The Long and Short of It, Session 3: Significant Ideas in Slender Volumes

On Monday 18 March 2024, in the third instalment of the MK Lit Fest series The Long and Short of It, acclaimed writer Emily Bullock was in conversation with OU Associate Lecturer and PhD student Sarah Bower discussing the novella, sometimes dubbed literature’s ‘awkward middle child’.

Headshot of a middle-aged female with mid-length brown hair, small rectangular framed glasses and a black polka dot blouse.

Emily Bullock

A headshot of a woman with short grey hair, wearing a denim jacket and a white and pastel-pink scarf.

Sarah Bower








The novella is for some a bit of a puzzle; too long to be a short story and too short to be a novel. For many mainstream publishers it is a headache to be avoided. For some readers the novella represents poor value for money, for others, it is the most perfect literary form. Although shorter than novel in terms of word count, a novella is not necessarily easier to write, and to write well requires the intense control and refinement perhaps more often associated with poetry.

Interviewing Emily Bullock about her forthcoming publication For Always Only and the form of the novella, Sarah Bower (herself the author of a novella) asked questions that got right to the heart of the matter.

For Always and Only is about the process of reading James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, or at least it is partly about that because a novella is no one-trick pony and is never only about just one thing. There is a degree of irony, noted Bower, in using Joyce’s sprawling and notoriously difficult work as the organising principle for a short, tightly controlled novella. To explain how this works, Bullock gave an account of her own process of reading Joyce, not entirely for meaning, but as a kind of readerly ‘beach combing’, and how she makes Finnegan’s Wake her own by frequently interrupting Joyce with her own lines of thought. Roland Barthes also remarked on this aspect of reading in The Rustle of Language:

Has it never happened, as you were reading a book, that you kept stopping as you read, not because you weren’t interested, but because you were: because of a flow of ideas, stimuli, associations? In a word, haven’t you ever happened to read while looking up from your book? (1986, p29).

In the light of these descriptive accounts of reading and reading while looking up, the connection with Joyce begins to make perfect sense as the backbone of writing that is very much ‘about’ reading.

The process of writing this novella was notable for the amount of cutting Bullock found she was willing to do, such as cutting out her character’s backstory, cutting flashbacks, stripping back description, and ending chapters abruptly. All this cutting, she explained, leaves the remaining gaps to do more work and leaves space for the reader who must invest in the reading process. The reader needs to be particularly alert to what is not on the page. Writers often talk about the balance between showing and telling, but in the case of the novella, according to Bullock, what the writer is not showing and not telling become highly significant.

Bullock’s forthcoming novella is set in a claustrophobic bedsit in Bloomsbury, a location that gives a wry nod to Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’ and which is also perfectly sized to provide a counterpoint to Joyce’s Dublin. And yet, the setting offers a similar intensity to Dublin but, of course, achieved in far fewer words. In the reading Bullock gave, her use of lists of items economically created a whole world whilst leaving scope within the tight frame of narrative to express bigger ideas.

In answer to Bower’s question about how a writer might know that the novella is the literary form that would best serve the story they want to tell, Bullock explained that whilst a short story is very often the synthesis of two ideas, and a novel gives ample room for complexities of character chronology, and worldbuilding, stories that are of an experimental nature, stories with strong ideas and those requiring considerable reader engagement might find their ideal form in the pithy perfection of the novella.

In a lively Q&A session Bullock fielded questions on For Always Only (to be published later this year by Reflex Press) and on the form of novella more generally. Enthusiastic audience involvement would suggest that despite the lacklustre support from mainstream publishers, there is an enduring appetite for the intriguing form of novella, and many of the questions and comments raised could have kept us all talking long into the night.

Banner of The Long and Short of It: The Novella. Featuring a black and white headshot of Emily Bullock, wearing small rectangular framed glasses and a black t-shirt. It also features her book cover - Human Terrain.

The series will conclude with the novel form on Monday 25 March.

A middle aged woman with curly auburn hair stands in front of the tree and looks thoughtfully into the middle distance.

Gwyneth Jones

Gwyneth Jones is a writer of short and flash fictions under the pen name Jupiter Jones, and her work has been widely anthologised. She is currently a PhD candidate at the Open University researching (dis)connectivity in the literary hybrid form of the novella-in-flash. Her supervisors are Dr Jane Yeh and Dr Emma Claire Sweeney.

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