Why We Need Novellas, Now More Than Ever

In a brilliant essay for The Story Prize blog, Allan Gurganus writes “the novella is the perfect form for this decade of our reading history.” As I read that line, I nodded emphatically. And I nodded like that repeatedly while reading this essay because Gurganus is right and this essay is excellent.

But what exactly is a novella? Is it a long short story, a rather short novel, or some kind of chimera born of a failure to assume either form?

Gurganus defines it eloquently:

A novella is more nearly the twin of a poem than the sib of any eight-hundred-page novel. If all novels come laden with saddle-bag asides, the novella must offer its everything at once. Bypassing distracting secondary characters, the novella can focus upon one character’s single wish ripening toward obsession. All the drama can hang upon one pile-driving need or love or mistake. Some might call this form the narrative equivalent of eating tuna fish from a can held over the sink, but it is closer to superb hand-sliced sushi. A novella, containing the best of poem and novel, gives us the whiplash of one and the echoes of the other.

Fine. Fair enough. But that’s not all Gurganus has to say. Leave literary definitions to your English teacher and let Gurganus explain why we need novellas and how literature can save our souls.

Every evening I must delete email offers from Christian dating services and Korean penis enlargers (do these outfits work in tandem?). Such purgation feels like nightly sweeping back the sea. As we move toward art, as we turn our backs on the junk unsolicited, we want concision, simplification, a last chance at, yes, purity. We crave a respite from the corrosive adolescent sarcasm that’s become American fiction’s defense against a world of true adult feeling.

On the page at least, we seek the sense that some form of human dignity is still possible on earth. And I’m convinced that fiction can provide what religion, so busy besmirching its choirboys, have epically failed to give.

Yes, Gurganus, yes.

There’s plenty of essays by your favorite writers at The Story Prize. But Gurganus’ essay is a wonderful place to start. Read it here.

And if you’re looking to find a good novella and/or religion, Melville House’s Art of the Novella Series is your salvation.

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