Brevity does not imply levity. That, at least, is the view of Ian McEwan. The national treasure was speaking at the Cheltenham Literary Festival over the weekend when he crowned the novella, which he defined as a book of roughly 25,000 words, as the ‘supreme literary form’. He challenged publishers and critics who believe the novella to be inherently inauthentic and frivolous, arguing that the compact form brings out the best in the greatest writers.
‘Somehow . . . the prose is better, more condensed, more rigorous. Characters have to be established with a great deal of economy. All this makes demands on a writer that brings them to a better calibre of prose. They don’t relax, it’s much more focused.’
McEwan reckons that ‘The Dead’, the lengthy short-story at the end of Dubliners, is James Joyce’s finest work, superior even to Ulysses. Likewise, The Turn of the Screw is, in McEwan’s view, the apogee of Henry James’ oeuvre.
None of this is particularly novel: it’s often said that Heart of Darkness is Conrad’s unmatched achievement, and indeed that the near-perfect On Chesil Beach is McEwan’s most accomplished book. McEwan’s comments, though, come at an interesting time. The novella’s reputation is growing, perhaps to reflect the 21st century’s fashion for compression: this year’s Booker Prize shortlist features two books of less than 200 pages, following the victory of Julian Barnes’ novella The Sense of an Ending last year. The short story is also back in fashion, with new volumes published every week and the creation of the Costa Short Story prize. The world is getting smaller, a change that is being engineered by the tastes of writers and readers as much as it by the possibilities of algorithms. But where does this leave the conventional novel?
Nervous debate about the future of the novel is constant, but it has reached fever-pitch. I’ve lost count of the literary Q&As that have been dominated by the issue over the last 12 months. The craze shows no sign of abating. The Times reports (£) that Gail Rebuck of Random House used a talk at the Cheltenham Literary Festival to express her concern for ‘long-form narrative’ as human beings living in the ‘digital space’ develop shorter and wider attention spans. However, Rebuck said that we are some way from the eclipse of the novel. This seems to be unanswerable if one considers the extraordinary popularity of pulp fiction like the Millennium Trilogy and Harry Potter or even the sensationally bad 50 Shades of Grey. Critical attitudes are equally important as best-seller lists. Some very long and very demanding books are rubbing shoulders with the two novellas on this year’s Booker shortlist – Narcopolis, Umbrella and Bring up the Bodies being the longest and most demanding.
In view of this continued critical and commercial success, reports of long-form’s imminent demise leave one scratching one’s head. The world has been getting smaller ever since man began to travel and communicate, and yet there has always been an appetite for hearing a gripping, ripping yarn that takes a while to tell. I can’t see why the next 50 years will be necessarily different to the previous 50,000 in that regard; but it will be intriguing to see if technological changes and the fashions that accompany them affect the form in which those stories are told. I would have thought that the rich episodic novel is ideal for the digital age.