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?
KA: I’m glad you pointed out that staccato structure, because one thing that struck me about The Observant was how the short sections allow for the narrative to rove, even while the narrator is held captive. Somehow the further constraint of the short sections allows greater range of motion, both in form and content. One of my favorite novels of this length does the opposite, and it’s a novel that I wound up name-checking in my forthcoming book, The Ghosts of Bohemian Grove: Donald Antrim’s The Hundred Brothers. As with Thomas Bernhard’s single-paragraph novellas, Antrim allows no section breaks or chapter breaks, and just as its form is constrained, its narrative is limited to one mansion, when one hundred brothers (ninety-nine, actually, as one couldn’t make it) meet to decide what to do with their father’s remains. I thought about this novel a great deal when writing my novel Family, Genus, Species, which distorts a domestic space in a similar way.
There’s also an elusiveness to both Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever and The Observant. In both, a great deal happens in the white space. When you think of the relationship between narrative scope and word count, is there a novel that strikes you as taking an instructive or innovative approach?
RM: Donald Antrim is also a favorite of mine. And I appreciate that your novels similarly embrace the irreverent and absurd.
The relationship between narrative scope and book length is interesting to me. For a long time I felt like short novels were best when covering only a few minutes or few hours of narrative time (like Antrim’s The Verificationist and The Hundred Brothers, or Clarice Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H.). I recently read César Aira’s An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter for the first time, and it’s pretty miraculous in its sense of scale. The only way I can explain it is like when they fit a Casper or Leesa mattress in a modest box, and you wonder how they made it fit in the first place. (If either Casper or Leesa want to sponsor this interview, I’ll happily cross out the name of your competitor.)
Is there a novel like that for you? That doesn’t seem like it should work, but somehow manages to pull it off.
KA: I haven’t read An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, but I’m excited to check it out. When I read Aira’s The Literary Conference, I loved how its shorter form allowed for a wild medley of genres, the brevity making those disparate elements seem somehow completely normal. (As someone still sleeping on an old spring-packed mattress, I find the sleight of hand required to fit so much into such a small package a thing of wonder.)
One novella that is striking for its scope is The Log of the USS Mrs. Unguentine by Stanley Crawford. In just over a hundred pages it careens through forty years of marriage, all aboard a massive barge. But it’s not just the temporal scope that is so audacious; as the narrator steers through the seven seas, the boat itself becomes a strange world unto itself; the finite space of the boat becomes infinite in its possibilities, distorted. It’s a little book that seems to wander anywhere while also being incredibly compressed. I thought about that compression while in the final stages of working on my most recent book, As The Ceiling Flew Away, which similarly follows the vicissitudes of a marriage. For years and countless revisions, the manuscript hovered around 70,000 words, but I didn’t really figure it out until I started compressing it down to, eventually, 40,000. That compression, the way it crumples time and event, began to teach me something new about the narrator.
Earlier I mentioned that this length feels natural for me. After two novels, is there a particular shape that stories seem to form in your mind?
RM: For better or worse, the storytelling length that feels most natural to me is about 500 words. I realized early on I’m more of a sprinter than a long distance runner, so I learned to stitch together short segments into a tapestry-like whole.
My new book comes in at around 30,000 words, which is anathema to agents and major publishing houses. But when the market dictates such a specific length, we miss out on interesting and innovative short works. I’m grateful for publishers like Dalkey Archive Press, Coffee House Press, and others who aren’t afraid to put out shorter books.
Right now I’m reading two novels under 200 pages: The Days of Abandonment by the incomparable Elana Ferrante and Paradais by Fernanda Melchor (whose previous work Hurricane Season is another banger of a short novel). As a reader, I love the experience of moving through a book in two or three sittings (more like a torrid affair than a committed relationship).
Here’s to hoping the short novel finds its way to a wider readership in the coming years.
Ravi Mangla is the author of the novel Understudies (Outpost19). His writing has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Cincinnati Review, American Short Fiction, Jacobin, and The Paris Review Daily. He lives in Western New York and works as a political organizer.