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Houses Borders Ghosts

A while back, I wrote a piece on The Fiction Desk about the kinds of books that I thought made ideal fodder for book blogs. Something that struck me then, and has become more important to me since, is the length of books.

While there’s no point in talking about some kind of ideal length for fiction (Q. How long should a book be? A. Exactly as long as it takes), I do wonder whether novellas hold a certain appeal specifically for book bloggers.

The Cover of Rhyming Life and DeathDespite their increasing importance to the industry, bloggers don’t (or rarely) get paid, and so the time they can dedicate to their book coverage is limited by work and family commitments. On top of this, it’s important to keep blogs going with fresh new content, and if your content is book reviews, those hours can really add up. Novellas may be the perfect format: often as substantial as longer novels, more “newsworthy” than short stories as they’re standalone products, but still short enough to fit into a blogger’s schedule.

Looking around the blogs I frequent, I’m seeing a lot of coverage of shorter books: John Self over at The Asylum has been covering Melville House titles, as has Trevor at The Mookse and The Gripes, whose recent coverage has also included Aharon Appelfeld’s 144 page Badenheim 1939 and the 103 pager The Invention of Morel from Adolfo Bioy Cesares. His Futile Preoccupations, a new blog to me, recently posted about Madame de, a novella by Louise de Vilmorin. These are all classics (and all very well reviewed by the bloggers in question), but I wonder whether it shows a more general enthusiasm among bloggers for shorter books, which publishers of new titles might be able to take advantage of.

The Cover of Rhyming Life and DeathFrom my own experience, I know that I’m far more likely to read (and therefore cover) a shorter book. Sometimes this means going through the stack by the bed and pulling out something I have time for; other times, like my review of Sum, I’ll deliberately seek out a title I know won’t take me a week to get through. For my personal reading (I only cover new books on the site), if I’ve got a free afternoon, I’ll often pick up a title I know I can get through in one sitting, just for the luxurious pleasure of sitting down and reading something cover to cover.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that blogs are a more interactive medium than traditional press. A while back, the aforementioned John Self picked up and championed Colony by Hugo Wilcken, talking about it on Twitter and on his blog. Other people picked up the book and joined in the conversation, reviewing it themselves. (I tried, but couldn’t quite get into it.) John’s “WilckenWatch” was a nice example of word of mouth. Colony is around 350 pages, and I wonder whether there would have been as much response for a 650 page novel, and whether there would have been more for a 100 pager.

I’d never argue that the novella format (or any format) is better than any other, but I’m wondering more and more whether it might not be particularly well suited to the blogs; enough that perhaps the novella might grow to be seen as a more marketable format in future.

22 Comments on “Are book blogs and novellas made for each other?”

  1. Chris@bookarama Says:

    I think you have a point. I’ll look for a shorter book to read after I’ve read a monster-sized one. Large books take a lot of time to read. It sometimes feels like I haven’t reviewed anything in ages.

    I have Sum to read as well. Just have to get to it.

  2. kimbofo Says:

    That’s an interesting point. But perhaps it may be something to do with the look / feel of novellas, which always seem so attractively packaged, which is why book bloggers tend to go for them?

    I’ve reviewed quite a few novellas myself in recent times, including a couple of those lovely Penguin Great Loves Series. I bought the boxed set at a knock-down price.

  3. Guy Savage Says:

    I wasn’t influenced by the length of the novella–it’s more a matter of being fascinated by the book-film link. I just got my hands on The Earrings of Madame de, you see, from director Max Ophuls. I intended to watch the film first and then read the book, but I read page one and couldn’t stop.

    I’m also slowly reading my way through Zola’s 20-volume Rougon-Macquart series, and Germinal was heavy going. It’s more a matter of reading what I fancy rather than reading something to facilitate posting frequency. I don’t worry about frequency that much. I mean, it would be nice to knock off a book a day but there are other things (damn it) like work and sleep.

  4. Rob Says:

    Chris: Alternating is a good approach. I always mean to build up a backlog of reviews that I can run while I’m tackling a monster, but I never seem to manage it.

    Kim: You’re right, novellas do often get lovely packaging. Publishers deliberately adding value to make up for any perceived lack of value in the reduced page count?

    Guy: It’s been a pleasure discovering your blogs. Good luck with the Rougon-Macquart. I’ve not read any of them myself, but did once go on a tour of Paris loosely themed around Le Ventre de Paris.

  5. Guy Savage Says:

    Rob: I just wanted to add that in my case, it’s not really a case of needing to have something to review/blog about–it’s more a case of finding time to write about what I’ve read. On my desk at the moment, I have a stack of books I’ve yet to write about.

    As for Zola, well I just finished number 14, The Masterpiece, so I’ll be blogging about that one sometime in the next few weeks.

    A tour loosely themed around The Belly of Paris? Sounds like great fun and guaranteed to give the participants indigestion.

    And I agree about the lovely packaging of novellas. Pushkin Press is a great example of that.

  6. Rob Says:

    Guy: I wish I was that well organised!

    This is the tour I went on. No indigestion, but not for want of trying. I came home loaded with goodies, and was introduced to some nice little food shops I still visit whenever I’m there.

    You’re right about Pushkin Press. I’ve got a couple of theirs – strangely, both bought in Paris.

  7. Trevor Says:

    It’s true that sometimes I’ll pick a shorter book to read just because I know my time will be crunched and I’d like to get a review up. That said, it’s also true that I often personally feel like I’m getting more bang for my buck with these novellas — I can tie myself to a long book that over time pays off, or I can choose a short power-packed book. I think the latter has affected my reading schedule more in recent times.

    Very interesting post, with lots to think about!

  8. Fiction Writers Review » Blog Archive » book blogs heart novellas Says:

    […] at The Fiction Desk, Rob explores why novellas might be ideal subjects for book bloggers; might this, in turn, inspire more novella-writing? Despite their increasing importance to the […]

  9. Petulia Says:

    Could it be that novellas work so well with blogs because they reflect the short attention span we are now moving towards? Since the internet, blogs and twitter have become a big part of daily life we may have difficulties focusing on longer books?

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    While I think there is a lot of validity to your thoughts about the length of novellas and blogging, I do think there is another factor that comes into play as well. The interactive nature of bloggers with their visitors has increased the importance of two things — backlists and translations (in both cases, novellas are an often overlooked resource). Blog exchanges have brought more of both to light — the whole process starts to produce more momentum. I’m not a major reader of works in translation but I can say that bloggers like Stewart at booklit, John Self at the Asylum and Trevor at theMookse and the Gripes — all of whom pay more attention to the genre than I do —
    have led to me reading many more translated works. Just as some readers are discovering that perhaps you can start Henry James or Edith Wharton with a very good novella, rather than committing to a lengthy, complex novel. Before the book blogging world existed, there wasn’t really a source to point to these novellas.

  11. Guy Savage Says:

    Thanks for the link Rob. Sounds as though it was a worthwhile tour.

  12. Trevor Says:

    I think Kevin has an excellent point. I’m not inclined to agree fully with Petulia; after all, novellas were more common a century ago than they are now. I think many of us, through the blogging network, have rediscovered the wonder of the novella. That isn’t to say it’s taking over. From my own experience, I read Moby-Dick this summer, and finished a novel today. To me, it’s that I never knew there were so many wonderful novellas out there.

  13. Stewart Says:

    With novellas, at least in current times, there just don’t seem to be many writers turning them out. This is because publishers seem not to publish them, so would a writer become published if he wrote a good novella? If not, why bother? To the public there’s probably some big stigma about them – price to page equivalent, no doubt [and, I admit, I did balk at £7.99 for a 63 page Marquez once] – and so publishers don’t bother.

    In non-English publishing it seems so much different. If it’s good it will probably be published and, with the English novella having seen better days, there’s a whole world history of novellas to be translated out there and it no doubt serves smaller publishers – Pushkin, Archipelago, Dalkey Archive, New Directions, Melville House, Peter Owen – well to tap into this wealth if no others are.

    As far as shorter books go, they are my preference. Yes, my blog seems to be in a state of aestivation right now, but things are starting to fall back into place and I hope to be blogging a bit more about shorter books in future, and a few biggies for which I need to build up the stamina. The biggest thing that hit my reading was an office move, effectively seeing a commute cut from about four hours, there and back, to just over an hour.

    I don’t know how he does it, but M.A. Orthother at the Complete Review has (mostly himself, I believe) amassed over 2,000 reviews of books. I suspect a great deal of them are novellas. So, yes, blogs and novellas good. But bigger books need coverage too, and if bloggers want to champion them, then champion them they must.

  14. Daily Bookshot: Fit-in-the-hand Perfect! | RobAroundBooks Says:

    […] while we’re on the subject of novellas, I’d like to encourage you to read my namesake’s recently posted article over at The Fiction Desk. In his nicely written piece, Rob ruminates on the novella as a form, and […]

  15. Kerry Says:

    A very interesting post and interesting responses. I definitely make the occasional book selection based on length. Like you, Rob, I always mean to build up a backlog of posts, but it is not easy.

    I think Kevin hit on the most important aspect, from my perspective. I really prefer to try a new-to-me author’s novella (or shortish novel) rather than their 600 page masterpiece. If the author and I don’t get on, I don’t have to slog through several hundred pages. Besides, I will have a better feel for the author when I do tackle the monster.

    I also have this vague idea that most authors don’t have 600 pages worth of quality prose and insight to offer. When page counts creep up, I start to wonder if the author was a bit self-indulgent. It is very often not true, but exceptions force me to retain the suspicion.

  16. Grist for the Mill/Water under the Bridge – #1 « Sarah’s Books Says:

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  17. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Interesting, I have a fondness for novellas myself (and indeed translated works), but it’s not a blog content issue. It’s more that I think it’s an underrated form.

    To be honest, generally I’ve become a bit intolerant of bloat in books, having read now a few Pushkins and having seen quite what can be achieved in a small space, I get a bit less keen on reading some 500 page plus opus which probably achieves less.

    If I have read a lengthier work, I’ll usually want to read something short to refresh my palate, that too probably has an impact.

    The points on interactivity are good ones, I’m going to pick up Madame de which I read about on Guy’s blog, and John got me interested in the Pushkin’s and I’ve now read a few of those (different to the ones he has mostly, ironically enough), so that feedback cycle has an effect too.

    But really, I just think it’s an interesting form, and I’m getting exposed to more of them. It’s certainly not an attention issue, a well written novella can demand more attention than a long novel, not less. The need for attention is not measured in page counts.

  18. Tony S Says:

    There are a lot of things to discuss in literature rather than having a full-scale review every time. There may be a tendency to read shorter books to get new blog posts quicker, but sometimes the non-review blog entries are more fun than the reviews. Take your entry here for example.

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  22. Tiffany Fulton Says:

    I agree with you. Novellas are easier to swallow these days…I have even written two novellas myself and I’m working on a trilogy of novellas. I don’t even know of any book bloggers who will review them…I don’t know why they wouldn’t–they are shorter and great time-savers.

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