July 01, 2022
In putting together a syllabus for a creative writing class, my wife was recently poring over lists of classic short stories and came across Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. Whether Henry James’s definition of a short story was closer to everyone else’s definition of a novella, or this was merely a glitch of the algorithm, the surprising appearance of Screw’s 40,000 words on a list of short stories does bring up the problem of classification — a problem that narratives of a certain length inevitably present. The form of the short story, its scope often defined by the attention span of a single sitting, has been exhaustively theorized, as has the boundlessness of the novel. But the short novel, as a form, remains discussed largely in terms of what it isn’t. It isn’t the single room of a short story, nor is it the sprawling estate of the novel.
Later this year, my fourth novel will be published, and it will be my third to sit comfortably between one hundred and two hundred pages. That’s a length that now seems to reflect the shape that narratives naturally take in my brain. In trying to think more about the tidy allure of the short novel, about its possibilities rather than just its parameters, I discussed some highlights of the form with Ravi Mangla, whose recent book, The Observant, is both his second novel and his second short novel. It’s the story of a documentarian who is held captive by the dictator of an unnamed country. This follows Understudies, which follows a high school teacher whose sense of meaning becomes troubled when a Hollywood actress comes to town.
Kevin Allardice: When you think of the shapes your two novels have taken, what’s a short novel that has served as a reference point for you?
Ravi Mangla: Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever was the first short novel I read with a segmented structure. Her sharp, pithy writing appealed to my comic sensibilities and opened my eyes to different structural possibilities.
I imagine Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation (a wonderful book in its own right) introduced many readers to the segmented novel, but Mary Robison has been writing short, segmented, achingly funny books for a good two decades. It’s a style and structure that comes most naturally to me as a writer (both The Observant and my first novel, Understudies, are written in short, frantic bursts), and I love reading works that play with that format in interesting ways.
How about your touchstone?