Novel(la): Craft, from the Margins

Novel(la): a concise, women-centric narrative that crosses genres and defies easy categorisation. The boundaries between short stories, novellas, and novels have always been riddled with slippage. The Great Gatsby. Heart of Darkness. Of Mice and Men. The Old Man and the Sea. Death in Venice. The Metamorphosis. The End of the Affair. Where do we place these texts? The short answer: in the literary canon. Instructors will teach Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as a novel or novella, depending on the course. Kafka’s The Metamorphosis as either a long short story or a novella. I am less concerned with delineating the boundaries of these genres, and far more concerned with creating a new space that does not exist between previous designations, but one that instead operates in parallel. Novel(la)s are where we find the women.

But before I continue, I want to pause a moment and reflect on my nomenclature: novel(la). ‘Novel(la)’ sounds like ‘novella’ and only appears different on the page. This is crucial. Parentheses denote the inessential, an aside, an interesting piece of commentary that the real writing of the piece doesn’t need. The words that appear inside the curved marks could be removed and nothing would be lost. 

And yet.

Parentheses draw the reader’s eye—seem to call for attention. Aren’t we told, when we write, to make every word count? If each word matters, then why do we have punctuation that implies the opposite? 

Parentheses are marginal. They do not often make appearances in creative writing and are relegated to academic papers.

(I take this grammatological device and use its inherent aesthetic appeal to draw attention to the marginal, the so-called ‘removeable.’ Women have been living within the parentheses of academia, writing, and elsewhere. We know that parentheses are supposed to be marginal, but they do not appear in the margins of a page, they insert themselves into the main points.)

And so, novel(la)s are where we find women. The “la” kept separate, distinct, and always necessary. “La” an homage to the French feminists who insisted on écriture feminine, but we will return to that momentarily. Women writers resist conforming to male standards and instead have a history (a herstory, if you prefer) of conning form, of inserting their works between their male counterparts. Téa Mutonji, Larissa Lai, Nicole Brossard, Eden Robinson, Aritha van Herk, Evelyn Lau, Hollie Adams, Marian Engle. Each of these writers uses the sentence to remake the short story, the novel, the novella. Women flitting through their pages but undoubtedly present (even in their disappearing). Their stories—the writers’ and the characters’—push against male definitions of what constitutes genre, what can be written. (Because, as we know, these stories are ‘women’s writing,’ and as such are relegated to being by, for, and about women, as if women are not quite persons, their stories not universal enough.)

Let me clarify ‘women.’ I don’t mean to uphold the male/female binary, and instead am opening the interpretation of ‘women’ to include all genders and expressions, any deviation from patriarchally-prescribed norms. The word ‘women’ fits this task because we have a collective understanding of how ‘women’ stands in opposition to ‘men.’ Because of the historical erasure of peoples who did not fit traditional binaries, we now have to create a new objective correlative, a new signifier to invite in those who have been and are still excluded. That is not the task of this glossa. I set out to explain the novel(la) and to carve out a space for our writing to exist on its own terms. Therefore, it follows that though we find women in novel(la)s, I do not configure this categorisation as a by/for/about women only form. Merely a literary space, where this form is met and assessed on its own—a place where male-centric expectations falter, cannot find purchase. A notable example of a novel(la) by a man is Robert Kroetsch’s The Hornbooks of Rita K. George Bowering, discussing Kroetch’s work, argues “if The Hornbooks of Rita K is a book of poems, then it may be the best book of poems that Robert Kroetsch has ever written … It pretends to offer a list, a sequence, a narrative—and does everything it can to subvert those reassuring codes of order” (back cover). Kroetsch’s book follows Raymond as he attempts to locate the missing Rita through scraps of poetry she has left behind. Written in prose, poetry, and / or prose-poetry, this book doesn’t place Rita, yet she appears (as if of her own accord) as a void in the center. As demonstrated by Bowering’s quote, people have difficulty labelling Kroetsch’s book because it resists traditional renderings of Rita (the woman protagonist), and as such resists traditional forms of writing.

These ideas of resistance and of searching out new forms for women-writing (as opposed to male-writing, the types predominantly found in Western literary canons) are not new. Hélène Cixous, in her theorization of écriture féminine, states: “Woman must write herself: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies—for the same reasons, by the same law, with the same fatal goal” (875). And in writing herself, in and when writing women, I have found the form must follow, must also change. (I am lucky I found Cixous early in my writing career because through her words I found permission to write in a new way— not new, per se, but new to me, a way not taught when professors lectured on canonical texts.) 

Similarly, Virginia Woolf warns young women that “it is useless to go to the great men writers for help” (88). We can learn imagery and the balance between narration and action. We can learn plot and dialogue and setting. The basic components. We take what we can, but male writers do not set out to teach us, to allow us a form or forum for ourselves, or one which allows our writing to be encountered outside of comparisons to their own works. (Even when we write outside their bonds, these comparisons are still made. We are said to have ‘subverted’ expectations or any number of ‘established’ codes, as Bowering alludes to.)

A novel(la), with its lyric attention to sounds and rhythm, could be mistaken for poetry, but it is decidedly not poetry. Verse is another male-dominated realm, the boundaries demarcated. Challengers of poetic forms hail from Oulipian origins. Those men push form for the sake of pushing form and have fashioned an exclusive club that prizes the originality of the idea, the impossibility of re-creation. A novel(la) is the opposite—a new form, a rethinking of form, for a more inclusive space.

Novel(la)s therefore are unlikely to follow traditional structures or forms—such as the Freytag Pyramid—as these forms necessitate comparison to previous, male-dominated works. Characters in novel(la)s take up too much space for short stories and not enough for novels. And besides, these characters avoid the rigidity of chapter breaks—prefer instead brief glimpses, instances, loosely-linked scenes, fragments of action nestled in the open. First-person drifts into second, third. Often present tense with run-on sentences and fluctuating timelines that compress or expand, blur perspectives and memories and misuse commas. This inclination, this approach to writing, not common, but resonant. 

Works Cited

Cixous, Helene. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Translated by Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, Signs vol. 1, no. 4, 1976, pp. 875-93.

Kroetsch, Robert. The Hornbooks of Rita K. University of Alberta Press, 2001.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. 1928, Penguin Books, 1945, reprinted 2004.

Essay by Allie McFarland, a bi, white settler originally from Calgary, AB on Treaty 7 territory. She holds an MFA in Writing from the University of Saskatchewan’s Department of English, where her thesis, a manuscript on eating disorders currently under consideration with multiple presses, was nominated for the College of Arts & Sciences Thesis Award. She is a co-founding editor of The Anti-Languorous Project, which publishes antilang. magazine, soundbite, Good Short Reviews, and the On Editing blog series. Her poetic suite “Lullaby” won the 2015 Dr. MacEwan Literary Arts Scholarship. She is also the author of the chapbook Marianne’s Daughters (Loft on EIGHTH, 2018). Allie currently runs a not-for-profit used bookstore on the unceded territories of the Lekwungen people of Vancouver Island. Disappearing in Reverse is her full-length debut.

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