Friday, November 25, 2011

Do be do be do and why it's not always about length

Today I shall grump a bit about the peculiar problems of length in stories, and where they lead, and see if I can straighten you all out, or provoke you into writing me notes to straighten me out.

Fiction simulates reality in part by  balancing doing against being, the question of "and then what happened?" pulling the reader forward while the question "and what was it like?" makes it real enough to be worth thinking about. 

Stories are written to be read sequentially (although in a bit of my marketing research I discovered that surprising numbers of people don't read stories sequentially; my public piece about that was in the late, lamented-and-or-gloated-over-by-dozens-worldwide HelixSF, now available in a much revised version).  To keep the reader reading sequentially, there needs to be a promise/threat of something interesting that will happen soon but not now; for the promise or threat to be something that happens, someone has to do something, but for it to be interesting, someone has to be something. 

The missing person must turn up (dead or alive) but for us to care, the person looking needs to be (for example) a tough type with a soft heart, or physically weak but immensely brave, or something.  The laboratory-created monster must turn on its tormentor (next chapter) but for it to be interesting, the monster or the tormentor have to be something more than caricatures.  Without any "do" there's no reason to turn the page and without any "be" there's no reason to care, and if either is missing, the book ends up on the toilet tank as a progressively ignored ghost of an experience.

That do/be balance is trickiest at intermediate lengths, I think, and simplest at long and short.

If the story is much shorter than about 3000 words, the balance will probably collapse between being and doing completely, tipping over into pure doing so that the story will end up as a short-short (i.e. all plot and hardly any people, as in many terrific stories by Roald Dahl, Saki, or Frederic Brown) or into pure being, becoming a vignette (now called flash fiction by people who think fiction was invented in an internet workshop somewhere) like "A Clean Well-Lighted Place" or John Updike's "A&P."

Up above three thousand words or so, a short story is a kind of a plotted prose-poem – that thing Edgar Allen Poe called the single effect to be achieved at one sitting  -- and is the shortest form in which that do/be balance can easily have something substantial on both sides of the scale. Very often that single effect is a shock of recognition, and because there's not much space to depict shifts and changes in them, characters are much more usually do-ers than be-ers, but at that length, reader interest usually requires a fair bit of being, as well as doing, even if only a small number of characters get to really be and only one action gets really done.

Now, officially, on awards ballots and that sort of thing, a short story is a story less than 7500 words (some awards also say longer than 2000 or 2500) and that's about the least productive definition possible. (Actually, I can think of an even less productive definition: since the English language is about 12.7% the letter e, and printer's words are defined as 6 characters, 7500 words X 6 characters X 12.7%=5715.  "A short story in English is a story in which the letter e occurs no more than 5715  times."  There.  Feel free to send suggestions about even less productive definitions)  What should define the short story is "one big do and one big be" at a length you can consume at one sitting (which depends, I suppose, on your reading speed and butt strength).  A short story does not become something else when the writer cuts five words out of 2502,  or adds a six word character description to a 7497 word story, except for awards purposes.

At the opposite pole, a novel, whether it's a tight little French zoom-wham, or a great whacking Russian landscape,  is to some extent about what it is like to live through a given time as a given person; it's about being, whether it wants to be or not, because you're going to spend a while there.  But since hardly anybody wants to "just be" on each page, separate from all other pages,  250 or so separate times over and over, the "and then what" and "what did he do then" and "what did she find out" things come into play, and there has to be at least some doing; otherwise it might as well be a book of quotations, or a series of 250 vignettes and short-shorts about 250 different people with the same name.  (Note to new writers: don't do that.  Just don't.  As I say to children who are about to do something insanely dangerous with a  cry of "Watch this!", I will believe that you can without your showing me.).

And in between there are the other lengths, and those are where that do/be problem really gets interesting.

Novelettes, in the 19th century popular press where the word was popularized, were originally "good parts versions" of adventure stories – all the action scenes (action broadly defined – not just explosions and fights, but also kisses, quarrels, revelations, oaths, all that other stuff that is memorable in a book) with just enough narrative summary between so that the reader could follow the story – lots of do and minimal be.  You could call them self-abridgements of never-finished novels, and because they were a way to present blood and thunder in a small package, oriented as much toward pure entertainment as any form ever has been, a stain of disreputability used to cling to the term. Nowadays novelette is the magazine-publishing term for short stories with a little more description and one or two secondary plots. 

So the purposes of a novelette are either to enrich a short story with some secondary plot or added scenes, or, harking back to its origin, to deliver high adventure at high speed.  Either way it's a very "do" form: the do-do-do (and a bit of extra be for balance) is what makes it a novelette.

Then a few decades ago the pulp magazines found it convenient to sort stories by length, for reader convenience and to enable a quick rough cast-off (estimate of the number of pages of copy needed for an issue).  In the full-size pulps (7 x 10 x 1/2") of the 1920-40 era, there were about 625 words to a page after ads and illos were taken into account, so a short story was 4-12 pages, or up to 1/10 of  a standard 128 page issue.  A novelette was between a tenth and a quarter of an issue, and novellas ranged from a quarter to about half an issue. 

You will note that the last full sized pulps expired the year I was born, so you may ask what their space constraints ought to have to do with our literary culture today.  

There was a flurry of awards-founding in the early 1950s, and the  awards ballots slightly adjusted  arbitary length divisions by basing them on word counts, but that's where they came from and mostly that's where they remain.

I would hope it is obvious that some novelettes manage to do novelette things in less than 7500 words, and some might take more than 17,500, perhaps as much as 30,000 words to achieve a novelette-ish purpose.  Nowadays, thanks to the emphasis on word count, there are actually otherwise sober, normal-seeming writers who will take out or add 200 words so as to be on the right side of 17,500 words, depending on whether they think novelettes or novellas are "more in demand" or "hotter" or "more award-noticed" this year.  (That maneuver reminds me of nothing so much as the legendary farmer who discovered, on a resurvey, that his farmhouse was actually in North Dakota by a hundred feet for so, and declared it was a blessing because he didn't think he could take many more Minnesota winters).

Novellas, on the other hand, were conceived as a kind of fusion between short stories and novels; their origin is much farther up the brow.  A flock of artsy-serious types in the 1880-1920 era thought short-story single powerful effects were great but wanted to do them with novel-like complexity.  It turned out you could do that, but it was pretty hard to sustain at the kind of length that you find in Dickens, Thackeray, or Trollope (even Dickens couldn't – A Christmas Carol  is a novella).

Novellas became a somewhat awkward form commercially (which only enhanced their prestige) because they made for a too-slim volume for book buyers (who wanted to make sure they were getting enough literature per expenditure) and too long a piece for most magazines (whose readers wanted variety, something harder to give them if you let one novella take up room that could be occupied by five to seven short stories.)  It's a heavy-on-the-be form in which a dense structure of meaning is laid onto a few interesting incidentes (sometimes only one).  Think of how much The Secret Sharer, Beyond Bedlam, or The Last of the Winnebagos revolve around what it's like to be standing there in the moment when a conventionally honest man makes a self-admitted killer his best friend and confidant, when several people who are by our definitions mad come to realize how much they prefer what we call madness to what we call sanity, or just to be the owner/keeper of one of the world's last dogs and to have to cope with its death.  Those novellas – fine ones all – explore how much being can be supported by a little bit of doing.

.Once again the pulp fiction magazines appropriated the literary term and made it a length, eventually codified in the awards ballots to 17,500-39,999 words.  When fiction magazines were a major source of  cheap mass entertainment, the label "novella" (or sometimes just "short novel") let readers know that this story might be reserved to be read in a long evening, a weekend afternoon, or across a couple of days' trolley rides or lunches. 

And once again, the focus on word count leads into silliness.  Realistically, for example, Conrad's The Duel or The Brute are far less than novella length, but they're novellas in intent and feel; on the other side, although The Last Unicorn, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, and Double Indemnity were published as novels, everything about them says novella.

A few thoughts that are not quite conclusions:

As what one out of circulation fanzine called "one of science fiction's two leading bridesmaids" (the other is Lisa Goldstein, and they were commenting on this sad distinction), I am probably less involved, or at least less profitably involved, in the awards process than anyone else.  But since it doesn't affect me – I can pretty clearly also-run at all lengths and themes – I have what might pass for objectivity, and it seems to me that in the fiction awards, the benefits of having an easily applied rule like length are outweighed by the drawbacks of forcing "The Elf-knight Rescues the Spunky Princess" to compete with "Certain Ruminations about Melville in a Lunar Colony."  The Oscars throw all purposes in together (though they break out short forms); the Grammies subdivide by subgenre; the Emmies and Tonys do a bit of both.  Might their example be worth thinking about?  Would you need impossibly complex juries to decide whether works were trying for noveletteish or novellaish purposes?  (And there are other possible purposes; what about works that attempt those?)

If you aspire to write well, you might consider where you want to be (or what you want to do) about the do/be spectrum; not so much in the rough draft, I think, as later on in revisions.  Want a short story?  Cut to the biggest do surrounded by the biggest be.  Novelet, lots of do with enough be for flavor.  Novella, lots of be with enough do so it's not dull.  Novel, plenty of both, well-mixed.  Or something like that.

I think lately I haven't read enough of the old kind of novelette, the self-condensed unwritten adventure novel.  In the same sense that I haven't had enough red wine, pie a la mode, or rambling late night conversations, lately, i.e. it's something that isn't good for you if it's exclusively what your life is about, but it's also something where if you never get it you're missing something.  Seems like it wouldn't be a hard thing to write, and for all I know dozens of good writers are doing it right now. I don't keep up enough. Is there a major contemporary master of the Old Novelette?  (Not the length, mind you.  The aspiration, regardless of the length).

I think many science fiction editors are too easily pleased with phony novellas, i.e. plot-thin stories in which there's vast amounts of reflection and description that are only ill-hooked to the few events.  One reason phony novellas occur in such profusion is that they are a lazy process for a smooth, craftsmanlike writer, they make an editor feel like s/he is purveying Art, and although readers complain due to the dull pointlessness, such readers can always be dismissed as Philistines. 

Many times when a reader complains of inconsistency, they're complaining about a sudden radical shift in the do/be ratio.  In real life people sometimes spend many ages just hanging out and talking and thinking, and then abruptly see more sudden drastic action than they will ever see again in their lives (that's kind of the point of many John Irving novels).  But in fiction a sudden shift from bang-bang-bang do-do-do to a tranquil flow of reflective be's throws many readers right out of the story.  That's part of what makes From Here To Eternity, The Great Gatsby, and Butterfield 8 the masterpieces they are;  they manage to do that and make it work.