Neither Novel Nor Short Story: What is Medium Length Fiction?

by Bliss Kern

Point_omega_4adf514_292302t February 2nd saw the release of Don Delillo's Point Omega: A Novel. That the book claims to be “A Novel” is not surprising; this has become standard practice for denoting that a fictional work is literary (read: not genre) fiction. The heft of the distinction balanced against the lightness of the tome (a mere 117 pages) provokes the question: isn't it really A Short Novel or perhaps A Novella? Delillo himself declared in an interview with the New York Times that writing Point Omega was different from composing his longer works in that “this novel demanded economy.” That Point Omega carries the subtitle A Novel, despite the declaredly different “demands” of its form, suggests that we may have too few words to describe the wealth of prose fiction that makes up the majority of contemporary English language literature. What we need are more standardized and specific terms to delineate the fine distinctions of prose fiction genres.

Medium length fiction is a term I use to categorize a work based on bulk alone. It describes those works of fiction that contain somewhere between, very roughly, seventy and two hundred pages. While admittedly seventy pages is an arbitrary cut off point, one does begin to feel antsy if a short story much exceeds this length. The descriptions of people and places have often, in these cases, grown out of proportion with the events of the narrative and have therefore hobbled the pace that characterizes the short story. The broad scope of a novel, on the other hand, can rarely be fully fleshed out in fewer than two hundred pages, with all of the elaborated characters, settings, and interdependent causes and consequences that the reader expects when tempted by the word “novel.” It is not, however, the length alone that defines a given narrative. As author and critic George Fetherling has warned, defining one version of prose fiction against another based solely on length is “like insisting that a pony is a baby horse.” Medium length fiction must certainly be further categorized under the terms available to us. So far these are “novella” and “short novel,” each distinct from the other in form and objective, as I will describe below. (I leave novelette out of my list of available sub-genre labels because, despite my long residence in the strongholds of English academia and among lovers of literature, I have yet to hear it used a single time—it, like “fetch,” simply never caught on.)

The Novella is, it must be said, a term and form of the old world. With its long history come associations and specified objectives. The form came into being in the medieval period, and is largely associated with the Italian and French (and, much later, the Russian) traditions. Italian scholar Gloria Allaire paints its genesis by recalling Dante's formulation: it is a “truth with the face of a lie.” To hark back to the form's beginnings may seem an unnecessary step in crystallizing terms for the description of twenty-first century literature, and yet I think that the early intentions of the form still have resonance today: many a piece of medium-length prose fiction seeks to use a narrative (the face of a lie) to explore or illustrate in-depth a moral or philosophical truth bearing on the human condition. In other words, novellas use plot as a vehicle rather than as an end in its own right.

Like longer fiction, novellas take the time to invest in characters and their interiority, although they typically have a more limited cast than novels do. Take, for example, the title story of Edmund White's recent Chaos: A Novella and Stories (2007). This sly, ninety-four page piece of writing excavates the cerebral folds of Jack, an aging author, as he worries about the two defining topics of his life—money and sex. All this happens in service of revealing the truth about the changes that aging forces on one's self-perception. There is no central action that unifies the work: he meets new partners, worries over the imminent loss of a good friend stricken with cancer, and watches his creative tendencies fall out of favor with the younger generations. There is, further, no resolution. The end arrives when it does, for no good reason except that it is finished. What holds the piece together is the charismatic reflections of Jack, who makes observations that please and amuse the culturally literate reader. The story overflows with pithy remarks upon issues of both topical and universal concern. For example, Jack/White humorously examines the topic of dementia, capitalizing on recent interest in cognitive science and ongoing baby-boomer fascination with the processes of aging. “A philosopher had once said that to observe the mind at work was like attempting to sail a boat while building it; how much harder it was to sail when someone or something was angrily prying up the floorboards of the sinking hull.” The extensive and recherché reflection on his own perceived loss of cognitive powers is one of many in-depth moments of character development that mark Jack as the inhabitant of, generically speaking, the novelistic realm. The novella's attachment to the value of the psychology and consciousness of its characters produces a layered reading experience and encourages savoring; despite their relative brevity, there is no call to consume them in a single sitting. One doesn't feel that the attachment to the character or narrative fades when the reading experience extends over a period of days or even longer. The novella, then, trades pace for reflection, and privileges character over action.

In contrast, the short novel as I define it claims closer kinship with the objectives and feel of the short story. It is a form of deep focus, typically delineating a single event or fallout from an event, and eschewing all unnecessary description or complication that exist outside of its prescribed and limited scope. The sub-plots of the novel are outside its bounds. It privileges the sleek and spare narrative and defines character through action more than cognition. In this respect it follows Edgar Allen Poe's desiderata for the creation of powerful literary effect. In his essay “Philosophy of Composition” (1846), Poe makes two contentions that are relevant to defining the short novel. First, that one must write from the conclusion backward, for “[it is] only with the denouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention.” Poe articulates the ideal form of the plot-driven piece of whatever length, whose sense of narrative purpose is “indispensable.” This command goes hand in hand with his belief that “If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression- for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and everything like totality is at once destroyed.” Unity of story and the drive to enforce a single-sitting reading, above all, distinguish the short novel from the novella and what link its genetic material to that of the short story.

Ian McEwan's The Comfort of Strangers (1981) provides an example of the results desired by Poe. This tale of the sadistic hunting of a vacationing couple, Mary and Colin, almost demands a single-sitting reading. Once you are in the grips of its terrifying rhythm, there are few “affairs of the world” that could release you from it. As though bent on creating the ideal of Poe's literature that keeps the “denouement constantly in view,” McEwan uses every word of characterization and scene setting to develop the central theme and foreshadow its climax. The first insight we have into Mary's psychology is when we learn, on the second page of the 128-page story, that while on vacation, “She dreamed most frequently of her children, that they were in danger and she was too incompetent or muddled to help them.” Her attachment to her children echoes her attachment to Colin who she is, finally, too muddled to help when he finds himself in very real danger. From first to last, McEwan floats the central motifs of need and loss and responsibility to tightly wind the reader's attention to a well-tuned pitch for the story's climax. So when one character wakes to find the other not there or faces a near drowning in the ocean while the other watches from the shore, it is always an occasion to move the story forward with spare, unceasing grace towards their final separation. This is a short novel, and the reader's experience of it is quite different from that which she has reading the novella “Chaos.”

To distinguish the short novel from the novella ought to be a descriptive rather than prescriptive venture. There is—and as Poe illustrates, long has been—a tendency among critics to create hierarchies of value to go along with the distinctions they draw: they give one name to one group of texts and another to a second to ease their categorical demotion of one or the other as sub-standard. Alternatively, they define what a form ought to be and then reject as unworthy of consideration those works that don't conform. Poe criticizes the writer who gives insufficient attention to the drive towards a denouement and instead “fill[s] in with description, dialogue, or autorial comment, whatever crevices of fact, or action, may, from page to page, render themselves apparent.” He would not, we can surmise, admire “Chaos.” Others see things in a different light, such as the abovementioned Fetherling, who damns a piece of medium length fiction with the judgment that “there is no mistaking that this is a work that has come to light in a civilization whose most durable genres are the pop song and the sitcom.” Pop songs and sitcoms fulfill Poe's desiderata and deserve the same acknowledgment that Ian McEwan gives to the plot-driven short novel when he illuminates their literary value thus: “You can feel the architecture of such a book.” As we seek to define and distinguish, we must also give to each form its due. What is required is a broader sense of the kinds of writing being produced, so that, once defined, works can be clearly examined on the merits of their own objectives.

We have created, over time, a significant number of sub-genres of novel-length fiction, splitting the mystery from the romance and the science fiction from the fantasy. In so doing, we allow each reader to easily find what please her best as she sieves through the immeasurable quantity of printed material that is now, for good or ill, constantly available. I contend that we should take the time to make similar categorical distinctions between those gray zone fictions of medium length. When we do, those who prefer “Chaos” 's style to that of The Comfort of Strangers will know whether or not they will likely find reward in picking Omega Point: A Novel off the shelf.