The Practice of Packaging Novellas

In my current reading, I’m up to my eyes in capital-T tomes. I’m about 350 pages into George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and about 350 pages into the first volume of Blanche Wiesen Cook’s biography of Eleanor Roosevelt. In both cases I’ve read a substantial chunk of the work, yet in both cases I’m not even at the halfway point of the narrative. Yes, it’s great to get lost in a sprawling, richly-detailed book—seriously, Middlemarch is incredible so far—but at a certain point, I yearn for something more concise, more compressed: a good novella. Only one problem: they’re not that easy to come by.

Over at Electric Literature, Tobias Carroll discusses American publishers’ reluctance to publish novellas. He bemoans the reality that the major publishing houses prefer “bloated novels and multi-volume series” to the concise style of writing found in a shorter novel. Carroll links this state of literary affairs to the American tendency towards excess. In the land of the Hummer and the triple-bypass breakfast skillet, this line of thinking goes, why should we be surprised that the door-stoppers dominate bookstore display tables?

If one wanted a different consumer-oriented explanation for the novella’s diminished role in the American marketplace, one might argue that Americans are more likely to think of value strictly in monetary terms. There may be a sense that thousand-page novels offer a better value-per-page proposition than hundred-page novellas. People only have so much disposable income, we might reason, so of course they’ll try to stretch out their money the way that Dickens stretched out his chapters. I know I fall into this trap quite a bit. I’m often reluctant to buy new poetry collections, because I’m wary of laying down fifteen or twenty dollars on, say, sixty pages worth of poems. I heartily agree that such collections may have immense aesthetic value, but, well, one can’t subsist on that.

Now, Carroll knows that the major American publishing houses do, in fact, sometimes publish novellas, but it seems that moreso than the other major forms of fiction, publishers demand that novellas be packaged within some grander context:

When Big Five publishers have released novellas—Garth Risk Hallberg’s A Field Guide to the North American Family, or Penguin’s forthcoming edition of Ottessa Moshfegh’s McGlue—they’ve generally been new editions of older works by authors who have gone on to be widely read. And there’s also the case of novellas being paired with other novellas by the same author: A. S. Byatt’s Angels and Insects comes to mind, as does Joe Hill’s Strange Weather.

A related technique that I’ve seen is to package a novella as part of a short story collection. Examples of such books include Alice Munro’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus, and the English translation of Luisa Valenzuela’s Clara. In all three cases, the novella is the collection’s title story, so perhaps moreso than the methods Carroll mentions, this format may be suited to highlighting the novella in specific. In the reprint method, the novella is a selling point secondary to the author’s name, and in the multiple-novella method, two rival books must vie for attention. But in a short story collection, the novella takes the undisputed top billing.

The benefits of packaging novellas alongside short stories should be apparent. First, readers can be more confident that they’re getting a sufficient quantity of writing in exchange for their limited book-buying resources. Second, reading a novella in the context of an author’s short stories can give readers a better sense of the writer’s body of work; they can look at both the novella and the short stories and compare the author’s plotting, characterization, style and so forth when working in different formats. Maybe the author feels freer to explore scenery in the more expansive novella, or leans on shorter sentences when compressing a plot down to a short story.

However, I can also see a potential downside to this arrangement, and it has to do with the nature of collections of shorter works. If you have a collection with multiple forms of writing in it, such as a novella and short stories, and either category is stronger than the other, one may get the feeling that the weaker category is purely there as filler. Sure, a poetry anthology or a short story collection may contain pieces of highly variable quality, but in such cases one questions the author’s skill or the editor’s taste; one does not suspect that the publisher has watered down the whiskey, so to speak. But if a strong novella comes packaged with lower-tier short stories, or vice versa, the reader is more likely to be dissatisfied with the work as whole.

I felt this sense of dissatisfaction most acutely when I read a translation of Yasunari Kawabata’s House of the Sleeping Beauties, which came packaged with two of Kawabata’s short stories: “Of Birds and Beasts” and “One Arm.” The novella, I remember, was a wonderfully crafted and often unsettling reflection on aging and lust; the old man’s inner thoughts stuck with me for days after finishing it. The short stories, on the other hand, seemed rather slight by comparison. “One Arm” evidently left so little an impression on me that, when I later reread it in a different anthology, I didn’t even recognize it. (Considering the premise involves borrowing a woman’s arm and sleeping with it, that’s saying something.) It didn’t help that, by page count, the novella was about 5/6 of the book; that fact alone made the short stories seem really tacked on.

But what do you think about this? How would you package novellas to help boost their presence in the marketplace? Can you think of any novellas which benefited or were harmed by how they were packaged? Let me know in the comments, and as always, thank you for reading!

Seeing the Beating Heart: Adapting Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” for Film

As as adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, The Tell-Tale Heart (dir. Jules Dassin, 1941) strays a fair bit from its source material’s plot, mostly in terms of resolving ambiguities. Notably, whereas Poe’s story (which you can read here) leaves both the narrator’s motive and his relationship to the old man ambiguous, Dassin’s short film casts the protagonist (played by Joseph Schildkraut) as a decades-long victim of abuse who is suddenly driven to kill his alleged caretaker (Roman Bohnen). And I will say up front that I believe that additional information ultimately weakens Dassin’s The Tell-Tale Heart as a work. The uncertainty that surrounds the narrator’s account of the crime, so central to the original story, is lost in the process and replaced with a fairly mundane tale of revenge.

However, while the short film is not the best translation of Poe’s plot, I think Dassin and his crew capture something far more important about the source material. They find ways to bring the narrator’s mental state to the screen.

Before we can talk about how the filmmakers accomplish that task, we need to talk about Poe’s story. The opening lines of “The Tell-Tale Heart” give the reader an immediate sense of how the narrator perceives the events he’s lived through. And when I say “perceive,” I mean that in a literal sense, for the narrator is keenly aware of his senses:

True! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses  –not destroyed –not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad?

For those of you who have read the story, you know why that fine sense of hearing is significant: the narrator would have gotten away with the old man’s murder if he hadn’t heard the sound of the old man’s beating heart beneath the floorboards. That heartbeat from beyond the grave is almost certainly a manifestation of the narrator’s guilty conscience, but what makes the narrator’s breakdown palpable is the possibility that what he’s hearing is real. And if there’s one type of sensation which language is best able to convey to the reader, it’s sound.

“The Tell-Tale Heart” is remarkably vague on the visual aspects of the story, with the old man’s eye (“the eye of a vulture –a pale blue eye, with a film over it”) being the one standout detail. The rest of the story’s world is sketchy, with some floorboards here, a bathtub there, but nothing too evocative. By contrast, the story’s soundscape is incredibly vivid. The beating heart is likened to “such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton” (incessant, but muffled), while the old man tries to pass off the creaking in his room as “the wind in the chimney,” “a mouse crossing the floor,” and “a cricket which has made a single chirp.” There’s nothing vague about this material; Poe’s imagery is detailed and specific.

Still, all the above devices work on the level of labeling, rather than evoking. Intellectually, I can understand what a muffled watch or a scurrying mouse sounds like, but the phrases used to describe them don’t necessarily make one feel those sounds. No, Poe achieves that feat through the rhythm of his prose and the repetition of words and phrases. Much of the story relies on short, staccato sentences and parallel syntax, which suggest the regular beat of the human heart. The block quote above provides some obvious examples: “very, very dreadfully,” “not destroyed…not dulled…,” “I heard…I heard…,” etc. But this dark music works in more subtle ways, too. Consider the start of the third paragraph. The short, even sentences are readily apparent, but note the driving meter as well: “Now this is the point. You fancy me madMadmen know nothing. But you should have seen me.” Read aloud, this stretch of two-beat sentences is, well, maddening. Imagine, then, what reciting the whole story must feel like.

That ceaseless rhythm is, I think, central to feeling the narrator’s mental state, and not merely to understanding it. Just as the narrator becomes fixated on the beating heart, on his guilty conscience, so the reader becomes fixated on the beating heart of the prose. More than the murderous act or the narrator’s madness, that is the true horror of “The Tell-Tale Heart.” So how do the filmmakers preserve that rhythm through the adaptation process?

Let’s get the obvious techniques out of the way. The sound mix emphasizes such auditory elements as the old man’s footsteps and the ticking clock, sounds which are short and regular. They of course prefigure the beating heart which will take prominence after the murder. Also, the film’s score tends to highlight the percussion instruments and uses short, repeating phrases to underline the tension during the police interrogation scene. These are approaches I expected to see (hear?) coming into the film, and they’re also the ones I’m least interested in.

No, film is a visual medium, and I wanted to see, actually see, the story’s rhythm rendered in visual terms, whether through acting, editing, set design, or what have you. I’m not going to say it’s easy, mind, but it’s what I was looking for.

From the film’s opening shot, I knew they’d nailed it.

TTH1941-Loom

We first see our protagonist working at a weaver’s loom, mechanically moving and adjusting the various parts, the shuttle and the batten, back and forth as the camera slowly zooms in on him. That particular prop on its own would be enough to start with, but the protagonist’s relationship to the device finishes the job. He’s focused on his task, almost emotionless, until the camera reaches that all-important instrument: his ear. In a single shot lasting about 25 seconds, the filmmakers key the viewer into the physical rhythms of the picture, telling them to “listen” for those patterns.

As the film progresses, we see similar visual rhythms, such the robotic process by which the protagonist oils the hinges on the old man’s bedroom door, or in a scene borrowed from the source material, the way he drags the chair back and forth over the floorboards concealing the old man’s corpse. It’s so pervasive a technique that when the filmmakers break from the pattern, the effect is unsettling. There’s a sequence in which the protagonist, while speaking to the police, hears that tell-tale beating sound. He looks around the room and finds that the clock’s pendulum is motionless and the faucet is no longer dripping. In that moment, he knows every mundane explanation for the sound—every proverbial mouse, cricket, and chimney gust—is untenable. We the audience see the instant where his conscience becomes too much to bear. That, right there, is solid film-craft.

So, if you’re looking to watch some Poe adaptations this Halloween, give this one a chance in between your Vincent Price and Bela Lugosi vehicles. Like the best adaptations of his work, while it plays loose with some plot elements, it captures the experience of reading the story exceptionally well.

Also, it’s only 20 minutes long. You have time to watch it this month, trust me.

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Thank you for reading! If you’re in the mood for some more unsettling cinema, a while ago I dedicated a post on this blog to celebrating the “inspired unpleasantness” of Fritz Lang’s 1931 film M. Or, if you’d prefer something (marginally) lighter, here’s a short reflection on why I find murder mysteries relaxing. Happy Halloween!

“The Sin of the Apple”: Writing from the POV of an Object

I’ve long been fond of Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman’s compendium of writing advice, How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them—A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide (Harper Perennial, 2009). It’s a rather self-explanatory concept: these are the problems that plague countless unpublishable manuscripts, so do your best to avoid them. It’s also hilarious, both in terms of the bad writing samples and the authors’ commentary.

Now, categorical rules for good writing are rare indeed, and while their advice holds true in the vast majority of circumstances, Mittelmark and Newman don’t claim that their list is authoritative. To quote from their introduction: “We do not propose any rules; we offer observations. ‘No right on red’ is a rule. ‘Driving at high speed toward a brick wall usually ends badly’ is an observation.”

Even the least promising creative devices can be put to good use, however high the degree of difficulty. Case in point: making the narrator an inanimate object.

In their chapter on POV, Mittelmark and Newman write a short paragraph on the subject, with the wonderful title of “King Lear from the Point of View of the Throne”:

Writing from the point of view of a spoon, the world’s smallest mosquito, or Nero’s fiddle is generally inadvisable. The author is immediately faced with the task of accounting for the spoon’s ability to type, interest in human affairs, etc. (Unless it is a literary novel, where such things pass without comment.) Writing such a book is very difficult, and such strained gimmicks generally backfire. So unless you have an inner passion that drives you, willy-nilly, to sing the secret life of the toaster, it’s better to look to the toaster’s owner for you protagonist.

The whole “how can a spoon type?” question strikes me as overly literal-minded, but the point stands. “Strained gimmick” is a good phrase here. When I’ve gotten such stories from students (and I have), the inanimate POV is usually treated as some big twist. They’ll write a fairly mundane scene, and then at the end suggest that a spoon or whatever is narrating. It’s a twist on par with “The narrator was dead the whole time,” or “It was all a dream,” in that it doesn’t really add anything to the piece. We don’t learn what it means to be a spoon or a literal fly on the wall. It’s just a swerve for the sake of swerving.

So here’s a question: how do we break this rule successfully? Is there an example of a story written from an inanimate object’s point of view that benefits from that perspective? Well, I think I’ve found one: Luisa Valenzuela’s “The Sin of the Apple.”

Collected in Clara: Thirteen Short Stories and a Novel (trans. Hortense Carpentier and J. Jorge Castello, pub. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976), “The Sin of the Apple” is a very short story, just 256 words long. It’s more of a monologue than anything else, which the apple directs at those whose look upon it, up until it falls, ripe and ready to be eaten.

So what does this story piece do right? For one thing, Valenzuela gives the apple clearly-defined traits. That is, she treats the POV-object as a character, not merely as a narrator. Consider the first few sentences: “They scrutinize me with eyes of hunger, those abominable gluttons. I’m beyond your reach, gentlemen, and I don’t intend to budge” (all quotes from p. 77). We can see that the apple is resolute, is perhaps a bit haughty, and has a negative opinion of those who’d seek to eat it. And the direct address, “gentlemen,” grounds the text in a specific situation. No generalities here; someone wants to eat the apple now.

Compare the above to a hypothetical rewriting: “The men below look hungry, but they have a hard time reaching me.” This conveys the same literal scene as Valenzuela’s text, but the apple’s character has vanished. It now relates events without comment, which is not quite as interesting for a protagonist. It also makes the text sound more like a riddle than story, playing it too coy with the identity of the narrator (if the title hadn’t given it away, that is).

Once she has established the apple’s attitude and personality, Valenzuela starts expanding on the apple’s status as an apple. Not for nothing does that narrator refer to itself as “the historical fruit”:

Remember: I’m a descendant, as you know, of Paris’s apple, of William Tell’s, of those of the Hesperides. I’m even related, in a direct line, to the scientific apple of Newton, the apple that has done so much for the human race. I’m a descendant . . .

These references serve two purposes. Firstly, they reinforce and even explain the apple’s self-regard. If the apple’s ancestors are so illustrious, able to start wars and inspire scientists, why shouldn’t the apple be proud? Secondly, they force the reader to consider the role of the apple in human society. It’s an object we normally take for granted, yet it figures into so much of our collective culture. Remember how I said that many stories from the POV of an object don’t really benefit from that perspective? This one does, because it takes the time to explain why it matters.

Of course, there’s one hugely important cultural association the apple has neglected to mention so far: Adam and Eve. (Yes, yes, the fruit they would have eaten was likely not an apple, but the association remains.) It’s a telling detail to forget: humanity is brought low in that story, and the apple is riding high on its ego. So it’s only fitting that, at this precise moment, the serpent appears to remind the narrator “of the frailty of [its] species, the great shame of the apple.”

This shame, we quickly see, has a profound effect on the apple: “I feel the shame mounting through the stem, it makes me hot, I feel myself blush. Oh, how red I am!” In literal terms, the apple is ripening, but in terms of the apple’s character, it’s the completion of an arc. The apple’s pride has proven fragile, and a fall, both literal and metaphorical, is sure to follow. Valenzuela has not simply compared ripening to blushing; she has made that comparison emotionally credible.

Then—and I must admit, this is the one decision in the piece that I’m not sure is successful—the POV shifts from the now-fallen apple to a third-person narrator focused on the men who had been eyeing it. We see one of the men bite into the apple, and then justify himself: “‘It’s only natural, it was ripe and it fell.'”

I see the emphasis on the word “natural,” which also appears earlier in the paragraph, as a crucial element here. It casts the apple’s monologue as something like an etiological fable, that is, a fable explaining why something is the way it is. In this case, apples turn red when they’re ripe because they’re ashamed of their role in the fall of man. An interesting fable, yes, but not as interesting as the character study. If nothing else, shifting the POV in a piece this short is bound to be disorienting, no matter how well-executed.

Still, we can learn a lot from following Valenzuela’s example. A POV-object should not be a cipher, a mere lens. It will have similar needs to a POV-person: a defined character, an emotional arc, etc. Crafting those traits and arcs and such requires some serious forethought and reflection, but such is the case for any piece of writing.

Also, and perhaps this is a personal preference, but this sort of piece should probably be kept short. There’s an inherent absurdity in an inanimate object telling a story, Valenzuela’s piece not excepted. At a certain point, the narrative will be ludicrous as more and more human-like qualities are given to the POV-object. This is obviously bad news for a serious-minded piece. And as for a humorous piece, well, comedy is like poetry: an art of concision.

I think I’ll leave you with a little writing exercise to go along with the discussion:

As mentioned above, Mittelmark and Newman call this particular device “King Lear from the Point of View of the Throne”. Try writing a short piece, say 250 words, which is precisely that: a story narrated by King Lear’s throne. (If you haven’t read King Lear, then 1) what are you waiting for? Read it! and 2) in the meantime, pick another royal story and try that.)

Think about how Valenzuela approaches the apple, giving it character and drawing on the associations it has for us, and apply that thought process to the throne. You also have a key piece of information to play with: this throne has a particular occupant. What’s that relationship like? How does it affect the narrator, if at all?