Novella or long story? Richard Ford’s anthology, and Eudora Welty

The Granta Book of the American Long Story, ed. Richard Ford (paperback, Granta Books, 1999; first published 1998). Post 1

Why this unwieldy title? Ford’s introduction ‘Why not a novella?’ explains why he’s preferred the generic term ‘long story’. After discussing some of the genre conventions and theories in fiction (novel, novella, short story), he gives a historical account of the novella form, tracing it back to Boccaccio through to Goethe and later (Henry James, for example). He points out that novellas were particularly popular in Germany through the 19C, and they generated a great deal of earnest theoretical-generic analysis, much of it providing inconclusive or contradictory definitions of what exactly a novella was.

Granta Book of the American Long Story cover Ford canvassed fellow American writers to assess what they, as ‘practitioners’, believed a novella to be. No consensus emerged, but there was a great deal of disagreement when Ford compiled this anthology in 1998.

He finally opted to go with ‘long story’ as a ‘possibly less historically-infuriating and ultimately freeing expression’. His purpose was to ‘address readers and writers who relish long stories…free[ing] its audience to write and relish as suits its wishes, undistracted by offstage wranglings over nomenclature.’

Despite his best efforts to come up with a ‘spanking’ definition himself, he could ascertain nothing to ‘discern anything other than length to distinguish these stories as a uniform genre, or to distinguish them consistently from their seemingly better-defined narrative cousins’.

So that’s sorted that out.

The stories Ford selected for this anthology were all written between the end of WWII and the time when he was compiling it. They vary in length – which, as he’d argued, ‘is just another arbitrarily chosen attribute’. Some were called ‘novellas’ when first published, but he’s decided he just doesn’t know what that term means – and neither is there any agreement generally – so why not consign ‘a worn out literary term into retirement.’

His main criterion for selection was subjective: he chose stories that he considered ‘excellent’, but concedes that some readers will disagree with his choices (I’m one of those: more in a later post.)

American writers since the end of the war haven’t tended to write long stories compared with their output of novels and short stories; perhaps this is because of the exigencies of ‘magazine space and publishing economies’. Maybe that’s the reason ‘novellas’ proliferated: it was expedient for the outlets in which they were published, and the contemporary taste and reading habits of their intended audience.

I’ll finish with a note about the first story in the collection (pp. 1–70); I hope to post about some of the others later on:

Eudora Welty (1909-2001), June Recital (from the collection The Golden Apples, 1949)

 This is a strange, hallucinatory story set in the fictional Morgana, Mississippi, told initially from the point of view of Loch Morrison, a small boy of about ten, in bed with a fever. He spies, ‘Rear Window’ style, through his bedroom window, and later from a tree outside it, on the goings-on in the house next door.

It’s now unoccupied. Loch observes a young couple sneaking into the house and disappear upstairs – it’s obviously a place where they can have sex, but of course the boy is too young to realise this.

His big sister Cassie’s voice then takes over. Some years earlier she used to have piano lessons in the house; her teacher was an old woman called Miss Eckhart, the impoverished lodger there. She was very stern with her pupils, except for a flighty girl called Virgie – the same girl Loch saw sneaking into the house with her sailor boyfriend. Only Virgie could get away with challenging the teacher, because she had a genuine gift for music, and wasn’t frightened by her strictness. On the contrary, she bullied the old lady.

The story ends with a bizarre sequence of events (I don’t think it’s a spoiler to summarise them here). An old lady enters the former teacher’s room and starts setting fire to the dilapidated piano, still standing there, and to the rest of the room. It’s the room where Miss Eckhart used to host an annual June recital. Two neighbours spot the smoke, alert the house’s watchman, and confront the ‘fire bug’. The half-dressed lovers walk flagrantly out of the house while this altercation is going on, Virgie with a characteristic swagger.

In a poetic, elegiac coda, Loch reflects on these developments, and so does his sister. It’s a story full of steamy, sultry atmosphere, a sort of muted southern Gothic (Welty lived much of her life in Jackson, Mississippi). Miss Eckhart is sympathetically portrayed: a sad German emigrée, she longs to be accepted in the local community and to find love, but is always treated as a person with an alien, outsider’s culture. Her passion for music isn’t appreciated (or even wanted) – even the talented pianist Virgie is unimpressed by her, and treats her contemptuously and cruelly.

People like the spirited, rebellious Virgie and lonely, despised Miss Eckhart have no connection – with each other, or anyone else. They’re ‘deliberately terrible’:

…roaming on the face of the earth. And there were others of them – human beings, roaming, like lost beasts.




17 thoughts on “Novella or long story? Richard Ford’s anthology, and Eudora Welty

  1. I confess to liking the term novella.
    My definition is that it’s somewhere between 100-200 pages long, and it must include some character development otherwise I’m not interested…

    • I’m not as dismissive about the term as Ford, but think he has a point when it comes to trying to pin down definitions of genres. Writers (and other artists) are always pushing at the boundaries of genre, forcing theorists to adapt their definitions. Even a concept as basic as ‘stories/novels are works of fiction’ no longer applies fully to what’s now known as autofiction. Experimental novelists go even further in their generic innovations:no paragraphing, no punctuation, no beginning or end (Finnegans Wake?), no narrator, etc. etc. Definitions are handy, of course, as a starting point for response and analysis. But if ‘length’ is the only agreed criterion for a novella, then maybe ‘long story’ is more helpful. I’m posting on Roth’s ‘Goodbye, Columbus’ some time soon, which features later in the Ford anthology; it was labelled ‘novella’ when it was published in The Paris Review. But the term had different connotations when used in earlier centuries and other countries. It’s always good, however, to debate such matters – it’s surely a healthy thing to do. Ford is perhaps too contentiously casual in consigning ‘novella’ to retirement…

      • I love her writing. The sort of artist that can find the entire universe in the tiniest of small towns Her “antenna” was superhuman, her imagination gigantic. A bit like Emily Dickinson.

        Suspect that some of the observation from a bedroom may be autobiographical. I believe she had a spate of childhood illnesses. Thanks Simon!

  2. First off, I’m really not comfy with the use of long story – short story, novella and novel suit me just fine!! To my mind, getting close to 40-50 pages moves towards novella – over 100 or so close to novel. But whatever you want to call it, you should just write to the length you want to, to tell your story, and that’s enough!

    Anyway – this *does* sound like an intriguing collection. I’ve not read much (if any) Welty so I don’t know if this is typical. But I shall look forward to your comments on the rest of the book! 😀

    • Ford does make much the same point (tell the story at the length it needs to be). I was uncomfortable with some of the expressions Welty used that were prevalent in southern US states at the time she was writing but considered racist now.

  3. This sounds like a book that doesn’t contain too many items, then – or is it a very long book?! I think a novella has under 100 pages but then font size and white space … And aren’t Novellas in November under 200 pages?

    • Liz: there are 11 stories in the collection; 686 pp. So most are less than 100 pp. Maybe ‘long stories’ is the best term for them, not novellas (one or two, like Goodbye, Columbus) possibly qualify for that genre.

  4. This sounds like an interesting collection for anyone looking to sample some classic American writers from this era. (For instance, I’ve never read Welty and feel I ought to at some point.) Out of interest, which other writers are included? Capote? Carson McCullers? Joyce Carol Oates, perhaps?

    • I haven’t enjoyed every story I’ve read so far, and won’t post on those I disliked. I’ll give a full list in a future post.There are eleven stories in the collection. Ford says at the end of the introduction that he’s omitted some stories because they’re readily available elsewhere, like Hemingway and Bellow (a strange claim, since Goodbye, Columbus is included – hardly obscure), or because they’re ‘much admired, but not by me’. These included Breakfast at Tiffany’s (so no Capote) or Ballad of the Sad Café (no McCullers either).

  5. Very interesting post Simon. Like many of your commentators, I, too, prefer the term “novella” to “long story,” perhaps for no better reason than tradition! To prove the point that such terms are slippery, however, while LIsa Hill thinks of a novella as between 100 to 200 pages, for me the cutoff is somewhere around around 100 pages or so.
    One of the joys of contemporary fiction is to sample the ways in which writers have, as you put it, begun to push the boundaries of the traditional novel. In addition to examples you cite, such as autofiction, I’d add the loosely structured “novel” which is essentially a collection of short stories that have characters, places or themes in common (sorry, can’t think of an example right now!)
    I was interested in your comment that post-WWII American writers have opted for short stories and novels rather than novellas. I’ve noticed this myself and, like you, have speculated that this trend is due to publishing economics. I recall reading some time ago that novellas were almost impossible to get published these days; if this is accurate, it certainly proves your point.
    Finally, I come to dear Eudora! I’ve never quite taken to her work although admittedly I’ve only tried a story or two over the years. Perhaps it’s because her south isn’t mine (I grew up a hop, skip & jump away from Welty country). Faulkner, on the other hand — well, the universe is there so to speak! Flannery O’Connor is another fav. Welty . . . . maybe I should try her again!

    • The fact that your parameters for ‘novella’ differ from Lisa’s endorses Ford’s point that there’s no clear definition, other than a loose notion along the lines of ‘short novel’. The only Faulkner post I’ve done here was in the first year of this blog; I’ve read too little of him to compare with Welty, who I’m also ignorant of. Maybe time will tell. I’m reading another ‘long story’ set in Memphis – might post on it.

  6. I should probably remain silent regarding Welty, as I’ve read so little of her work. I’m a little better read with respect to Faulkner (6 or 7 novels and a few short stories). I suspect my Welty/Faulkner comparison might be akin to comparing apples with oranges; they’re both from Mississippi but . . . that’s probably about it, as far as similarity.
    I read Faulkner many years ago. I’m not sure how I’d react now to his work; his prose can be a bit over the top at times and, as you mentioned with Welty, certain terms and attitudes are no longer acceptable to contemporary sensibilities. Still, Faulkner’s language can be incredibly beautiful, his characters vivid and compelling and his historical and psychological insight unequaled if at times very uncomfortable. I can’t imagine I’d ever regard Absalom, Absalom as anything other than a masterpiece.
    I’ve been considering a Faulkner Project, due largely to reviews I’ve read of Michael Gorra’s The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War, a recent study of Faulkner and his work. (Gorra is also giving a series of zoom lectures for the Smithsonian; I may be able to catch the last two) Still, so many books to read, including most of Toni Morrison (who read Faulkner BTW) . . . .

    • I agree about Faulkner and his prose; the only novel of his I’ve read relatively recently is As I Lay Dying, the one I mentioned as the only one I’ve posted on here – it was brilliant. Interesting that both writers came from the same area but had very different literary styles – but why wouldn’t they, I suppose.

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