Former leading New Zealand publisher and bookseller, and widely experienced judge of both the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Montana New Zealand Book Awards, talks about what he is currently reading, what impresses him and what doesn't, along with chat about the international English language book scene, and links to sites of interest to booklovers.
Wednesday, October 17, 2012
Ian McEwan is lucky to be allowed to publish novellas
Many novelists would love to write novellas like Ian McEwan, says Toby
Clements, but publishers are only interested in the shorter form if it has the
name of a bestselling author attached to it
Ian McEwanPhoto: Clara
By Toby Clements
The Telegraph - 15 October 2012
The Booker-prize winning author Ian McEwan asserted at the weekend that the
novella is a superior literary form to the novel. “If I could write the perfect
novella I would die happy," he said.
Anyone who has read his work might have guessed he felt this way – he started
his career in 1975 with a blistering collection of short stories, First Love,
Last Rites and his first novel was the slender but disproportionately
powerful The Cement Garden which came in at a mere 144 pages - but it is
interesting to hear him come out and say it. Not just because he is arguing
against the general sense that a thumping great novel is more worthy – of
prizes, of being paid for - than a slim volume, but because it is not absolutely
clear what he means.
After all, what is a novella? A hard and fast definition is based on word
count: if a work of fiction runs to less than about 20,000 words, it is a short
story and if it goes beyond 40,000 words, it becomes a novel. Anywhere between
those two figures and it is a novella. Taking that as our guide, all McEwan has
said is that he would like to write a novel longer than 20,000 words, but
shorter than 40,000, which makes a mockery either of the definition or of
A more helpful suggestion comes from the critic Philip Rahv, who proposed
that a novella “demands compositional economy, homogeneity of conception,
concentration in the analysis of character, and strict aesthetic control”. All
of which one associates with McEwan’s best works, which also happen to be his
shortest. His latest, Sweet Tooth, is his longest, but it is narrated in
the first person, and exhibits this strict aesthetic control, and in fact, is
about a novella writer.
While a novel creates a world in which the reader might happily wander,
filled with fully fleshed characters, engaging sub-plots, beautifully arranged
backdrops and authorial digressions, the novella is intense, under pressure,
best suited to the communication of a single powerful idea, or a based on a
single, possibly life-changing, probably unexpected event, taking place in a
geographically distinct place (such as On Chesil Beach, McEwan’s 2007
novella which was – slightly controversially given its diminutive 166 pages –
nominated for the Man Booker Prize).