Q: Short story, novella, novel: what do these terms mean?
A: A short story is any piece of fiction writing that runs from 1,000 to 8,000 words. A novella runs from 8,000 to 25,000 words. A novel runs from 25,000 to 100,000 words.
I don't remember the rest of what she said, because I spent the rest of the lecture writing things like WHAT IS THIS and EROSION OF FORMAL CONSTRAINTS ---> EROSION OF FORMAL QUALITY???, or else drawing pictures of the chairs in the room or the literary agent with Svengali spirals in her eyes.
I left the lecture during the break along with some of my friends. We sat around on the benches in the courtyard instead of going back for the second half.
"This is a complete waste of our tuition," we all agreed. "This woman who says that--imagine!--who says that all there that makes something a novella rather than a novel is word count."
"There's so much more to a novel than word count."
We didn't ever broach the question of what that elusive quality was, of course, and the rest of the lectures were pretty good, and somehow it never occurred to me that it might one day be valuable to learn how and why a literary agent thinks about boxing up literature for market. But these things aren't the point.
Here's the point. Tao Lin's Eeeee Eee Eeee breaks ranks with Literary Agent X on exactly one point: his novel is only about 24,000 words long! Other than that, Lin's definition of his book as a novel is exactly as arbitrary as Agent X's definition. It's longer than a short story, therefore: bang.
Tao Lin, author of Eeeee Eee Eeee
Answering the question of what a novel even is almost always bogs down in questions of personal taste (or "context", asserts Eeeee Eee Eeee in a passage that a lot of people may or may not quote to one another.) Unfortunately for us all--since we live in an actual world full of other human beings--we're forced by cruel fate to arbitrarily impose definitions of things like novels on one another or to club seals or go on "killing rampages" or other terrible things like that. So I've got to use this article to force my definition of a novel on everyone. Hint: it is not Eeeee Eee Eeee.
There isn't a plot to Eeeee Eee Eeee. Andrew, the protagonist, is sad and depressed. He has lost both of his jobs in New York and has been forced to return to Florida and work as a pizza delivery driver, which means that he has no future. He also does not have very much luck with women, as they do not of their own accord invite him in to have sex with/make out with them without even his having to ask. One girl that he was interested in and who I guess was interested in him said that she would visit him in Florida, but did not. In the meantime he and his friend Steve (whose mother died, I think, or whose parents are otherwise terrifyingly separated) drive around and steal DVDs from Wal-Mart and talk on the Internet and are otherwise bored.
Remember Less Than Zero?? Remember when you had finished reading ten pages of that book when you were twenty years old, and you said to yourself "This is the greatest, truest book ever." Then remember when you finished reading sixty pages of that book and you realized that the characters were not actually going to develop or go anywhere? Remember how you finished the book, watching in fascinated horror as Brett Easton Ellis managed to fill 200 pages with words and sentences--and therefore with images and ideas--without actually introducing any variation in either the images and ideas. It's all stark youthful tedium until you catch a plane out and the book is suddenly over.
When I write these little articles I like to imagine the author of the books in my head answering these Charges. I imagine Tao Lin justifying the total lack of narrative variation in Eeeee Eee Eeee by saying: that that's how life really is! There are no changes, or happy endings! Things just go on and on and are sad forever!
Okay, if you believe it: but that's only satisfying to write, not to read. That has no power to convince anyone, to inspire anyone, or even just to make anyone have a really bad day (I guess those are the three reasons people write fiction.) Imagine sitting down next to someone. They ask you, in all sincerity, "So what's up?" and show every sign of being willing to sit there for hours on end listening to you tell them what's up. So you talk for hours on end about how you made an illegal U-turn once and how you didn't even get laid for it and how you told the server at a Denny's that she was a tool of capitalism and you felt really bad and wanted to repay the money but you didn't know what form of "Sorry" to write on the envelope. Occasionally you spice things up by throwing in bears, moose, dolphins, aliens, hamsters, the president--a whole litany of gimmick animals who don't actually resemble animals. (I guess the point is that, like, even throwing a teleporting bear and a secret underground city into the narrative doesn't make it or life any less crushing and horrible? It sure does suck to work at Domino's.)
Imagine, also, that you are asking this person to pay $12 for the privilege of listening to you. Or imagine that you believe that on the strength of this story, people should buy shares of your future royalties so that you do not have to work at a job like most people do.
If life is monotony and pain, you have two choices when you write your novels. (1) accept responsibility for seeking a better life, usually by talking to people and concerning yourself with things outside yourself. (2) Avoid and wallow. Usually option (2) is covered by rock music and corporate youth culture, and (1) is at least what the novel takes on, even if almost no novels actually succeed at providing a convincing way out or justification for the whole grim project.
If you're going for (2) and you actually publish your work, you're either crying for help because you're about to kill yourself, or you want to take people's money without giving them anything in return. I don't know which is more charitable to assume: um, don't do it, Tao Lin!
But the life of a man is neither here nor there. What bothers me about Eeeee Eee Eeee that doesn't bother me about some of Tao Lin's other, shorter work is the fact that depression, boredom, and petulant heartache aren't in and of themselves stupid or cynical subjects. They can work. But if they're going to work at all, they tend to work in short stories, or any piece of writing between 1,000 and 8,000 words.
I was talking about some of this stuff with Bill Chapters at a restaurant in Manhattan a week or two ago.
"I have to read Eeeee Eee Eeee," I said, "because Tao Lin is probably the future of American writing, and I'm very worried about that."
"Tim likes him," Chapters said, adjusting his fedora and jotting down the price of his appetizers into a wire-ringed notebook. "Tim likes the short stories, at least."
"I talked to Tim about him," I said. "I read some of the short stories. There's this one he did for Nerve.com where he writes something like 'Rachel thinks about Matt ramming his penis very hard into her mouth so that the penis head exits the back of her head like when people shoot themselves to commit suicide.' That's admittedly a hilarious line to publish in a sex magazine. But he's hit or miss, and I don't see how he's going to carry his stuff out for the length of a novel."
Chapters squinted, eyes narrow and watching a man who had just walked in with a very large, very satiated-looking sheepdog. His right hand moved up and down the zipper of his jacket, locking and unlocking the teeth. His left hand was in his pocket.
"What's the difference between a novel and a short story?" he asked.
"A short story is where you're sitting on the subway next to an old woman who's hacking and coughing," I said. "She hacks and coughs and then she throws up on your shoes. You get off the train a stop early and you find two things: she's following you, and she's stolen the wallet with the photograph of the woman who left you six months ago. She's holding the picture over her own face and she's laughing and she smells like sour rice and beer. So you shove her: she falls and hits her head on a support column. Suddenly there's blood and the police are closing in and the photograph is still stuck to her face. A novel is the same thing, except instead of shoving the woman, you marry her."
We didn't get to finish the conversation since Chapters, using my exposition as cover, already had the man on the ground and was prying open the sheepdog's jaws, inserting the flashlight.
(*) Other things that bother me, more generally, about this whole thing: (1) K-Mart realism is not reducible to "understated with good dialogue"; (2) if people who do not like to read call you a genius and buy your work in large numbers when you are still young, you no longer have an external motivation for making your work expand and put down roots; (3) exposing the hypocrisy of language is a destructive act, not a constructive one; lying is constructive; (4) the Jhumpa Lahiri joke was funny once; a lot of the jokes in the book were funny once; (5) the Salman Rushdie joke had to be funnier to get over the "oh God, that's trashy" factor; (6) the scene where the dog shits on the carpet and Andrew thinks "Clean it up. No, don't clean it up ever. Sell the house," and then he runs with that for a while, imagines that for a while: that was pretty great! That was pretty imaginative. Why was the whole book not that.
Posted by future on Sat, 04 Oct 2008 18:07:43 -0400 -- permanent link