It seems that the novella is becoming popular at a pace concurrent with the exponential quickening of our culture. Merriam-Webster defines a novella as “a work of fiction intermediate in length and complexity between a short story and a novel.” For a society that is increasingly incapable of prolonged or focused attention, a novella provides the character development that may be absent in a short story at a more consumable length than the traditional novel.
Novelists of past centuries, on the other hand, were known to write long, intense, highly involved, and descriptive works that allowed a reader to truly enter another world -- to see and know every detail of their characters’ surroundings, landscapes, food, clothing, and innermost thoughts. Novels moved at a pace closer to real time, because in those days, only real time existed. Novellas can be lovely for a short read; but for a book to really get lost in, to savor over time knowing that one has plenty of pages left to go, it may be necessary to go back to the old masters.
Between 1756 and 1758, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote Julie, or the New Heloise, a 760-page novel describing the love, imposed virtue, and mental torture of two ardent lovers divided by marriage and social class. When the book was released in 1761, publishers could not keep up with demand despite the printing of 72 editions (including ten in English translation). Rousseau received countless letters about Julie from readers who were overwhelmed with emotion and unable to believe that the characters were not real.
The most popular novel of the 18th century, Julie stands out as an essential steppingstone to the modern novel. And although Rousseau’s work is now 350 years old, his writings influenced both the formation of modern democracies and the course of the French Revolution. Yet, the lovers in his novel shine through the centuries with personalities as fresh, human, and vivid as any living today.
Rousseau wrote in Julie: “Virtue is a state of war, and to live in it we have always to combat with ourselves.” He knew only too well: Rousseau fell in love with Sophie, the Countess d’Houdetot in January 1757, halfway through the writing of Julie. While cultivating platonic friendship with Rousseau despite his declarations of adoration, Sophie never relinquished devout faithfulness to her first lover. The character of Julie was modeled after her; in Julie, Rousseau was describing the intimate torments of his own heart.
Take a moment to think about the last book that you read. What did you know about the author? What did the characters make you think and feel? Did the sentences inspire you? Did you use your imagination?
Reading is becoming a lost art, and this is sending a powerful message to writers about the efficacy of full-length novels versus other types of work. To preserve writing in all of its forms, temporarily renounce the novella, the grocery store tabloid, your favorite cooking blog, and the top Reddit listings of the day.
Find a great novel. Commit to finishing it.
Before long, you may find that antiquated language proves no barrier to great emotion, and that very little of human nature has changed over many hundreds of years.