EDITORIAL David Lloyd and Gwen Davies

NWR Issue 116

The Long & Short of It

The novella is an inbetween form: shorter than a typical novel but longer than a typical short story – though there are no precise strictures on length. It can be as compact as Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich as or as expansive as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It can encompass a span of time, as with Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Carson McCullers’ The Ballad of the Sad Café. Or it can occur on a single evening, as with James Joyce’s The Dead. Because of this inbetween-ness, editors and publishers generally shun the novella. It’s too short for a standalone book, since the buying public likes to get their money’s worth. It’s too long for a story in a literary journal, since a hundred-page novella leaves no room for anything else. And yet the list of novellas that are works of genius is long, including (with the aforementioned) such well-known masterpieces as Robert Louis Stephenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.

As with the novel, there is no consensus regarding the origin of the novella. While some find the origins of both forms in the eighteenth century, it has been argued that the telling of short, novella-length, or long stories goes back to the origins of human language. The particular pleasure of the novella lies in its ability to provide a single, continuous experience – readers can absorb the narrative from beginning to end in one sitting, as with an average-length poem. This discipline means that there is usually a tight chronology, a small cast of characters and a focused narrative. So the reading experience will be intense and immediate, as anyone who has read Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis will attest.

David agreed to be co-judge, delighted to learn that writers of the novella were to be promoted through this contest, which would have an international dimension. The experience was bound to provide a survey of some of the finest novellas being written today. And indeed, our shortlist is dazzling in its variety. Our third placed novella, ‘The Night Where You No Longer Live’ (p32), brings readers into the world of dark fairytale, with strangely heightened and twisted language, and damaged characters who are simultaneously familiar and alien. Our second placed novella, ‘The Seal’ (p22), is closely focused on a mysterious and disturbing relationship between an eleven-year-old girl and a nineteen-year-old man in a down-in-the-mouth seaside resort on the coast of England. Other novellas on the list of highly commended entries are equally diverse. ‘Burning Poets’ by Atar Hadari (to be published in a forthcoming edition) fictionalises famous writers – Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, among others. ‘Exiles’, by Barbara de la Cuesta, unfolds personal and political dramas in South America. And ‘Infirmarian’ (p72) dramatises secretive goings-on in a Medieval Welsh monastery. From the prize’s longlist is Cardiff author João Morais’ ‘Smugglers’ Tunnel’ (p41), a timeslip about an exotic trinket, with a wide cast of characters and inhabiting a vividly formed, urban world of desperation and poverty. Also to be extracted in a future edition and again set in Cardiff is a fast-paced entry about control and incarceration, ‘Cruel Train’, by west Wales author Christine Harrison, whose short-story collection, Red Roses for a Blue Lady, was published this summer by Parthian and reviewed in Review 19. Another near-miss onto the longlist was New Yorker Cherish Smith’s young adult novella about black teenage pregnancy in 1930s rural America, ‘The Trees Won’t Tell’, which we published in Review 18.

And this brings us to the winning novella, ‘The Plankton Collector’ (p12), to be published as a book next year on the New Welsh Rarebyte imprint, different in form, voice, and narrative from the novellas previously described. Here is the citation:

‘Look,’ the narrator directs the reader at the start of this beautifully written novella. ‘We are approaching a country house, somewhere in the middle of England.’ And with this narrator’s guidance, we enter the house, and enter the lives of its inhabitants – who are ordinary and – it turns out – quite extraordinary. Through an assured combination of magical realism and traditional realism, this story tells of the mysterious Plankton Collector, whose intercessions help members of an apparently conventional family come to terms with debilitating traumas: infidelity, isolation, a closeted gay husband, the death of kin. It is a wise tale of vulnerability, healing, and love. Ultimately, memory and trauma work in tandem, and the power of imagination triumphs. The elegant and finely tuned prose made ‘The Plankton Collector’ rise to the top of our short-list.

What do all the novellas listed have in common besides their modest length? It’s difficult to say. A best attempt to describe the most compelling works in this contest is to apply Emily Dickinson’s definition of a poem: ‘If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off I know that’ is a great novella. Be blown away this edition.

David Lloyd was co-judge with Gwen Davies of the New Welsh Writing Awards 2017: AmeriCymru Prize for the Novella. This is an edited version of David’s adjudication, delivered in his absence by Gwen at the awards’ final ceremony at Hay this summer. David's latest short-story collection is The Moving of the Water, forthcoming with State University of New York. Gwen's latest translation from the Welsh is 'Against the Current', on page 48.

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