Monday, January 7, 2008

The tragedy of the novella

I recently have been trying to read more short fiction in order to find a style that works for me. I'm more comfortable writing at novel length, and trying to write something as short as the modern short fiction market calls for (< 5,000 words ideally, and certainly no more than 7,500) is quite frequently agonizing.

Unfortunately, so much of the short fiction out there just is not that interesting. So instead of trying to go through magazines full of unknown authors, I decided to buy some works of short fiction by authors I already like as novelists, specifically Lovedeath by Dan Simmons and Wall of the Sky, Wall of the Eye by Jonathan Lethem. I figured that since they were good novelists they could give me an idea of how to tell a good narrative in that length.

The joke was on me. Not that the stories aren't good; I'm about halfway through both books and they're amazing. The second story in Wall of the Sky, (now I can't find where I put the book so I don't know the title of the story) is a spectacular exploration of race in America based on an "exosuit" that gives a white guy the basketball skills of Michael Jordan (he takes on the title "Vanilla Dunk.") And I'd go so far as to say that Simmons' book might be better than his best novel that I've read, which is Hyperion. The second story in Lovedeath is the second story I've read in over a decade that does something interesting with the dead horse of the vampire story; like the other one, China Mieville's "The Tain" from Looking for Jake, you don't know that it's a vampire story until you're well past the halfway mark.

Only one problem: none of these are short stories, at least by the current definition of the term. Every story in both books is in the 14,000-20,000 word range. This is the range that some people call a novella, and others call a novelette. (the official SFWA definition lists a novelette as 7,500-17,500, and the novella as 17,5000-40,000). So what's the problem with that?

Simply, none of these has any acknowledgment in the book as having been published anywhere before. Usually if you are going to see a collection of short stories in a book, most of them will have appeared in various magazines along the way, and it will say so. I might be wrong about this, but assuming that this is correct, the only way these stories could have been published is collected in a book. And the only reason that these books of novellas would have been published, I'll go on to argue, is because the authors were already the famous novelists Dan Simmons and Jonathan Lethem.

The current market for fiction is based on completely arbitrary and ferociously insisted-on word-length counts, set entirely based on what is considered printable and marketable rather than what makes a good story. Look at the requests for short fiction in 95% of all magazines, and they will request a maximum length of 5,000 words, maybe 7k if they feel generous. In this length, it's nearly impossible to lay out a real development of a character; a lot of what passes for good short stories today are really just stunts. Meanwhile in the novel market, the expected length for a first-time author is 90-110k words, with known writers honored with the expectation for 200,000-400,000 word "bug-killers" as Lucius Shepard calls them.

Would the current publishing market have room for, among others, "[Steinbeck's] Of Mice and Men and The Pearl, Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis and In the Penal Colony, George Orwell's Animal Farm, Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's, Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness," among the novellas listed at Wikipedia?

To be fair, Analog at least continues to publish novellas and novelettes, though a lot of the 14,000-17,000 word stories they publish could easily shed five to eight thousand words without any ribs showing. I'm not so sure about Asimov's and F&SF. Nevertheless, the places for things that are longer than a short story but shorter than a novel are far too rare. How many potentially great novellas are either butchered to unreadability to fit in the expected short story length, or padded unnecessarily to be turned into novels?

I don't really know what the solution is, and I do know that there are reasons publishers do what they do. But let's admit at least that we have a problem here.

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