The Novella is Alive and Well and Living in Canada

April 28, 2010 | 4 books mentioned 8 3 min read

Susan is taking it all in. The stories are more than she had hoped for. She was discovering the tales that I had hidden from her, but disturbingly they were changing my own memories of those events. Uncle was changing what I remembered.

coverIn The Cousin, the latest novella from John Calabro, our narrator is a reluctant explorer, bringing his Canadian wife Susan with him to a Sicily shifted in his memories from his childhood. He’s detached, reluctant, full of loathing for his Sicilian uncle, and haunted by past events. His wife is more enthusiastic, more engaged, connecting the reader with the setting, while our narrator goes from harboring some hang-ups to dealing with his demons. In the last act, The Cousin turns twisted and surreal, as the narrator takes the astonished reader on a mind-bending journey unlike anything I’ve read.

The Cousin is one of a series of novellas released last fall by Quattro Books, a Toronto outfit which counts Calabro himself as a founding publisher, and which mandated itself to champion the Canadian literary novella. They’ve even come out with a manifesto outlining six rules that must apply to any novella that they publish.

Some of the rules are structural: the qualifying novella must be between 15,000 and 42,000 words long and between 60 and 150 pages. Other rules deal with the time-frame covered within the story, the number of characters, locations, and as Quattro is championing Canadian literary novellas, the author must be Canadian and Canada must factor in the plot or setting or character.

The most interesting rule is that there must be either a reversal of fortune or some kind of realization or revelation. From Quattro’s manifesto:

It is a narrative that draws heavily on a geographical and cultural landscape, real or imagined, or on the concept of a journey, physical or metaphysical, to carry it. It must be of a form and content that excites and surprises while exploring the underbelly or fringe of civilization where savage instincts and/or extreme otherness lie hidden.

covercovercoverThese rules are reflected in other novellas released by Quattro last year. In A Pleasant Vertigo, Egidio Coccimiglio tells the story of Gerard, a New York-based artist longing to make a comeback, and suddenly being wooed by rival dealers. The writing style is fast and free-floating, culminating, in the second half, in a dark and comic set-piece along the shores of the Mississippi.

Brenda Niskala’s Of All The Ways To Die is an inventive ensemble ghost story. A missing girl is the catalyst for Urma to summon (actually invite to dinner) an eccentric group of departed souls, to help shed some light on the whereabouts of the girl, and on life itself. Throughout the dinner, we learn not only their stories, but their connections to Urma. The dinner, by the way, is pot-luck, and each guest shares with the reader a special recipe.

Harbour View is Binnie Brennan’s lovely and amusing story of a Halifax nursing home. Characters – the residents and workers of the home – bounce off each other, their stories revealed as we briefly see and hear the world through each of them. There’s warmth to the wit. Here are Buddy’s thoughts on assorted nursing home staff:

Sam speaks softly, unlike Muriel and the others who are trained to speak so that the deaf may hear them. Sam’s quiet is a relief, like the silence when an aircraft cuts out: you don’t really notice the racket until it’s over.

The novella has always been a favorite literary form, and while writers have never stopped writing short forms of fiction, Quattro is to be commended for giving this literary form some formal shape and focus. And there’s plenty of room within the structure for all sorts of tales to be told, and voices to be heard.

is a writer in Toronto, Canada, and passes his days as a copy editor with The Globe and Mail. He spends his moments of leisure listening to music, reading, watching films and prowling the streets of Toronto, and he feels that he is long-overdue for a vacation so that he can do more of those things. At any given time, he is probably pining for distant shores and really should do more traveling and less pining.


  1. Fascinating piece — Quattro’s manifesto is intriguing, and it’s terrific that they’re giving special attention to the novella as a form. It’s also worth noting how much the Canadian literary community has done to encourage innovative writing generally, and how good many of the Canadian literary magazines are. Also, I especially like the quick descriptions of the Quattro novellas here. They definitely sound worth reading.

  2. I’m intrigued. Part of my goal for writing this summer was to finish my novel’s manuscript and pound out two short stories. I wonder if I wouldn’t be better off writing a novella now. I’ve always been intrigued by the form. I’m happy to see that Quattro is actively seeking novellas instead of novels or short stories; there need to be more publishers willing to take a stand on lesser-utilized forms.

  3. Very interesting, informative piece. Thanks!

    K. Frazier (or anyone else who knows), as a Canadian who would like to get better acquainted with homegrown writing, I’d be interested to know which Canadian literary publications you think are particularly worth reading.

  4. Anon – The two that I regularly follow are the Canadian literary magazines Event and The Dalhousie Review. There are many other good Canadian magazines and journals, but those are the two I can find easily here in Helsinki, where I live, and I recommend them both highly. Some good Canadian independent publishers include these, though the list here is far from exhaustive: ECW, Goose Lane, Turnstone, Anvil, Killick, Talonbooks, Ekstasis, Anansi, Beach Holme, Coach House, Insomniac, Cormorant, Cyclops, and Véhicule. These are presses that my Canadian friends have recommended, but they stress that this is pretty much a random selection and that few non-Canadians are aware of just how large and varied the Canadian literary scene is. I’d suggest that you go to the websites of these presses and look for books that interest you — it’s true that the range of Canadian literature, even in my own limited experience, is broad enough to fit nearly all tastes. Also, if there are other Canadians reading The Millions, it would be great to get recommendations that are probably better-informed and more current than mine.

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