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.