On Chesil Beach is no less satisfying for its brevity, and I will (as I promised before) tell you all about it later.
But it struck me as I read it that I do really appreciate short novels ... particularly in this age of frequently overstuffed fiction, where editors seem unwilling to take scissors to texts and authors seem to feel that they should tie up our undivided attention for weeks at a time.
Author Dan Rhodes commented in the Guardian some time back that:
... it seems obvious (doesn't it?) that writing overlong books is at the very least plain bad manners. I can't understand why writers are so often pilloried for writing short books. Brevity is mistaken for laziness when more often than not it's the opposite that is true. My new book, Gold, clocks in at 198 pages, and I'm convinced that, apart from in truly exceptional cases, this is about as long as a book ought to be. Of course I fully expect to eat my words next time I read a run of 400 page marvels ...He includes a top ten list of works of fiction he loves, which:
... don't run a page over the 200 mark. All killer, no filler.I can think of several more that I've greatly enjoyed myself including One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Steinbeck's Burning Bright, and of course Of Mice and Men. And then of course there's another short book I greatly enjoyed recently; Beasts of No Nation.
I'm sure you have your favourite short books too.
McEwan has been a regular contender for the Booker prize, and On Chesil Beach is one of his best works, I'd say ... but will it be eligible? Will it even be submitted? According to Galleycat, UK bookmakers William Hill, famous for placing odds on those eligible to win the Booker Prize, are turning away those who want to bet early on the book because there is some doubt about whether is is a novel (eligible to enter) or a novella (not eligible to enter). And apparently even McEwan's publishers are unsure whether they will submit the book for the prize or not.
A simple word count should clarify the matter, one would have thought. But how long exactly does a work have to be before it can be considered a novel? Galleycat quotes author Elizabeth Hand:
A novel is usually considered to be a work over 40,000 words in length.Those of us rash enough to enter the Nanowrimo (where competitors write a whole novel in thee month of November) know that the target is 50,000 words.
Australian writing coach Lee Masterson some useful guidelines about the length of different kinds of story on Author Network. (Have you ever heard of a novelette?) And here again the novel weighs in at 50, 000 words.
I checked a whole lost of websites asking for submissions or giving advice to writers. Some said 40,000. Some said 50,000. There is no rule written on tablets on stone.
Let the last word then go to Julian Gough (winner of the National Short Story Prize):
The short story doesn't exist. But don't worry, neither does the novel, or the novella. (Or the thriller, science fiction or chick-lit.)It would be very sad though if McEwan were disqualified for running for the Booker ... so I'd like to request that, if necessary, and entirely in the interests of good fiction, the prize committee shift the goal posts just a little!
All these terms are used after the fact. They are all mostly industrial terms, pretending to be art terms. The best writers write, and only find a name for what they've written later, when they have to describe it to an agent or a publisher.
Look at the recent fuss over Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach: is it a novel, thus qualifying for the Man Booker Prize? Or a novella, thus not qualifying? The bookies have stopped taking bets till the mess is sorted out. But On Chesil Beach continues to exist, just being what it is, a piece of writing that is not the same as any other piece of writing. Good writers invent something new every time they write.
Is Hemingway's The Old Man And The Sea a short novel? A novella? Or a long short story? It could be any of the three, depending on which of the many definitions of each term you use. The way we describe art has nothing to do with the art. Theory is a separate game, that is only about itself.
Art exists, at all kinds of lengths. And industrial product exists, at all kinds of lengths. There are less things we call 'short stories' these days, because there are less outlets for short stories. But I doubt there is less art. That tends to be a constant. There's never very much of it, but there's always enough.