Emerging Writers Network // “What a Novella Is”

Here’s a guest post about novellas at the Emerging Writers Network.

What is a novella? I have no idea. But I think it has something to do with now outdated methods of commercial categorization. Let me step back from the question a tiny bit.

I don’t believe in genre. Anyone who has ever attempted to organize a compact disc collection will know what I mean. Where do you put Sinatra? With the Jazz? The Pop Music? He would seem to fit more at home with The Beatles than John Coltrane, but, then again, he might be easier to find if he’s near Count Basie and not Radiohead. And Radiohead at their best shares some aesthetic sensibilities with Messiaen and maybe even Ligeti, who are hanging out over in Classical. These categories—Classical, Jazz, Pop—are artificial constructs imposed upon the art to turn them into commercial products we could easily locate at Borders. Little wonder that that excluded-middle model—a product is either x or y—has bankrupted retailers and been replaced by systems of information architecture and information retrieval (to borrow the wonderful term from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil) by which an iPod can use multiple criteria, not solely genre, which is artificial anyway, to locate Brad Mehldau’s cover version of “Paranoid Android.”

You see where I’m going here. The label “novella” is not inherent in the work of art; it’s a sticker publishers and editors place on the outside of it so that consumers can find it. Art and commerce have always been uneasy bedfellows, but they manage to get along because they have to. Personally, I’ve never set out to write a novella for the sake of writing a novella. In Extraordinary Renditions, I had three stories I wanted to tell and that form (again, which fairly or not has a kind of anti-commercial reputation) suited the thematic concerns. Had “The Empty Chairs” or “Brooking the Devil” required ten pages or a thousand pages to get the story across, that’s how long I would have made them and it would have been an entirely different kind of book.

 Fortunately, many publishers are beginning to see the limitations of the current model. More houses are publishing novellas these days, which warms the cockles of my heart. Maybe the emergence of e-readers will further revitalize the novella; it feels like the perfect length for reading on a screen. We may see yet another beautiful example of technology opening up the field of what’s commercially viable for writers. As for my own work, and maybe this will change one day soon, I’m not sure that commercial viability would even crack the top ten list of what I want to accomplish on the page. If it did, I probably would not have written novellas.