Tag Archives: Cheltenham Literary Festival

On Chesil Beach, McEwan and Novellas

At the recent Cheltenham Literary Festival, author Ian McEwan declared his support for the novella against the novel, a work of more or less 25.000 words. You can read a short piece reporting his words in this Telegraph article.

In 2007, McEwan’s On Chesil Beach was nominated for a Booker prize (even if it was quite short and more a novella than a novel, so in theory not eligible).

I’ve read On Chesil Beach. I would have happily thrown it against the wall, but my love for the printed paper didn’t let me. It wasn’t the book’s fault if the story made me want to growl and roar. McEwan’s prose is elegant, fluid, a pleasure. His characters well rounded and interesting. And yet, the story felt more like a treatise on the results of untreated flaws and trauma, with an outcome which was decided from the start.

Perhaps that’s where the writing talent is, in making you hope to the last page that things may be different, and making you believe it’s possible.

In any case, I hated On Chesil Beach with a passion, which I think it’s a very good result. The worst thing that can happen to a book is to leave you indifferent.

However, I completely agree with this statement by McEwan reported in the article mentioned above: brevity is good because

“you can hold the whole thing structurally in your mind at once.”

In an era where writers have to adhere to publishing houses’ requests in terms of word count (80.000 words for a novel, 120.000 for fantasy or sci fi, etc.), where the creative challenges of flashfiction attract more and more authors and where the short story seems to have found a more permanent place, McEwan’s statement points at something different.

The relationship between writer and reader and narrative, where the reader can partake of the narrative’s form as much as its content. Brevity is not just a creative challenge, but a chance for the writer to offer a text the reader can appreciate in its full potential.

Because most readers don’t have much time, to re-read a book several times until all the nuances and subtleties of the story are made clear. Some do, but there’s nothing wrong in considering other forms apart from the novel (in my opinion, not better, just different).

I personally believe in each story needing exactly the word count it needs, whether a novel, a novella, a short story or a drabble. Many classics in diverse genres, including the literary, published a long time ago, didn’t need a word count to find a place on the bookshelves.


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