“A normal teenage girl…who is also a spy” was my favorite type of young adult fiction. The girl had to balance crushes and homework alongside solving international crimes and defeating bad guys. In this genre, authors emphasize the protagonist’s very normal teenage girl behavior juxtaposed with her super-sleuth espionage skills. For example: A few pages into the first book in Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls series, I’d Tell You I Love You but Then I’d Have to Kill You, 15-year-old Cammie explains, “even though the Gallagher academy is a school for girl geniuses, sometimes the emphasis should be kept on girl.” Like, obviously! The protagonists were always super smart, highly trained in combat, and of course, also had to deal with their crush not liking them back. They were everything.
Nostalgic for these YA spy stories, I sought out contemporary spy fiction with female leads. The premise of Mick Herron’s This Is What Happened seemed promising enough: Maggie, the protagonist, is “just the kind of person MI5 needs to infiltrate the establishment and thwart an international plot that puts all of Britain at risk.” But as I started reading, about a quarter of the way through, it turned into not a spy story but an abusive-man-keeps-woman-hostage-and-gaslights-her-to-keep-her-prisoner-in-his-basement story. All I wanted was a strong female being sneaky, kicking ass, and thwarting the bad guys. Not another story of a victimized woman. Is that too much to ask? Not as a teenager.
Female spies populate young adult fiction and are nowhere to be found in contemporary spy fiction. This is for two reasons: One, female authors dominate YA—and female authors often write female protagonists. Two, YA spies are based on a fantasy (teenage spies don’t exist), not the reality of the intelligence world (as contemporary spy fiction draws from).
Young adult fiction has female spies galore. Like many YA books, these spy stories allow teenagers to imagine that, under different circumstances, they, too, could be a hero. In Jennifer Lynn Barnes’s Perfect Cover, Toby, a quiet, shy high school sophomore is recruited to the cheerleading squad, which is actually a cover for teenage spies (duh!). When she passes the tests, the captain describes the squad to her as “Charlie’s Angels meets James Bond meets Bring It On…We’re the best of the best. We’re pretty, we’re smart…we’re in perfect physical condition, and best of all, we never get caught. After all, who’s going to suspect the cheerleaders?”
Girl spies flourish when female authors write them into existence. Ally Carter, Robin Benway, Shannon Greenland, Jennifer Lynn Barnes, Kat Carlton, T.A. Maclagan, Annabel Monaghan, Laura Pauling… the list goes on; these eight women are just a sampling of authors who have written contemporary YA books featuring female teenage spies. And the amount of them should not be surprising, yet I am still taken aback by the dominance of women in the genre.
Contemporary fiction does not have nearly the same number of women. The “great authors” of the contemporary spy genre are men who typically place male protagonists at the center of their novels. As Paul Vidich describes the genre at Electric Literature, “the spy genre, perhaps more than any other genre, has been the province of men, often men who once served in the intelligence community.” In “Bias She Wrote,” a 2010 analysis of the New York Times Best-Seller List, Rosie Cima found that authors of spy/politics fiction best-sellers were 97 percent male and 3 percent female. Wikipedia’s list of notable writers in spy fiction includes 124 authors—only six are female.
Notably, among the few female contemporary spy fiction authors, there’s Stella Rimington. Rimington was the first female Director General of MI5 and held the position from 1992 to 1996 (she’s also rumored to be the inspiration for Judi Dench’s “M” in the Daniel Craig James Bond movies). After retiring, she began writing a fictional series about a female intelligence officer, Liz Carlyle; the first novel, At Risk, was published in 2004. Remington has now published nine Liz Carlyle novels. In 2015, Rimington told the Edinburgh International Book Festival that her goal was to “rescue spy stories from the blokes.” She went on, “When you think about it, all fictional spies are blokes, and spy writers when I started were chaps too. So I was certain that my character was going to be female. I wanted her to reflect accurately what a female does in my former service.” Rimington’s Carlyle is remarkable. In At Risk, she is at lunch with a rival and asks him why he joined the service. In response, he tells Carlyle, “Really, of course, it was the women. All those glamorous Foreign Office secretaries. I’ve always had a Moneypenny complex.” Carlyle coolly responds to his misogyny, “I don’t see many Moneypennys in here.”
Other female authors, like Gayle Lynds and Francine Mathews, worked in the field before turning to writing. Their intelligence backgrounds are notable; it is as if publishing houses only took them seriously in such a male-dominated genre because of their career experience. Mathews, who spent four years at the CIA before becoming an author, wrote in a blog post:
Women populate the clandestine landscape as thickly as men. But women are not always admitted to exclusive clubs, and even more rarely to the literature of spying. [John] le Carré’s women are usually victims; [Ian] Fleming’s are always babes. They stumble in their high heels, arms outstretched, and die on the word James. Women are not the point of the safehouse and the glass of whiskey; they live on the fringe, in the bedroom and near the hearthfire. They are never in control. It’s hard to love spy fiction as a woman in America. The club doors are closed, and we’re all out in the cold.
This idea that “women are the victims, never in control” reverberates throughout contemporary spy fiction; the ladies who do exist are femme fatales—or martyred. Male authors rarely write female protagonists (something that is not unique to espionage stories). That’s not to say men cannot write female characters or that female spies do not exist in the works of male spy writers; females take the reins in William Boyd’s Restless and Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth. But the default of spy fiction is (white) male. Natasha Walter explains in The Guardian, “despite its richness, I have often felt alienated by spy fiction because it has often seemed so rigidly masculine.” The female characters in traditional spy fiction, as Walter writes, are characters who are “subsumed into the needs and desires of the male hero.”
So why don’t the teenage spies grow up? Perhaps because teenage girls are less threatening to the “rigid masculinity” of espionage. One may find it easier to imagine a cheerleader taking down the bad guys—because it’s so implausible—than to think a woman could be the CIA’s best agent. The fantasy element of teenage spies is key. Of course teenage spies don’t exist, and since they don’t exist, sure, they can be female. And this fantasy is at the heart of the power of YA fiction: escapism. As Meghan Lewit writes in The Atlantic, “The stories and the genre itself represent a world of limitless potential. As a young reader, I didn’t comprehend that the opportunity to disappear into the lives and adventures of strong-willed young women represented a kind of feminist victory.”
Hopefully, contemporary spy fiction catches up with its YA counterpart. Even though YA spy fiction has its own problems—the protagonists are overwhelmingly white and straight—it’s remarkably gender equal. A good start is Rosalie Knecht’s Who Is Vera Kelly? Knecht, unlike her female spy writer peers, has no intelligence background (…that we know of). The novel could be defined more broadly as literary fiction than spy fiction—yet it is a classic spy story. The titular Vera Kelly, recruited by the CIA, is sent to Argentina in 1962. Kelly navigates understanding her sexual identity, her strained relationship with her mom, and finding any KGB sleeper agents in Buenos Aires. The story follows her from her troubled teenage years to how she eventually got recruited by the CIA. She’s the teenager who grew up that the spy genre needs.
Image: Flickr/CLAUDIA DEA
A few months ago, like the dull thuds of a heart beginning to beat, I heard the first stirrings of Ian McEwan’s new novel as publicists and publishers began preparing its delivery into the world. Interviews appeared, an atmospheric trailer that revealed absolutely nothing was released on McEwan’s Facebook page, a blurb was posted on his publisher’s website. By then we had a short description, and we knew that there was something a little special about this one: the novel would be narrated by a fetus.
The novel’s first line sets the tone: “So here I am, upside down in a woman.” Now that’s what I call first-person limited. As for plot, it’s straightforward enough, “the classic tale of murder and deceit” we were promised in the blurb: pregnant Trudy has taken on a lover, Claude. Together, they plan to murder Trudy’s husband, John, who is also Claude’s brother. The motive? Money, of course, in the form of the marital home, a “Georgian pile on boastful Hamilton Terrace” whose “six thousand aching square feet will buy you seven million pounds,” even in its dilapidated state.
Our unborn narrator, privy to these murderous musings, begins by discussing the abstractions he has to dwell on since he has yet to see anything, although it’s soon clear that he’s awfully well informed about things like the U.S. constitution, climate change, and contemporary world politics for someone who hasn’t taken his first breath yet. He (and we know from the “shrimp-like protuberance” between his legs that he is a he) soon explains that he’s learned most of these things by listening to the podcasts his mother plays at night when she can’t sleep. Our narrator has pretentious tastes: an audiobook of James Joyce’s Ulysses “thrills” him, but sends his mother to sleep.
He also knows a lot about wine, which he is apparently able to taste even though it is “decanted through a healthy placenta.” McEwan enjoys peppering his novels with mouth-watering descriptions of food and drink (I often dream of the seafood stew in Saturday), and he hasn’t found a reason not to do so, quite elaborately, even from this undeveloped perspective. A Pouilly-Fumé taken in a moment of high emotional intensity is “too thin, too piercing,” while an earlier Pinot Noir is “a mother’s soothing hand” whose “hint of violets and fine tannins suggests that lazy, clement summer of 2005, untainted by heatwaves though a teasing, next-room aroma of mocha, as well as more proximal black-skinned banana, summon Jean Grivot’s domaine in 2009.”
This unborn baby knows his grapes, and a lot more besides.
Much of McEwan’s work can be understood as a knotted tension between realism and — what, exactly? Let’s call it falsehood. Atonement and Sweet Tooth both pulled the narrative rug from beneath the reader’s feet, tipping the story into meta-fiction. Personally, I was delighted by McEwan’s bravura — by the clean, clever way the narrative coiled back upon itself — but I know readers who are unimpressed by such tricks. Solar and Amsterdam, while not entirely unpleasant, offered little depth in their leap towards satire. The Children Act bored me with its clunky symbolism and Dickensian social commentary. As Tessa Hadley put it in her review of that novel, “[r]ealism seems beside the point after a while: it’s more like being inside the workings of an allegory or a parable.”
But at a sentence-level, McEwan’s work remains that of an old-fashioned realist. In a lecture he gave at Harvard University in 2012, he stated that one of the novel’s supreme virtues was “the air of reality, the solidicity [sic].” In the same lecture, McEwan stated: “I have refused to give my character wings.”
Now, with Nutshell, McEwan has nudged his hallowed realism onto unsteady ground. Although the story itself is realistic enough, and steeped in McEwan’s usual attention to detail, the voice that tells it to us is, in a way, complete fantasy. The novel might as well be told from within the consciousness of a dog, a ghost, or a piece of furniture.
The wine tasting, which I described above, is part of the problem, but so are the metaphors. Our narrator feels the sound of a cork drawn from a Jean-Max Roger Sancerre “like the caress of a summer breeze,” “innocent toes” are imagined lined up “like children in a family photo,” his first headache is “a gaudy bandana,” a moment of silence is “creamily thick” while at another moment something “hangs in the air, like a Beijing smog.” Some of these comparisons are quite good, although most are barren of the thematic resonance that would make them great. Sometimes the writing strains and groans with the pressure of its own self-conscious preciosity, as when the narrator pictures his mother “youngly slumped” on a table and then tells us he “insist[s] on the adverb,” which means that McEwan does. You can almost see him penciling that in for his editor.
More importantly, the metaphors don’t make sense because our narrator has never experienced or seen any of the vehicles he uses, just as he’s never seen a table or knows what it is to slump. And I refuse to believe he picked all that up from podcasts. Any realism in this novel is undermined by the simple fact that a fetus can’t know what this fetus knows. An unborn baby can’t differentiate between an Échézeaux Grand Cru and a Romanée-Conti from the snugness of the womb, an unborn baby can’t “picture a hayloft, off which a hundred-kilo sacks of grain is tossed to the granary floor” and compare that image to the sound of his mother’s beating heart. It is not improbable, like some plot points of other McEwan novels; it is impossible.
I’m doing what I shouldn’t do, which is to dissect the basic realism of the novel’s conceit. In Sweet Tooth McEwan gave us a constructed narrator, a fiction, who is a voracious reader of realist fiction — Serena Frome likes novels that mention real events, real people, and real places. Like McEwan himself, who was thrilled in his youth to find a reference in a novel he was reading to a real illustration from Punch that he was able to look up, Frome reads to see fact collapse within fiction.
The in-utero narrator of Nutshell is, by comparison, a dreamer. At one point in the story, drunk on the bottle of Sauvignon Blanc his mother has imbibed on her own (or, as it were, in his company), he spreads his imaginative wings and visualizes for us the conversation occurring at that moment between his father and his uncle. Upon returning to the womb, he writes, “One could make a living devising such excursions,” which is of course exactly what McEwan has done as a novelist.
So perhaps we have here an indication that the author has given up on his obsession with the real, that he has come to terms with the fact that he writes about characters and events that are not factual. He has dealt with the question: if none of this is real, then why go to such lengths to make sure that it appears to be?
The moment of fiction doesn’t last, though. In the next line, the narrator thinks, “But the actual, the circumscribed real, is absorbing too and I’m impatient for Claude to return and us what really happened.” Old habits are hard to kill.
Still, it looks like McEwan, this once at least, has decided to shuffle off the mortal coil of realism in favor of an impossible point of view. I applaud his new purpose because the payoffs are worth it. For all its un-believability, Nutshell’s narrator offers us interesting moments, and gives McEwan the chance to show off some fresh writing. Particularly good are scenes of high emotion described from within Trudy’s anatomy. McEwan replaces the smiles, blushes, glances, and head movements that are the fiction writer’s traditional arsenal of “telling” descriptors with even more telling organ movements. A moment of hesitation in a conversation is rich with unspoken feeling: “my mother’s heart begins a steady acceleration. Not just faster, but louder, like the hollow knocking sound of faulty plumbing. Something is also happening in her gut. Her bowels are loosening, with a squeaky stretching sound, and higher up, somewhere above my feet, juices race down winding tubes to unknown destinations.” The body doesn’t lie.
Likewise, sex between the murderous lovers becomes a particularly disturbing turbulence when described from within. The pressure of a penis penetrating near our narrator’s skull, swallowed sperm being converted into nutrients, these are small horrors that seem at times more criminal than the murder at hand.
Another interesting aspect of the book is the narrator’s unequivocal love for his mother, a love that remains troubled but true over the course of the novel, despite her desire to kill the father who has all the fetus’s sympathy. Here McEwan is using William Shakespeare as his touchstone. The book’s epigraph is from Hamlet, and the novel recycles some of the Danish play’s basic story elements, with our narrator as an unborn Hamlet.
As in Hamlet, there is poison, although not administered in the ear, and while the cuckolded father is plain John, his brother and rival lover has the unusual name of Claude, too close to Claudius not to be a wink. Another allusion: once their dark deed is done, McEwan has Claude and Trudy order Danish take-away (“open sandwiches, pickled herring, baked meats,” maybe from Snaps & Rye in nearby Notting Hill?).
And in the role of Gertrude, we have Trudy. The Queen of Denmark fascinates because it’s hard to know how duplicitous she is. Hamlet’s attitude towards her shifts between pity, hatred, resentment, and affection. While Nutshell’s narrator disapproves of his mother’s actions, his blame and anger are always directed at his uncle, and in his fantasies he saves her from him. Like Gertrude, Trudy never comes off as the villain, and our young hero seeks revenge on his uncle alone.
For all her motherly defects Trudy remains something of an enigma in the book, a half-realized character. John is the poet — hopeful, naïve, generous — and Claude the over-eager younger brother, slimy almost to the point of caricature. But what about Trudy? An early story about a dead cat and a late reference to her mother do little to give us a better of understanding of who she is. She’s beautiful, we know that. And smarter than Claude. And unlike him she feels uncertainty, remorse, and regret. But what does she like? What does she want? She has no friends, no family. No job and no interests, other than drinking — and even there she seems less knowing than Claude and her unborn child. She doesn’t leave the house for the duration of the novel.
Maybe that’s the point. To our narrator she is the mother, and he doesn’t want her to be anything more or less. The house she doesn’t leave is akin to the womb her unborn son can’t leave, until he can. Near the end of Nutshell, when the narrator has grown almost too big for the womb, he says, “I wear my mother like a tight-fitting cap.” It’s no longer she who bears him, but he who wears her.
My questions about McEwan’s devotion to realism seek to prod the aesthetic motivations behind his new novel. Realist or not, though, McEwan’s abilities as a fiction writer are undeniable. In Nutshell especially he demonstrates his skill with pacing. He ends each chapter with a satisfying morsel that moves things along. The murder plot remains taut throughout and, thanks to a certain owl poet who probably isn’t what she seems, not altogether as straightforward as the reader might first assume. The climax delivers the right amount of action and the dénouement settles things in a satisfying way thanks to the agency of our narrator.
There remains only to see if McEwan will follow this new path and continue to explore the chaos of invention, or if he will return to the comforting order of fact.
I approach any novel set in Istanbul with trepidation, ready for overbearing references to the sights and sounds of the city: bazaars, minarets, East-meets-West platitudes. I started reading Benjamin Wood’s The Ecliptic the same week I had been watching a new screen adaptation of John le Carré’s The Night Manager: a story partly set in Istanbul and a production that ticks every single orientalist trope on the list. But Wood’s captivating novel is not set in Istanbul proper; it opens in Heybeliada, an island half an hour from the old town by ferry, where the usual visual shorthand for Istanbul’s exoticism may not be readily available. And in fact, after the Heybeliada opening, most of the novel takes place in London and Scotland, where our narrator Elspeth Conroy’s character and artistic sensibilities are formed. The shifting landscapes are the first of many disorientations that Wood sets up for his reader in this haunting narrative. Plot lines unravel; characters appear and disappear — the minute you think you’ve pinned them down, they turn out to be changelings.
The action is set in a remote artists’ colony called Portmantle; Elspeth is a muralist who has sought refuge after suffering acute artists’ block. Thwarted artists are accepted to the Portmantle sanctuary through a very secretive, highly vetted process of recommendation. They are told to get rid of their watches, burn their passports, and hold on to a single ferry token that will take them home once they have completed the artwork they have come to the island to finish. These are measures to try to defeat time; there is nothing as destructive to the creative process as a ticking clock. Wood is already luring us in: The artists have left their worlds behind, dear reader — escape into my fictional world and make time stand still for a while. Writing and painting have often been used as metaphors for one another; in The Ecliptic, painting is not the metaphor but the signified. The novel is above all concerned with the creative process, and the real and imagined obstacles artists struggle against.
From the very start Elspeth’s magnetic voice draws us into this space where time stands still, with elliptical sentences and vague references to the present day. Wood is very deft at establishing a sense of timelessness on the island; only after a dozen pages do we learn that that the story is set in the 1960’s. ‘The year I arrived was 1962, but since then I had watched so many winters frost the surrounding pines that they begun to blur into one grey season, as vast and misted as the sea,” Elspeth tells us. The novelist prudently avoids placing too many signposts to give period detail, a fallacy we see often in historical fiction. Wood is more interested in intricacies of human character, the artistic process, and the way we perceive time. When it comes, detail is very evocative in its subtlety: the indented ferry tokens, international calls that you have to put through an operator, the kind of tinned food that people had to make do with in London, transatlantic passages on ocean-liners as viable alternatives to flying.
Similarly, the setting is muted. A group of artists is working on an island which happens to be off the coast of Istanbul; the author is more interested in the demons they are fighting than he is in the skyline, and Wood is very good at painting artistic death-drive through the artists at the sanctuary. The conversations on the island are fueled by a Turkish beverage called sahlep, one of the few concessions that Wood makes to the setting. We hear the staff speak Turkish; there is backgammon playing, and some references to the food (and a blasphemy: some of the artists detest ayran, a national yogurt drink). The head of the community is a Provost speaking perfect English—the sort of person into whose making the whole of Europe seems to have contributed, like Conchis in John Fowles’s The Magus.
Everyone at Portmantle has a code name, so that expectations attached to real names, like passports, can be left behind. There are long-timers and short-timers on the island, and Elspeth, aka Knell, is one of the close-knit group of long-timers. These are all artists who have known success, many of whom believe that the best of their work are already behind them. Asking one another about the nature of their work, and particularly about “progress” is the highest taboo in the colony. Conversation are a strange, dreamy mix of expressions of desire to leave the island and fear of the real world beyond. At times it is unclear, even, whether they are on the island of their own volition.
Elspeth explores the pinewoods on the island and discovers a kind of mushroom that glows blue in the dark, adding to our sense of enchantment. Wood gives us an elaborate description of Elspeth’s trials and errors trying to make paint from these mushrooms, a commentary on an artist’s need for precision when it comes to the ingredient and medium. The paint she eventually produces helps her make a breakthrough with the mural project she’s trying to finish, a representation of the constellations commissioned by a planetarium. The book takes its name from the apparent trajectory the sun follows in the earth’s horizon, and Wood takes us on a beautiful diversion on astronomy, navigation, and movement. Elspeth’s voice when telling us about the ecliptic is dirge-like and incantatory, inviting us to feel like sailors who tell their positions by the stars, putting their trust in a virtual path. Taken with the ecliptic’s overall bearing on the story, the narrative becomes a poem about the different forms of traveling and staying put.
Into this odd, charged mix comes a young artist for whom Elspeth develops protective instincts. One night, she discovers him naked and semi-unconscious in the cupboard where she keeps her magic mushrooms. He is there and in that state not because he has sampled the flora but because he is a sleepwalker, a condition complicated by the nightmares he has when he wanders around the sanctuary half-asleep. This is a novel in which the novelist is always more than a few steps ahead of the reader, and by the time Wood reveals the identity of the mysterious boy, I had hatched all kinds of improbable theories.
But I seem to be marooned on the island myself– that’s the kind of place it is. Although the novel opens there, Elspeth soon turns the story to her formative years in Scotland and London. We see her defy the art school establishment with a little help from a professor, and become apprenticed to painter James Culver, a reluctant mentor who will become a life-long obsession. She starts life in London in an attic — we see what you did there, Wood — in the studio owned by Culver, a painter of the Francis Bacon school (picture empty chairs in glum rooms). We hop on the bus with Elspeth to run errands on the Marylebone High Street. It is a joy to travel on London buses with Elspeth as she describes the scenes before her, and talks us through how she transcribes her impressions onto the canvas. Shortly after she is commissioned to put on her own show through Culver’s influence, he disappears from the London art scene, and her life, leaving her without her father figure and muse.
‘Though all artists strive for recognition, they cannot foresee how it will come to them or how much they will compromise to maintain success,” Elspeth pronounces as she tells us about her days without Culver. We see her once experimental and visceral art become commodified in the London art scene. Despite her commercial success, the lack of an immediate, intimate relationship with a truthful fellow artist leaves her lost. Her descent into despair is precipitated by an unfortunate adventure with the critic Wilfred Searle, whose observations cut too close to the bone: “You need critics like me,” he says “or nobody will notice what you paint.” Not long after a night of “love” which neither of them enjoy, and a subsequent scathing review by Searle, Elspeth has a breakdown on an ocean-liner en route to New York, where she hopes she may find Culver. She is saved from utter destruction by a psychiatrist on board, Victor, who is the most benevolent character in the novel and who, from the moment he opened his mouth, I imagined as being played by Hugh Bonneville. Much as I appreciated Victor’s calm voice, it did feel like Elspeth was being passed from one man to another, from art school professor, to master/muse, to critic, to shrink.
Elspeth gets a second chance with Culver. After a brief period of happiness and clarity, the ellipsis and the ecliptic make themselves felt again: there are holes in both Elspeth’s and Culver’s stories of the time they were apart; the oblique trajectories they narrate to one another don’t quite seem to add up as they head for another separation. Their time together remind us that the mind is really a lonely hunter, how it builds whole worlds out of fragments chanced upon in disparate places. When the narrative returns to Portmantle we also see how, inadvertently, people can become the stuff of one another’s nightmares.
Elspeth’s narrative carries the reader effortlessly from Heybeliada to Scotland to London to New York and back to Heybeliada again. Her cadence goads you on to the next sentence, makes you loath to put down the book and break the melody. Her voice reminded me of Serena Fromme in Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth (perhaps there is a particular manner in which male authors assume female voices that draws in the female reader). Like an artist working toward some final, perfect expression, the novel’s incantatory tones make you believe that if you persevere with the tale, it will reveal to you the secret at its center. But the secret turns out to be one we already know: that sanctuaries that we seek out or build for ourselves are vulnerable to the demons we take with us wherever we go.
William Giraldi spent more than half of his 2008 review (pdf) of Cary Holladay’s A Fight in the Doctor’s Office considering the etymology of “novella,” identifying the history and characteristics of the form, and suggesting essential writers. He claims that the demands of character development are one way to separate novellas from novels, noting that Gustave Aschenbach in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice does not require the 800 pages necessary for the titular character of Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. Giraldi’s introductory thoughts seem like a rather long preface to evaluate a work of new fiction under 150 pages. Such an observation is not meant as criticism. To write about novellas is to engage in a form of literary apologia. Giraldi’s approach is the norm. Most reviews of novellas begin with similar elements: the writer’s arbitrary word count parameter, why “novella” sounds more diminutive than “short novel,” and a lament that publishers are unwilling to support the form.
This essay is not such an apology. I am tired of threnodies. Writers of novellas have nothing to be sorry about. Novellas deserve critical attention as individual, not adjacent, works. We might begin by mining appreciative notes rather than simply cataloging criticisms. Tucked between Giraldi’s prefatory critical observations in “The Novella’s Long Life” are notes of admiration: “an expert novella combines the best of a short story with the best of a novel, the dynamic thighs of a sprinter with the long-distance lungs of a mountaineer.” He continues a critical tradition whose modern genesis might have been the novella-loving 1970s, when even novels were short; think The Sporting Club and Ninety-Two in the Shade by Thomas McGuane, or A Good Day to Die by Jim Harrison. In a 1972 essay he would later develop into a book, Robert J. Clements considers the oral tradition behind the novella form as helping him “define its length as long enough for a dry split birch log to be consumed by a blazing bivouac fire.” That image was still popping in 1977, when Graham Good, in the journal NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, almost elevates the novella beyond the novel, noting that the shorter work often focuses on “simple natural or preternatural exigencies: apparitions, cataclysms like great storms or earthquakes, and individual declines or deaths.” Of course novels also contain deaths, but it’s the speed and tension that matters: the “novella is a closed form whose end is latent in its beginning: there is usually some initial indication that the end is known, and this enhances the narrative art of holding in suspense what it is.”
Fast-forward to very recent memory. At The Daily Beast in 2010, Taylor Antrim considers the focus on novellas by presses such as Melville House and New Directions, and the publication of the “wispy thin” Point Omega by Don DeLillo and Walks With Men by Ann Beattie, as proving that the form is in “pretty healthy shape.” Citing works as diverse as “The Dead” by James Joyce and Shoplifting from American Apparel by Tao Lin, Antrim claims that “novellas are often structurally syncopated…their effect tends to be not instantaneous but cumulative.”
In “The Three-Day Weekend Plan,” from the 2011 anthology The Late American Novel, John Brandon offers a tongue-in-cheek suggestion: hoard your novella. Best to “downplay the novella in casual conversation,” and instead keep the form to “ourselves, the adults.” The novella is a personal document, something that will “let us find out, in the writing, how we truly write.” Work to keep in a closet or desk drawer, “away from any and all publishing apparatus.”
In “Notes on the Novella,” published that same year in Southwest Review, Tony Whedon waxes lyric about the form: “novellas are not so much told as dreamed aloud; they inhabit a realm of half-shapes and shadowy implication.” Historically, they “[thrive] on travel and adventure and [are] often set in exotic climes.” Whedon stresses the need for control, and uses language that mimics John Gardner’s oft-quoted definition of the form: all “subplots need subordinating to their main storyline.” That control, in the formal sense, enables time and tense shifts. That temporal compression increases tension and pacing, resulting in a “swirly and gunky” effect. Novellas are “implosive, impacted, rather than explosive and expansive.” I read this as novellas refract rather than reflect. They are something shaken, but not spilled.
“The Return of the Novella, the Original #Longread” by Jon Fassler appeared last year at The Atlantic. Fassler laments that novellas are tucked into short story collections as an afterward, or packaged with other novellas to be “sold as a curiosity.” Although Fassler’s piece is primarily a profile of Melville House’s success with re-issuing older works in their “Art of the Novella” series, he concludes that “a renaissance in the mid-length non-fiction” form, the “journalistic equivalent of the novella,” is enabled because of electronic editions.
Upon the release of his 2012 novel Sweet Tooth, in which a character publishes a novella, Ian McEwan quipped a series of imagined critical reactions to the short form in The New Yorker: “Perhaps you don’t have the necessary creative juice. Isn’t the print rather large, aren’t the lines too widely spaced? Perhaps you’re trying to pass off inadequate goods and fool a trusting public.” McEwan confidently calls the novella the “perfect form of prose fiction,” citing a “long and glorious” lineage: Mann, James, Kafka, Conrad, Camus, Voltaire, Tolstoy, Joyce, Solzhenitsyn, Orwell, Steinbeck, Pynchon, Melville, Lawrence, and Munro.
A few weeks earlier, at that year’s Cheltenham Festival, McEwan claimed that he “would die happy” if he “could write the perfect novella.” Although he worries the form is unseemly for publishers and critics, readers love that they could “hold the whole thing structurally in your mind at once.” Inverting the typical criticism, McEwan claims that the “novel is too capacious, inclusive, unruly, and personal for perfection. Too long, sometimes too much like life.” In sarcastic response, Toby Clements at The Telegraph thinks that McEwan is “lucky to be allowed to publish novellas.” Clements quotes Philip Rahv, who says that the novella form “demands compositional economy, homogeneity of conception, concentration in the analysis of character, and strict aesthetic control.” Returning to McEwan, Clements considers the foolishness of word and page count definitions. At 166 pages, On Chesil Beach was considered a novella by McEwan, but a short novel by the Booker prize judges. Giraldi notes that “Adultery” by Andre Dubus is identified as a short story in one collection, and a novella in another. I would add Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor to that list. I have defaulted to italics appropriate for a short novel, but many consider the work a novella. Confusion, idiosyncrasy, beauty: welcome to the world of the novella.
While charting the lineage of novella discussions is worthwhile, as a writer of the form I am most interested in application. Perhaps the most writer-friendly treatment in recent memory is “Revaluing the Novella” by Kyle Semmel from the December 2011 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle. Rather than formal comparison, Semmel focuses on what successful novellas contain. Like Giraldi and Whedon, Semmel applies John Gardner’s definition of a novella, as explicated in The Art of Fiction. He supports Gardner’s claim that novellas move through a series of small climaxes. Semmel rightly stresses the “series” element of the definition. The mode of the novella is athletic, forward-leaning.
Gardner splits his definition to contain three modes of novellas: single stream, non-continuous stream, and pointillist. The nomenclature might be idiosyncratic, but Gardner’s criticism was always homegrown. Semmel adds to Gardner’s discussion: often novellas contain “resolution; there is closure.” He admits that the point might sound obvious, but it stresses that novellas are not meant to be top-heavy or flimsy. A necessary point to make, as even Antrim, an admirer of novellas, claims that the form “has ambivalence built into its DNA…[it] serves up irresolute endings.”
Semmel considers a range of examples, from “Voices from the Moon” by Andre Dubus to Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates. He also considers “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” by William H. Gass, but quickly dismisses the work as a “gangly prose poem” of more interest to “literary scholars” than readers. My literary heart sunk. I have loved Gass’s longer novella, “The Pedersen Kid,” ever since it was recommended to me by novelist Tom Bailey, while I was an undergraduate at Susquehanna University. Bailey thought novellas were defined by time—a season or a weekend—and Gass’s piece was offered as an example.
Gardner devotes several sentences to that longer-titled, shorter work, but spends pages explaining why “The Pedersen Kid” is “a more or less perfect example of the [novella] form.” It is important to note that Gardner stressed not only the stream of climaxes, but that they were “increasingly intense.” Yet what interests me most is Gardner’s further qualification that these climaxes are “symbolic and ritualistic.”
It should not be surprising that Gardner loves this novella: Gardner published it in 1961 in his magazine, MSS. Gass’s novella nabbed the magazine thirty charges of obscenity, one of which, co-editor LM Rosenberg shares, was “‘nape,’ as in neck.” Federal fines caused the magazine to fold after three issues, but Gardner never stopped appreciating the novella. His summary of the plot: “In some desolate, rural landscape . . . in the dead of winter, a neighbor’s child, the Pedersen kid, arrives and is discovered almost frozen to death near Jorge’s father’s barn; when he’s brought in and revived, he tells of the murderer at his house, a man with yellow gloves; Big Hans and Pa decide to go there, taking young Jorge; when they get there, Jorge, making a dash from the barn to the house, hears shots; Big Hans and Pa are killed, apparently — Jorge is not sure — and Jorge slips inside the house and down cellar, where at the end of the novella he is still waiting.”
I reread the novella each winter. I also revisit Gass’s preface to the collection, which explains the composition of “The Pedersen Kid.” He “began by telling a story to entertain a toothache.” Such a story must contain “lots of incident, some excitement, much menace.” After weeks of writing he “began to erase the plot to make a fiction of it.” He “tried to formulate a set of requirements for the story as clear and rigorous as those of the sonnet.” He cast away a focus on theme for devotion to the “necessity for continuous revision, so that each word would seem simply the first paragraph rewritten, swollen with sometimes years of scrutiny around that initial verbal wound.”
“The Pedersen Kid” was planned end-first, with all action “subordinated” toward “evil as a visitation — sudden, mysterious, violent, inexplicable.” It was “an end I could aim at. Like death.” And yet, also like death, “I did not know how I would face it.” He imagined the book as a work of visual art: “the physical representation must be spare and staccato; the mental representation must be flowing and a bit repetitious; the dialogue realistic but musical. A ritual effect is needed. It falls, I think, into three parts, each part dividing itself into three.” Three also correlates to the story’s main characters — Jorge, Big Hans, and Pa — who enter the blizzard to find the Pedersen’s abandoned home. Although Whedon does not consider Gass’s work in his essay, it fits one of his theses that symbols in novellas “present themselves orchestrally in the form of leitmotifs that dovetail with disparate time sequences to create a strong over-arching moral theme: hence the novella’s connection with allegory.”
Gass’s novella contains extended spaces between words, which John Madera calls “caesuras,” and Samuel Delany thinks are “actual suspensions of sound.” Gass says that he “wanted pages that were mostly white. Snow.” He practiced typographical and pictorial experimentation in another novella, Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife. The novella form is short enough to be both art and artifice. Experimentation does not become exhausting.
The novella is ritual: for Gardner, for Gass, for Whedon, for me, but for others?
Despite claims about the paucity of options, writers continue to draft and publish novellas in literary magazines and as standalone books. Big Fiction, At Length, A Public Space, PANK, New England Review, Seattle Review, Glimmer Train, and The Long Story have published novella-length work; The Missouri Review included one of my favorites, “Bearskin” by James A. McLaughlin. Ploughshares Solos releases novellas as single e-books. Miami University Press and Quarterly West have revived their novella contests. Iron Horse Literary Review holds an annual chapbook contest that publishes a novella-length work during select years. Texas Review Press has its own annual contest, the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize. Readers and writers of speculative fiction continue to embrace the novella form. Consider Ted Chieng, Jason Sanford, and Kij Johnson; not to mention the nominees for the annual Hugo Award for Best Novella. The most recent winner was Brandon Sanderson, for The Emperor’s Soul.
Deena Drewis founded Nouvella, a press devoted solely to novellas, in 2011. Drewis initially considered works as low as 10,000 words, but became worried that some readers would consider such standalone books as “long short [stories].” She admits that defining a novella is difficult, and instead uses the work of Andre Dubus, Jim Harrison, and Alice Munro as formal affirmations.
At 4 x 6 inches, Nouvella books can feel too bulky beyond 40,000 words, so form requires practical function. Her longest release, The Sensualist by Daniel Torday, “occupies more temporal space” than her other books. Torday told Drewis the work had originally been a novel, but she received the manuscript “pared down to its working limbs. It doesn’t feel compacted the way a short story is often a work of compression, but it also doesn’t take the liberty of meandering, like a novel sometimes does.”
Nouvella’s stated mission is to “find writers that we believe have a bright and dedicated future in front of them, and who have not yet signed with a major publisher.” She finds that the form is “a good point of entry for readers to discover emerging authors.” If readers enjoy a short story from a new writer, they need to do the legwork to find other stories, “or wait until a collection comes out, but that requires a good deal of dedication and perseverance.” Instead, a novella “allows you to spend a little more time inside the author’s head, and because it’s a stand-alone book, it demands more attention from the reader. It’s also not a novel, which for readers, can seem like a big commitment.”
Drewis is prescient: Daniel Torday’s debut novel, The Last Flight of Poxl West, will be published in 2015 by St. Martin’s Press. Such evolution is not exclusive to Nouvella. Andrew Ervin’s Extraordinary Renditions, a collection of three novellas from Coffee House Press, preceded his forthcoming debut novel, Burning Down George Orwell’s House. Mark Doten, who acquired Ervin’s title for Soho Press, notes that “having a strong favorable opinion” of Ervin’s shorter work “was certainly a factor [but not the only one]…in that book going to the top of my reading pile.”
Of course writers are not simply drawn to the novella form for its exposure opportunities. Tim Horvath has always written fiction “on the long side…[before he] knew a thing about word counts and literary journals and what they were looking for.” “Bridge Poses,” his 9,000 word story, was published in New South, yet he was unable to publish another, longer work, Circulation, in literary magazines. An editor at AGNI, while encouraging, “warned that it would be difficult to publish in a journal because of its length.” Bradford Morrow, the editor of Conjunctions, wrote some paragraphs in support of the work, and that convinced Horvath to remain with the piece. Sunnyoutside Press ultimately released the novella as a book, and Horvath appreciated how the story’s manageable length meant that the work’s “cartographic and library obsessions” could be “echo[ed] throughout the design elements of the book.”
Horvath is drawn to “stories that feel as though they encompass multitudes, that take their sweet time getting going, that have a leisurely confidence in themselves, that manage nonetheless to feel urgent, their scale necessary.” That macro approach can be compared with Peter Markus, whose novella collection, The Fish and the Not Fish, is forthcoming from Dzanc Books: “every word in this new collection is monosyllabic, [and] you would maybe think that such limitation would limit such things as the length of the piece, how much can and can’t be done, how long such a project might be sustained. The interesting thing here is that the restriction worked the other way. The river flowed up the mountain, so to speak.” Markus has always been interested in “short novels or long stories” like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, “The Pedersen Kid,” Faulkner’s “The Bear,” Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Kerouac’s Visions of Gerard, and the novellas of Jim Harrison.
The novella form’s length afforded Horvath and Markus a particular sense of control over structure and presentation. The same approach might be applied to The Mimic’s Own Voice by Tom Williams, which he viewed as a “parody of an academic essay.” After he published a story in Main Street Rag, the journal’s publisher, M. Scott Douglass, approached Williams about being a part of the press’s new novella series. The form matched the writer: Williams wonders who would not appreciate “fiction that equally borrows the short story’s precision and the novel’s potency.” Williams uses the same word as Gardner — “perfection” — to describe the unique tightness of novellas, citing his list of favorites: Cataclysm Baby by Matt Bell, Nothing in the World by Roy Kesey, Honda by Jessica Treat, Seize the Day by Saul Bellow, Sula by Toni Morrison, and Goodbye Columbus by Philip Roth.
My own forthcoming novella, This Darksome Burn, began as an experimental, long story; early readers thought it a one-act play. I expanded the manuscript to a novel, reaching 300 pages, but was unsatisfied. Subplots upon subplots had blurred the central narrative. I started-over a year later. I turned the manuscript into a pitch, treatment, and finally a film script. Thought was subverted to action. Everything existed on the page. The script became a novella, and Erin Knowles McKnight, my editor and publisher at Queen’s Ferry Press, suggested I switch to present tense, which allowed me to increase the story’s immediacy. My dark story about an overprotective father in the shadow of the Siskiyou Mountains had found its form: a novella. I had found my form: I placed a novella about opium traffickers and atomic bomb scientists in storySouth, and another novella about a defrocked priest is coming from CCM Press in 2015.
I have practical and ritual reasons for being drawn to novellas. I am the father of five-month-old twin girls, and my writing is done in bursts, late at night. I spend my days living—preparing bottles, changing diapers, writing reviews, teaching, having lunch duty in my high school’s cafeteria, mowing the lawn, and watching my girls grow—but the cadences of story remain like a faint metronome. My old office will become a playroom for the twins, so I have migrated to a smaller room downstairs, the walls lined with books, and, proper to my Italian Catholic sensibility, a cross above the doorframe. I close the door, and in a small space, within a small page amount, I try to write stories that stretch their invisible seams. I love novellas. That doesn’t mean I won’t attempt a novel, or short stories, or essays, or poems. But my heart is set on that form that feels both mysterious and manageable. No apologies needed for that.