I was treated to an early Christmas present when my copy of RAY by Barry Hannah came in the mail today. Since then, I haven’t been able to tear my eyes away from it. Such brilliance in such a compact form. It led me to root around for a lecture I wrote about this time last year about the specific structural demands of the short novel. Here it is posted below.
The Peculiar Mechanics of the Short Novel
By Charles Dodd White
Today I’d like to talk about how short novels are put together. Now, the very definition of what a short novel is might be a little tricky. For the purposes of this lecture, I want to limit myself to extended works of fiction between 40,000 and 75,000 words. I may be erring a little on the short side of that designation, considering the place where the novella ends and the novel begins has always been a matter open to debate. However, I think that ultimately such a designation is fairly arbitrary and of little use to students of creative writing. I believe the short novel is any piece of fiction that is designed to be read over the course of several sittings, adhering to tight requirements of form, language and theme. In addition to this, and most importantly, the short novel MUST use its own brevity as a positive force for narrative drive. In looking at the structure or “mechanics” of the short novel, I hope to point out how this particular form achieves a unique and influential place in contemporary writing.
Because space is always a consideration to writers of short novels, structure is naturally more of an immediate concern. Authors of novels of greater length have a license for discursive plots and themes. They have greater permission to explore. However, in short novels every piece must function in support of the story’s desired effect. The short novel has permission to explore, but that exploration must be tempered by precision. Even the slightest flaw in a short novel can lead to a sense of narrative shakiness that results in considerable reader distraction and even estrangement. To negotiate this pitfall, writers of short novels have developed several trends or approaches to ensure the form is retained and development is realized. While this lecture is by no means meant to be an exhaustive overview of these different structural theories, I believe there are a few main categorizations of the short novel that will enhance an understanding of what the short novel is capable of accomplishing.
In looking at the main different categories of the short novel, I think we can identity the following five distinct approaches:
- “The Symmetrical”
- “The Path to Memory”
- “The Avant Garde” or “Novel of Ideas”
- “The Dialogue”
- “The Gothic Nightmare”
First, I want to make clear that many short novels share traits of two or more of these designations. If we spend too much time splitting hairs about genre distinction, we will be putting too much emphasis on a constructed or imposed idea of what the novel can and should be. However, with some idea of the different approaches to the short novel, I believe we advance our understanding of both the limitations and advantages to this often marginalized form.
I will give a brief explanation of each of these types of short novels with examples, attempting to highlight their most outstanding traits.
First, the short novel I’ve called “The Symmetrical” earns its name because of its strict adherence to narrative form, often revolving around a thematic or trope based central axis. The Symmetrical is perhaps the most obviously manipulated of the different writing approaches I’m talking about today. It insists on a geometric location of time, setting and events.
V.S. Naipaul’s novel Half A Life is an excellent example of this kind of book. The novel consists of three main sections: the first is a first person backstory to the main action of the novel, told by the main character’s father; the second section, which is roughly seventy percent of the novel’s length, is a third person bildungsroman story about the character of Willie Chandron; the final section, which mirrors the first, is a first person tale told by Willie himself about his decision to abandon the kind of life he has led up until this point in the story. The story essentially ends with a reflection of where it began, centered around the concept of sacrifice and fulfillment.
Another example of The Symmetrical is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Unlike Naipaul’s book, this classic novel doesn’t rely on neatly divided sections. Instead, a central setting is the means of unification. In this case, the unit of separation is the gallows, where Hester Prynne and Reverend Dimmesdale both appear at crucial times in the story. Each return to this setting effectively subdivides one part of the novel from the others so that each of these distinct parts of the novel follows one another much like acts in a play. Deeper revelations of character and complications of theme are directly informed by the repetition of setting. The touchstone is affirmed, thus giving dimension to the novel’s narrative structure.
The second type of short novel is “The Path to Memory.” This type of book is typically written around a narrative frame. The framing technique is used as a means of showing how the past affects the present. A classic example of this type of short novel is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. This is actually a double frame since the story Marlowe tells is related by an unnamed narrator. But regardless of this, the novel works as a path to memory because Marlowe tells Kurtz’s story of descent in such a way that it emphasizes the hypocrisy of the so called “civilized” society in England, the society that allows Marlowe the comfort to tell this tale of a colonized Africa. The parallel themes between past and present compliment and intensify one another, often ironically, but always powerfully.
Similarly, Kazuo Ishiguro’s small masterpiece, A Pale View of Hills, uses a delicate narrative frame to juxtapose past and present. The first person narrative tells a story of suffering with the consequences of losing a child to suicide. Meanwhile the narrator tells of a recollection of a very brief friendship she had with a woman in Nagasaki many decades before and how that woman repeatedly neglected the care of her daughter. The two plots never directly intermingle other than the fact that both involve the narrator as a participant in the story. Here, theme is the doorway to meaning. The inescapable similarities of the human struggles are emphasized, proving Faulkner’s dictum, “The past is not dead. The past is not even past.”
The path to memory story relies on a delicacy of form and a careful escalation of drama. Characters are normally limited in number in order to ensure the story doesn’t digress freely. Of the different types of short novels, the path to memory story is perhaps the most explicitly controlled, resulting in a tight, cautiously rendered tale.
The third type of short novel is the novel of ideas. Alternatively, I refer to this type of book as the Avant Garde. This story does not face strict requirements of plot. Instead, this short novel is held together by the drama of its own philosophy. These books are often absurdist in nature, like Camus’s The Stranger and Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy. Each of these books uses vividly rendered psychological landscapes that may or may not be reliable. In fact, the idea of reliability is at the heart of the novel of ideas. It stresses the inherent instability of the mind and how that mind constructs identity.
Closely related to the novel of ideas, though not quite the same is The Avant Garde short novel. While this type of novel may share many if not all of the same thematic concerns as The Novel of Ideas, The Avant Garde rewards stylistic innovation. This is the place where mixed genres work best. Often, the Avant Garde combines elements of drama, poetry and the traditional novel. An example of this mixed form is Ama Atta Aidoo’s fiction, Our Sister Killjoy. Combining elements of traditional narrative, intermittent epistolary sections and lyric poetry, Aidoo breaks down the repressive elements of structure as defined by traditional aesthetic authorities. The Avant Garde short novel succeeds as a result of its own audacity. This type of short novel is commonly associated with politically charged protest movements because of its direct challenge to what we commonly consider the proper boundaries of what the novel can and should be. By breaking traditional forms, this short novel is supposed to challenge the very idea of what genre can be. Often brilliant, always controversial, the Avant Garde always insists on asking the most provocative questions about how we make and value art.
The Dialogue novel provides us with yet another approach to the short novel. This type of book uses multiple narrators to contribute different perspectives on the same actions. The classic example of the dialogue novel is William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. The dialogue works well as a short novel because of the dramatic intensity surrounding a minimalistic plot. The tension is sustained through heightened reader participation.
Ron Rash’s novel, One Foot in Eden also experiments with this form to good advantage. By treating a murder and the concealment of that murder from varying perspectives over a span of three decades, he writes a concise treatment of guilt and its repercussions across generations. Suspense is maintained and considerable development is still achieved because of the invisible spaces between voices. Here, the absence of length deepens meaning. If we are to understand the dialogue novel properly, it’s well to remember the cliché of “reading between the lines.” In the well written dialogue novel, we must learn to “read between the voices.”
The final type of short novel I want to discuss is The Gothic Nightmare. As the name implies, this book is darker in nature, relying heavily on traditions of the American Romance. Characters may be more spectral in nature and the worlds they inhabit defined by shadow and twilight. Probably the most famous practitioner of The Gothic Nightmare short novel is Cormac McCarthy. Early on in his first Appalachian books, and most recently with his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Road, McCarthy creates terrifying landscapes that read like a laundry list of human fear. From necrophilia to cannibalism, his novels assert stark concepts of good and evil.
Influences in this type of short novel begin in American Literature with Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and continue to appear in various guises in the work of Toni Morrison, Denis Johnson and Don Delillo.
The Gothic Nightmare is compelling because of its hallucinatory intensity. The fictional world created is hyperreal and often melodramatic. It avoids descriptions of the commonplace, instead preferring to explore the macabre, plumbing the subconscious and exposing cultural taboo.
Each of these approaches to the short novel shares an affinity with carefully practiced craft. The writer of short novels must always remain aware of the direction and purpose of the story being told. The interplay of that story and the way we try to frame it remains a challenging, often maddening dynamic. But the shapeliness of form the short novelists seeks is an aesthetic pleasure well worth admiring, and perhaps, if we insist on the headache of such a goal, pursuing in our own work.