Friday, November 2

Ian McEwan Believes The Novella Is The Perfect Form Of Prose Fiction

Ian McEwan Believes The Novella Is The Perfect Form Of Prose Fiction

The Novella Is The Perfect Form Of Prose Fiction

Ian McEwan recently wrote a piece for The New Yorker entitled Some Notes On The Novella in which he eloquently and passionately argues that the "novella is the perfect form of prose fiction".

Some might find this surprising. As McEwan himself notes, many view the novella as something lesser. He writes:
When a character in my recent book, “Sweet Tooth,” publishes his short first work of fiction, he finds some critics are suggesting that he has done something unmanly or dishonest. His experience reflects my own. A novella? Perhaps you don’t have the necessary creative juice.
To counter this, McEwan points out that the tradition of writing novellas is "long and glorious" and points to the work of writers such as Thomas Mann, Henry James, Kafka, Joseph Conrad, Albert Camus, Voltaire, Tolstoy, Joyce, Solzhenitsyn, Orwell, Steinbeck and Melville, only to name a few.

Novella's "don’t ramble or preach, they spare us their quintuple subplots and swollen midsections"

What is it about the novella that makes it the perfect form of prose fiction rather than the novel? McEwan writes:
[T]he demands of economy push writers to polish their sentences to precision and clarity, to bring off their effects with unusual intensity, to remain focussed on the point of their creation and drive it forward with functional single-mindedness, and to end it with a mind to its unity. They don’t ramble or preach, they spare us their quintuple subplots and swollen midsections. 
Swollen midsections, indeed. I'm reminded of Jim Butcher's instruction about how to survive what he calls The Great Swampy Middle (I picture it as something like the Fire Swamp in The Princess Bride, the home of the ROUSes--Rodents Of Unusual Size. But I digress.)

Be masters of the form, not slaves to the giant

True, this November we're writing 50,000 words and McEwan defines a novella as being between 20,000 and 40,000 words. Still, McEwan's characterization of the novella is one we're all familiar with--in fact I don't think I've seen a better description of what most writers are trying to do when they craft a story. Certainly I've never read one more concise or eloquent. He continues:
I suspect that many novelists clock up sixty thousand words after a year’s work and believe (wearily, perhaps) that they are only half way there. They are slaves to the giant, instead of masters of the form.
Been there, done that. (When I was reading McEwan's column I actually sprang up from my chair at this point and yelled, "Yes!" ... Or at least I felt like doing it. ;)

McEwan goes on to compare the novella to watching a play or movie and remarks that:
[T]here’s a strong resemblance between the screenplay (twenty odd thousand words) and the novella, both operating within the same useful constraints of economy—space for a subplot (two at a stretch), characters to be established with quick strokes but allowed enough room to live and breathe, and the central idea, even if it is just below the horizon, always exerting its gravitational pull. The analogy with film or theatre is a reminder that there is an element of performance in the novella. We are more strongly aware of the curtain and the stage, of the author as illusionist. The smoke and mirrors, rabbits and hats are more self-consciously applied than in the full-length novel. The novella is the modern and post-modern form par excellence. 

NaNoWriMo and the novella

Perhaps, as we go through NaNoWriMo this November, we should think of ourselves as writing, not novels, but slightly overextended novellas and take McEwan's advice to heart. Rather than aspire to turn our masterpieces into a "rambling, bloated ill-shaven giant", after NaNoWriMo is completed, strip off 10,000 (or so) words and attempt the creation of what could be "the perfect form of prose fiction".

Everyone's gotta have a goal. Right? ;)

Best of luck to my fellow NaNo-ers! Right now my manuscript is at about 2,200 words, I'm hoping to add at least another 2,000 tonight.

Other articles you might like:
- Jim Butcher On Writing
- Making A Scene: Using Conflicts And Setbacks To Create Narrative Drive
- Dialogue: 7 Ways of Adding Variety

Photo credit: "a walk in to the woods" by VinothChandar under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.


  1. A friend of mine brought up a list of books the other day, saying, "technically, these all fail to win NaNoWriMo". I love the idea of the novella. I also love the word novella... Would writing novellas make one a novellaist?

    Word Count – Title – Author
    30,644 – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl
    35,968 – Old Yeller – Fred Gipson
    36,363 – Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe – C.S. Lewis
    46,118 – Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
    47,094 – The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
    47,180 – The Red Badge of Courage – Stephen Crane
    48,523 – The Outsiders – S.E. Hinton
    49,459 – Slaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut

    1. "Would writing novellas make one a novellaist?"

      OMG! I laughed. Let's hope that title never catches on. ;)

      Thanks for your comment & point well taken. I've read everything on your list except for The Red Badge of Courage and Slaughterhouse Five and never felt they were 'less than' because of their lower than average word count.

  2. I think Ian is right. I love to write novellas, which are particularly suited to a Kindle thriller author such as I! They're great for a beach read or a plane trip. With full-length novels, I often find myself skipping ahead or just skimming the more "boring" sections.

    1. Yes, I like shorter novels. I find novellas have a tighter structure. Part of the reason I read is to examine how other writers weave their magic and I find novels are better suited to that.


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