Flying on a cinders track: reading in a digital age and the return of the novella

While there is so much both good and scary about the digital revolution and the increasing ease of independent publishing, I do love the possibilities that are opening up for the shorter fiction forms that have been long neglected by traditional publishing, especially in Australia.

Novels are great. But what if you want to write fiction, and yet the novel form just isn’t your thing? Or what if you like to read but your current lifestyle doesn’t provide the serial chunks of time required to read novels?

Barbara stayed with the doctor that night. They drank whiskey and watched Chariots of Fire. Barbara had run in a real race once, a real race on a real cinders track, with real spiked running shoes.

She was a last minute emergency replacement for the 400 metres and was amazed to find that she was leading the pack. Even coming up the straight she was all alone. The people on the sides were blurred, moved in slow motion, opened their mouths and waved banners but there was no sound.

She said to herself, ‘I’m winning. I’m winning the race!’ The finish line was only metres away, getting closer and closer.

But in the last split second as she was about to touch the ribbon with her chest and fall victorious across the line, two others – one on each side of her – sprang forward and beat her by a hare’s breath (hair’s breadth, said the doctor) and she came third.

Like Barbara Boulevard in the extract above (from my first book How to Conceive of a Girl), I loved the 400 metre race when I was a teenager.

I wasn’t much of a sprinter, and the marathon and longer races seemed a little plodding. The 400 metres was perfect. You got to let loose and fly, but in a more natural, relaxed stride than the sprint. It wasn’t all over in a few seconds, and it didn’t drag on for way longer than it needed to.

For me it was the perfect combination of intensity, precision and just the right amount of endurance.

I often think of the novella (longer than a story, shorter than a novel) as like the 400 metre race. And I’m glad that electronic publishing is helping it make a come-back.

For it seems that it’s mostly been economics that has made it unattractive to publishers in the past.

As Allen & Unwin publisher Elizabeth Weiss was quoted as saying, in a recent article in the Age: ”Historically novellas have been difficult to publish commercially because a single novella in book format results in a tiny spine that’s hard to spot on a bookshop shelf, and because the book has to carry many of the same overheads as a full-length work – cover design, in-house overheads – but you can only charge a lower price for it. ”

Yet so many of our most beloved books were novellas: J D Salinger’s brilliant Franny, Zooey, Seymour an Introduction and Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters were all novellas; Dr Jeckyll & Mr Hyde; Margeurite Duras’s The Lover; Jean Rhys’s Wide Sagasso Sea; Camus, The Outsider; Kafka’s Metapmorphosis and The Punishment Machine; to name just a few.

And many of our favourite movies began this way: Breakfast at Tiffany’s; Clockwork Orange; The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie; Heart of Darkness (the seed for Apocalypse Now); Shawshank Redemption (from a Stephen King novella); Hitchock’s Rebecca; The Turn of the Screw (several film versions, including The Others); The Time Machine; and many more.

But things are changing. Amazon has introduced Kindle Singles, Penguin has Penguin Shorts, Random House has got Storycuts, and Pan MacMillan has Short Reads. Although I think the most interesting developments will probably come from smaller and Indie publishers.

The Griffith Review has recently launched it’s wonderful ‘Novella Project’,  published with assistance by CAL’s Cultural Fund. This is a special edition of the journal in both print and e-editions which features 6 new novellas chosen from over 200 entries. These novellas can be purchased as a batch or individually as e-books here, where you can also subscribe to the magazine or buy a hard copy.

Their editorial describes a novella as “longer and more complex than a short story, shorter than a novel… intense, detailed, often grounded in the times, and perfectly designed for busy people to read in one sitting.”

So next time you want to relax, be entertained and stimulated, instead of grabbing a DVD or switching on the tv, why not reach for a novella?

And if you have any suggestions of favourite novellas, or recent ones, please do add them in the comments.


Meanwhile, if you’re looking for something to read in an evening, you can pick up a kindle copy of my novella, The Faeries at Anakie Park (originally published in How to Conceive of a Girl) for just 99c.

(And by the way, you can read kindle ebooks on iPads or computers or even on your iphone by downloading free software from here.)

Thanks for liking and sharing!
This entry was posted in books / writing / creativity, digital publishing / ebooks and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Flying on a cinders track: reading in a digital age and the return of the novella

  1. Craig says:

    Here’s a tricky one – Jesus Christ superstar was based on one of the gospels – are they, in their original form, novellas of a sort or not?

  2. Beth Spencer says:

    Great question! I’d rate The Gospel of Mark as a novella – it’s a great story, engaging main character, interesting minor characters, lots of plot twists and very exciting and moving towards the end. And can be read in one sitting which is what is so magical about a novella – meaty and moving with a range of emotions and scenes, but deliciously compact.

  3. I agree, Beth. I think the novella is a fascinating form to work with. So much can be said by implication – not spelling things out – which is just how I like it.

  4. Beth Spencer says:

    That’s a great way of putting it, Dorothy. Hope to see some new work from you in the form.

  5. Beth Spencer says:

    And kudos also to The Author People who have recently published Kim Kelly’s novella Wild Chicory in pb and ebook form.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.