As promised, senior editor Lexy Bloom’s short, quick, steamy summer reads to whip through in one afternoon— just in time for this final week of summer.
Publishers and editors often like to groan that novellas are tricky to publish – falling somewhere in between a short story and a novel, no one seems to know what to do with them. All publishing wisdom (or lack thereof) aside, the novella is – in my opinion – an often overlooked art form.
Boccacio’s Decameron is composed of them. Faulker wrote one; so did Nathanael West, Edith Wharton, Philip Roth, and Jane Smiley, to name just a very few. A novella isn’t quite a short story gone on for too long – think of Carson McCullers’ The Ballad of the Sad Café or James Joyce’s The Dead, two gorgeous and perfect examples of the form. But the arc of a novella has to be leaner than that of a novel – there’s no room for fat or excess, just everything perfectly in its place.
Some argue that The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby are novellas – I beg to differ, as those books seem too complex and layered to make the cut. Richard Ford, in his introduction to the excellent 1997 collection The Granta Book of the American Long Story, writes at length on the literary history of novellas and novelletes, or what he chooses, in the end, to call “long stories.” Ford writes:
“What I liked about novellas had, of course, always been occasioned by reading them. They were satisfyingly long but not too long; they were full; they seemed artful about staying out of definition’s focus and were likely to be surprising about something important. But my appreciation took on greater complexity the moment I set out to write one of my own.”
Ford writes that in practice – in his non-scientific study – a novella usually contains between 15,000 and 50,000 words. To translate that into trade paperback terms, that means around 150 pages or less.
Here’s a short list of my favorite short books. Take them to the beach; read them on the subway/bus/train/plane en route to your Labor Day weekend destination; or just devour one during a nice afternoon on the couch.
Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan: Sex! Love! Heartbreak! A steamy summer love story set in the south of France, this book was controversial upon its original publication in 1954 for its young narrator and its explicit nature. Read today it’s not quite so extreme, but remains fantastically enjoyable. Pick up the beautiful new edition that Harper Perennial published in 2008.
The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett: Alan Bennett, author of The History Boys, among many others, wrote this hilarious novel about the Queen of England. Here she takes up reading as a pastime – to the chagrin of her family and staff, who fear it is taking her away from her royal duties. A laugh-out-loud book for real book-lovers.
Pobby and Dingan by Ben Rice: When I first read this novella in Granta almost ten years ago, I was blown away. This first book by Australian writer Ben Rice is set in the outback amongst opal mines. The setting is stunning and the characters even better – Pobby and Dingan, the imaginary friends of one Kellyanne Williamson.
Fire in the Blood by Irène Némirovsky: Discovered posthumously, Fire in the Blood was pieced together by Nemirovsky’s biographers, who found its pages amongst her papers and notebooks. A gorgeous story of manners, adultery, family secrets and the French countryside, this short beautiful book has all the pointed detail and attention to class and society that readers loved in her international bestseller Suite Française.
The Pilgrim Hawk by Glenway Wescott: An early selection in the amazing NYRB classics series – with an introduction by Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours – this book takes place over the course of one afternoon. “It begins, this great American novel, with the voice of recollection; that is the voice of uncertainty,” wrote Susan Sontag, in the New Yorker. “It belongs, in my view, among the treasures of twentieth-century American literature, however untypical are its sleek, subtle vocabulary, the density of its attention to character, its fastidious pessimism, and the clipped worldliness of its point of view.”
Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore: Maybe it’s a stretch to call this incredibly meaty short work a novella. (I think I’m breaking my own rules.) Moore’s work takes up the friendship between two teenage girls in upstate New York. Whatever you call it, it’s a masterpiece and since it clocks in at 147 pages. . . I recommend it with pleasure! (Then read Moore’s long-awaited new novel, out in September, called A Gate at the Stairs.)
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan: After the success of Atonement and Saturday, two rich, multi-layered novels, McEwan came back with this short, perfect book about the fraught wedding night of a British couple in the late 1950s. Seamlessly moving back and forth between their two perspectives, this novella is a stunning example of the form.