The Superb Novella: Concise, Rich, Overwhelming

24 Oct 2011 in international | questo post è lungo 500 parole

Short Fiction Week


Rhys Hughes is a prolific short story writer with an eclectic mix of influences, from Calvino to Borges. Much of his work is of a humorously eccentric bent, often parodies and pastiches with surreal and absurdist overtones. Blog | @rhysaurus

Novels can have pauses, faults: a long story wins by points. A novelette, as Julio Cortazar wrote, needs to win by knock-out. Do you agree?

Yes, that's an accurate definition of the raison d'être of a good novella. A particularly revealing example of the truth of this is Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock. The original novella was the first work of fiction I ever read by that author and it impressed me enormously. It is concise, rich, overwhelming, a superb example of the literature of the imagination, a genuinely dangerous piece of writing. When Moorcock turned it into a full-length novel it became merely an unwise expansion and a lot of the force was lost.

Is there a literary bias against the short form of fiction?

Yes, to a certain extent. Fashions come and go and at this moment in time the short-story isn't as generally popular a literary form as it was back in the 1950s. But I see no reason why it shouldn't become fashionable again.

The most renowned Chinese writer of modern times, Lu Xun, wrote only short stories; so did Jorge Luis Borges, of course; Donald Barthelme, wrote mainly short works and his influence is immense; Muriel Spark's best work is in the short story form; Isaac Bashevis Singer put all his greatest energies and invention into his short stories; personally I regard J.G. Ballard's best work to be a collection of linked stories, Vermilion Sands.

Plot, setting, ideas. What are in your opinion the perfect ingredients of a novelette/novella?

Unique concepts, cleverly engineered plots, enthralling language. A novella is an opportunity for an author to prove how sharp and careful they can be. A truly great novella is never just a compressed novel or an expanded short story but a fully integrated work that inhabits its own length precisely.

Would you suggest 3 must-read novelettes/novellas?

The Last Castle by Jack Vance. This work contains in condensed form all the elements that make Vance such a fine writer, the vibrancy, humour, action, quaintness and muscular baroque language.

The Dead Lady of Clown Town by Cordwainer Smith. An exemplary novella, a legend from the future, very clear and strange and exquisitely moving.

Five Letters from an Eastern Empire by Alasdair Gray. A perfect story, the best novella I have ever read, a devastating satire on power and manipulation.

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