Saturday, November 10, 2007

some brief thoughts about the short novel

I’ve been thinking more about the short novel lately, especially since I’ve got one coming out in a few days, and part of what I want to accomplish during my tenure at this University of Alberta is a) working on my “big” novel (a hundred single-spaced pages if I’m lucky) and b) re-conceptualizing another shorter novel for editor/publisher Bev Daurio at Mercury Press to consider (or, re-consider). One thing I’ve gone through lately is Kristjana Gunnars' [see her 12 or 20 interview here] essay “On Writing Short Books” from her Stranger at the Door: Writers and the Act of Writing (Waterloo ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2004). I’m quite a fan of her lyric novels and really think she should write more (I think the same of Aritha Van Herk, down in Calgary), and take great comfort in the fact that her examples of what great fiction is (or at least, fiction that for whatever reason I keep returning to) has a number of the writers I would include on a similar list (Milan Kundera, Robert Kroetsch, Elizabeth Smart and Paul Auster, for example, as well as Alessandro Baricco’s brilliant novel Silk). She writes:
Robert Kroetsch approaches the idea of the novel as something that “can” be done when talking about Margaret Lawrence’s long novel The Diviners to illustrate something similar to what Stoppard is suggesting. The novel starts off with Morag the novelist going to her typewriter to write a long novel, only to find that her daughter Pique has run away from home and typed a goodbye note on the blank sheet of paper in the typewriter. Pique has written one paragraph. After receiving this paragraph, Morag writes a long novel responding to her daughter’s departure. To Kroetsch, however, it is Pique’s paragraph that is the real novel. Morag, instead, is really writing a long footnote, which could, as footnotes go, be without end (Kroetsch 148-56). Everything the mother goes on to say has already been implied in the daughter’s one-paragraph “novel.”
What I like is how her essay deals with the often-suggestion of the short novel as being some sort of “failure.” I have always preferred the short novel; not just as a writer but as a reader. There is something about the English tradition of the wordy and massive novel that just doesn’t sit right with me, the physically-descriptive tome that simply doesn’t appeal. I know what a tree looks like; do I need an author to describe a tree to me, unless it is actually essential to the story? No one walks down the street saying to themselves: “My hair is brown. I am wearing green pants.” So then, why would it be added in as description?

The only longer novel I can even think of that I actually thought every word and every page was absolutely essential was Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. I couldn’t imagine reducing it by even a single word. Further in the essay, Gunnars goes on to write:
What these comments on the short book by various writers suggests is that the short book, regardless of its overt “genre,” tends toward the fragmented, the poetic, and the theoretical. The brevity of the work, if it is not more than a hundred and fifty pages, for example, creates a pressure on its author to make each page worthwhile. The silence itself, which occurs between fragments, needs to become eloquent. For many, it is the eloquence of everything, from the sentences to the margins to the spaces between paragraphs, that constitutes the challenge and the appeal of the short book. The short book has in common with poetry that it can be read more than once and, in fact, is meant to be read again. Unlike the very long novel, which can be very long only if each word is not too intense, the short book does not need to be “consumed” as a consumer item. So the shelf life of the short book ought to be much longer. When publishers and bookstores and distributors treat the brief, intensely written narrative as if it were a novel, they are depriving the short book of its essential benefit. It is difficult, for example, to think of Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, which is an example of the brief, intensely written, poetic narrative I am talking about here, as having any kind
of “shelf life” in a market economy. Such a book has to be lived with rather than simply read and put aside for the next one.
Further into more general considerations of the novel, last night (at the Garneau Pub; where else?) reading Philip Roth’s interview with Milan Kundera, circa 1980, from his Shop Talk: A Writer and his Colleagues and their Work (New York NY: Vintage, 1991):
Kundera: As far as my own quite personal aesthetic judgment goes, it really is a novel, but I have no wish to force this opinion on anyone. There is enormous freedom latent within the novelistic form. It is a mistake to regard a certain stereotyped structure as the inviolable essence of the novel.

Roth: Yet surely there is something that makes a novel a novel and that limits this

Kundera: A novel is a long piece of synthetic prose based on play with invented characters. These are the only limits. By the term synthetic I have in mind the novelist’s desire to grasp his subject from all sides and in the fullest possible completeness. Ironic essay, novelistic narrative, autobiographical fragment, historical fact, flight of fantasy—the synthetic power of the novel is capable of combining everything into a unified whole like the voices of polyphonic music. The unity of a book need not stem from the plot but can be provided by the theme. In my latest book there are two such themes: laughter and forgetting.
But these are all just brief notes, written on the fly. Hopefully, when I have more time, I can sit down and write further on this.

related notes: three novels: on writing fiction ; anything from Kate Sutherland's blog

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