I lost myself in a book recently. I read the book each day; I was entirely absorbed in the story. I eventually found my way out of it, 1,368 pages and four months later. When I finished, I felt a sense of accomplishment, but I was exhausted. And though I can recall certain phrases and images from the novel with vivid clarity, there are so many details that I don’t remember. All of those words, ideas, the fine details meticulously laid down by the writer are all gone, and I am frustrated by this.
Writers seek to create intricate worlds where their characters have full lives: history, connections, ways of looking and being. The worlds in which they live are thick, folded webs, where holes are only visible if they are integral to the story. But the complexity of stories is not singularly reliant on an abundance of words. Webs can be weaved with fewer strands and still hold firm, so long as they are finely selected and confidently placed.
I have always been envious of authors who are able to write thousands of words, who can stream out ideas for days on a page and then go back and cut and cut, and then pour out even more to fill in the blank spaces. I have never had this ability, I get caught in a sentence or two, I scratch away for days trying to drip out a phrase. I am fascinated by the labyrinthine minds of writers who create vast worlds that span volumes. At the thought I feel my own imagination slinking off into a dark corner to sulk.
But when I hold a weighty book in my hands as a reader, I sometimes feel inadequate and overwhelmed in a different way. I have no doubts about the quality of the book, I know I will feel that wonderful sense of enrichment and achievement when I reach the last sentence, but I find myself wondering: do I have the capacity? Do I have the time? I want to respect everything I read, appreciate the ideas, passion and patience of writers who work hard to impart their art. But with a very long novel I know this is impossible. At some point my attention will not be held over the time it takes me to work through a long novel. My critical writer consciousness creeps in, looks up at the heavy webs obscuring my view and asks, ‘is all this necessary?’
I remember feeling outraged when I read that T.S. Eliot had to submit notes with ‘The Waste Land’ so that it would be long enough to be published as a standalone volume. Understandably there are minimum requirements for a publication to be viable, but why couldn’t the poem be published without the notes? Were the additional words at all beneficial? Or did they just demystify the poet’s process?
The landscape of publishing has changed significantly. Poetry, short stories and novellas reach a wide audience in slim volumes. In 114 pages of considered chaos and crisp, white spaces, Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers submerges the reader in the aching language of loss. Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From takes on the enormity of motherhood in a post-apocalyptic world in 125.
This shift also has allowed writers to conceptualise their work differently. My imagination shuffles hesitantly back into the frame, muttering ‘maybe, just maybe’.
The allure of a novella, slim-bound, light and pocket-sized, doesn’t just lie in its length. The idea that a story can be told in a hundred pages and still be captivating enough to be printed alone, unique enough to deserve its own cover and credits, is thrilling.
But these stories have to be approached differently. With richness and economy in their language, with the fearlessness of keeping secret some of the details, knowing that not every reader will be satisfied. At this length, the holes in the web are every bit as important as the strands that weave the story together. The strands must be fortified with the kind of language that will let them endure. They must be embellished by characters whose voices are strong enough to imply worlds, without the dense cloaking of webs of words. Or maybe they are wrapped in gauzy, thick threads that are never fully known to the reader. Maybe that is entirely the point. The world is drawn, but not explicit. Therein lies the versatility of the novella.
I continue to lose myself in books, but I look forward to the experiences where I emerge on the other side 110 pages and only a day or two later.
Emma Glass is the author of Peach, available now from Bloomsbury.