Damien G. Walter is a writer of weird fiction and Guardian columnist.
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?
I could make a strong argument for the novelette as the natural length for prose fiction. The true short story is, from the writers perspective at least, a distinct discipline almost as far again from the novel as the poem is from the short story. The novel has been stretched to monstrous proportions, with commercial and even literary bestsellers regularly clocking in at 150,000 to 300,000 words, when only a few decades ago a novel might still be measured at 50,000 words or less. There is a kind of mutant grotesquery to these books, as though extra flesh has been injected in to the body but left hanging loose from the skeleton. The novelette, when it works, has the slim compact build of an athlete or dancer.
Is there a literary bias against the short form of fiction?
The skill of the short story writer, which is where we fiction writers meet our poet cousins, is in creating a narrative structure that continues to unfold for the reader long after they close the book. That unfolding allows us infiltrate an idea deep in to the consciousness of the reader. The greatest short stories impact on our psyche in much the same way as the major events of our life. They tell us something about ourselves that we would never otherwise know. And what they tell is often not good. These stories are rare, and even the greatest writers will produce only a few through their career. So when we deal with the average collection of short stories, it's always with a sense of dashed expectations and the awareness that, while it is a form that demands perfection, very few short stories meet that demand.
Plot, setting, ideas. What are in your opinion the perfect ingredients of a novelette/novella?
I think of these things as tools rather than ingredients. Beyond a certain professional curiosity, I don't care what tools a craftsman has used to make his work. You can make a great sculpture with a chisel or with a knife, all that matters is that the right tools were used at the right time, and that's purely a matter of judgement for the craftsman. All I consider important in fiction now is it's ability to speak deeply to people, both to our conscious argumentative mind, and our unconscious dream rich imagination.
Would you suggest 3 must-read novelettes/novellas?
The three linked short stories Chance, Soon and Silence form a novella at the heart of Alice Munro's collection Runaway (2004) They tell the entire life story of Juliet, and are the most powerful literary storytelling I have encountered at any length.
Stephen King is a master of the novella, which perhaps explains why his novels flag in the second half. Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, filmed almost sentence for frame later by Frank Darabont, display's King's mastery of the entire writer's toolkit.
Science Fiction is often at its strongest in the short novel form. J G Ballard was a true master at this length, and Highrise shows him at his absolutely brutal best.
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