breath I Tarry” and “24 Views of Mt. Fuji, by Hokusai” are really novellas. Or novelettes, to use the other category from sf&f circles.

  18. I’ll have a post up on my author blog tomorrow evening about this, but I’m a big of the novella and especially the novelette. What’s more, I appear to be doomed as a fiction author because the most natural forms for my stories to take appear to be either under 2k or between 8-15k. I can’t seem to hit that preferred short story length of 4-6k.

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