Fiction at its finest

Weekly Roundup: Ian McEwan on why novellas are the perfect form and Edna O'Brien on the loneliness of writing

14 December 2012

Writing in The New Yorker recently Ian McEwan noted that “When a character in my recent book, Sweet Tooth, publishes his short first work of fiction, he finds some critics are suggesting that he has done something unmanly or dishonest. His experience reflects my own. A novella? Perhaps you don’t have the necessary creative juice. Isn’t the print rather large, aren’t the lines too widely spaced? Perhaps you’re trying to pass off inadequate goods and fool a trusting public.” As the author of the Man Booker-winning Amsterdam (short) and shortlisted On Chesil Beach (very short) he's having none of it: “I believe the novella is the perfect form of prose fiction. It is the beautiful daughter of a rambling, bloated, ill-shaven giant.” A bit harsh perhaps on less laconic authors.

This year's winner, Hilary Mantel, who once worked in a hospital for geriatrics, has been criticising the standard of care offered the elderly. They are treated like “brutes or malfunctioning machines”, she says, in places that are “excruciatingly expensive” or “utterly depressing”. It is a rousing indictment. One wonders what sort of old-age provision her hero Thomas Cromwell would have had had he made it to old age. Of course, he never found out, he was beheaded at 55.

In an interview in the Guardian the novelist Edna O'Brien, a judge on the then plain Booker Prize in 1973, added a new characteristic to those usually thought necessary to be a novelist (discipline, imagination, etc): loneliness. “You wouldn't go through the purgatory of writing unless you were a lonely person”, she said. So would-be novelists should save on the Christmas cards and start shedding friends instantly.

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