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Marlin Barton Talks Novellas

Who better to discuss the form than an author who has just published his last novella excerpt? Read Part 3 of “Playing War” here

What’s in a Name? A Few Thoughts on the Novella / By Marlin Barton

Though Katherine Anne Porter wrote three of them, “Old Mortality,” “Noon Wine,” and “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” she hated the term. She preferred the phrase “long story” to “novella.” I’m not sure why. There’s a kind of beauty in the sound of the word itself, I think. Maybe that’s one reason I prefer it. Sometimes one hears the word “novelette,” which sounds downright silly to my ears, and as the writer Lou Mathews pointed out in remarks for Failbetter upon the publication of his novella “The Irish Sextet,” it sounds as if it could be the name of a girl-group from the early ’60s, The Novellettes.


So what do we call these things, and how do we define them? We can agree they’re longer than short stories and shorter than novels. But how much does that really tell us? If you look up novella contests on-line, you’ll find guidelines that vary from 40 to 150 pages and word lengths from 10,000 to 42,000 and more. There are simply no easy answers, and I’d suggest that is part of their appeal for writers. They have a kind of in-betweenness to them, an elasticity. They live in that gray area, and isn’t that where fiction writers live, too, and not in the black-and-white world of easy answers for life’s questions, moral, artistic, or otherwise?

Since their word length, and even what we want to call them, can be difficult to pin down, maybe there’s something about their content, or even intent, that can help us decide what they are. I’ll offer a few thoughts, my two cents, which may be about what these remarks are worth since all writers have to decide for themselves what they’re creating and how they want to define their creations. When I began to envision my novella (there, I’ve said the word), “Playing War,” which Failbetter has been kind enough to publish (and which is probably on the short side at 21,000 words and 68 manuscript pages), I knew it would be longer than my typical twenty-page story, and it seemed that it might have a more complex plot and maybe even a greater emotional, and moral, complexity than what I normally attempt in a short story—if I could achieve what I intended. Of course, I also hoped that I didn’t know already everything that would happen in the story I wanted to tell. I wanted to explore the characters and their situation and see what I might discover. I thought it might run 100 manuscript pages or so. Turned out a bit shorter, but I do think it has a more complex plot than any story I’ve written, perhaps more than most “typical” stories, and I hope maybe even a greater emotional and moral complexity than a typical story, or at least for one of my stories. Of course, many writers and readers will say now that even a short, short story (or sudden fiction, or flash fiction—what do we call these things?)  can have great moral and emotional complexity. Layers of complexity do not belong only to the novella. So here we are again, trying to define something that can’t be defined. I say we simply celebrate its in-betweenness, realize that when we can’t easily categorize a piece of fiction, we may just have a novella on, or in, our hands. And while novellas, due to their length, can be as difficult to place in print journals as they are to define, the good news is that with the now widespread availability of on-line literary journals likeFailbetter, print space is no longer an issue, which opens up all kinds of avenues for a literary form that encompasses writers from Conrad to Porter to contemporaries such as Michael Knight and Cary Holladay, and maybe to you too, if you might be so inclined to find your way into such a slippery form.

The Bell Jar or Chick Lit?

One of these images is just as hellacious as the other:

1. The Carnival Triumph “cruise from hell’ that left passengers drifting in the Gulf of Mexico with backed up plumbing and no AC, forced to erect tent villages on the deck:


2. The 50th anniversary cover of Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar.”


You may wonder how these things are connected.  Allow me to elaborate: When I was seventeen, I went on a Carnival Cruise, it was a nightmare—like a floating Denny’s sans good fried breakfast options. While on the cruise, I read “The Bell Jar.”

Yes, that was me, the pale looking girl sitting on a lounge chair curled up with one of the most devastating memoir/fictions of the 20th century.  While I did think it a bit of a downer, it was not nearly as disturbing as the amount of vomit I encountered in public places on the Celebration on a daily basis. In the midst of my own teen angst and “cruise hell,”  I related to Esther’s character in a number of ways and remember thinking “If she were alive today, she would have been okay.” True? Who knows.  What I do know is that if she were alive today, she would be pretty P.O’d at the 50th anniversary cover chosen for her book.

Galley Cat has done a nice job of compiling the best of the parody covers here


Quickie Q & A with failbetter Author Grant Ginder

We try to be a full service journal over here at failbetter, anticipating your wants and needs as readers before you are even wanting or needing. That’s what 2 or 3 Questions is all about–and now, it’s Grant Ginder’s turn in the hot seat.

Grant Liz_Resized1) Which has been better for your writing: Being a speechwriter, working for a literary agent, or teaching expository writing?

They’ve all been good for my writing in different ways, to be honest. I think speech writing was the first job that taught me the importance of narrative — how a story, or the sense of an arc, is necessary to draw in an audience. And also, obviously, the importance and ability to write in different voices that speech writing teaches is invaluable when it comes to creating new and distinct characters. Still, though, when we’re talking about what’s been better for my writing, I’ve got to say being a literary agent (as much as I’m loathe to). In many ways, it was a wholly depressing job; seeing how the sausage gets made, so to speak, can be devastating. That said, I read a ton, and a lot of that reading was from potential clients. I very quickly gained a sense of what I responded to as a reader, and as a writer — what got me excited, so to speak — and (more importantly) how to incorporate those elements into my own work without sacrificing my nature as a writer.

2) Where did the awesome image that the excerpt ends with come from?

I’m assuming you’re talking about the house built out of records, right? Really, I think it came from a few places. For starters, I’m sort of obsessed with memory (as this excerpt, and the rest of the book for that matter, shows), and the physical traces of memory. I’m also really interested in jazz. I don’t know anything about it — I mean, absolutely nothing — but I’ve always had this sort of visceral response to it, so the prospect of doing a little research on the topic was exciting (the fact that Wylie Avenue in Pittsburgh used to be such a hotbed for music made it that much more fun to research). So, right: the two threads sort of came together into the idea of records, of vinyl. And I got to thinking: Okay, what could Alistair, the grandfather, do with these records to preserve memory, or to use memory to protect it from itself, and the idea of a house built out of records struck me.

3) How does being from Orange County inform your writing and your existence?

Well, Tamra Barney and the rest of the cast of Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Orange County regularly read and edit my work. Also, whenever I go home to visit my parents (I’ve lived on the east coast since I was 18), I always get sand in my laptop (I write on the beach). I’m kidding about all that, of course. Orange County is a place with (probably rightfully so) a lot of negative stereotypes: plastic surgery, suburban sprawl, a fuckload of foreclosures, etc. It’s also, of course, a very beautiful place. And I guess it was interesting growing up with that tension — that idea that beneath such a beautiful place was all this hilarious (and sad, maybe) absurdity. But I think you can find absurdity anywhere, if you look hard enough. I mean, I suppose it says something that when I turned 18 and went off to college, I got the hell out of Dodge and haven’t moved back. Still, at the end of the day, I think I’d be lying if I said Orange County has had this drastic impact on my existence and my writing. If anything, I look at it with this sort of comfortable ambivalence.

Happy Ho Days!

fbtatooWe’re taking a few well-deserved weeks off at the end of the year, but already have a bunch ‘O new works set to be published in the New Year.   In the meantime, if you are still looking for possible gift ideas, might we suggest this…

They said what?

I attended one of my first literary award dinners this past weekend. I will not bore you with the details of which famous author’s hand I got to shake or details of the other guests at my table, aside from saying that the odd assemblage of said characters bluster was reminiscent of a zany Preston Sturges film. While a fine time was had by all, I walked away (albeit slowly in ill-chosen “black tie appropriate” stilettos) wishing that I had a better sense of what the nominated books were about. The one to two line critical praise and author bios did little to pique my interest beyond my silent vow to Google the authors later. Four days later and no Googling or book purchasing has taken place. Damn the middle(wo)man.

That said, I was very excited to see that our friends over at GalleyCat have done the heavy lifting for the lazy reader who lurks inside all of us by assembling links to free samples of the PEN 2012 Literary Award winners works.

Speaking of lazy readers and the kind souls that connect us to our books, feel like a superior reader after checking out the Christian Science Monitor’s chuckle-worthy list of strange bookstore customer comments. A personal favorite: “I’m looking for some books on my kid’s summer reading list. Do you have ‘Tequila Mockingbird’?”

An Introduction, and then some things that are funny. . .

So, it’s a little strange to introduce yourself–you know, the awkwardness and limitations of the first person POV. I’ll make it short and sweet:

My name is Shannon O’Neill and I’m the brand spanking new social media director here at Failbetter. I’m a Taurus, I remember a world before the Internet and I’m currently pursuing an MFA here in Richmond, VA. Before my stint here in RVA, I was a Metro Detroit native,and remain a Midwesterner at heart.

Here is what I look like when I’m smiling:


I like to think of my role here as social media director as your cruise director on the SS Failbetter. Via this blog, Facebook and Twitter, I will help manage your activities and expectations (Example: “Have you seen the great new [story] [interview][poem] by [insert fantastic author name]?”), share the news of the day (Example: “Literature is dead, again?”), and will generally be the first to know things and disseminate said information in a fashion that might save your life.

Now, on to the promised funniness. Leave it to The Paris Review to keep the modern classic:


You Likes Us…You Really Like Us!

NewPagesLogoOrangeBlackWell gee golly gosh….We just got a nice little review on New Pages.  More importantly, they seem to like  what Ann Tashi Slater, Noha Al-Badry and Kara Candito have to say in our latest issue.  Of course,  we’re always happy to provide our readers with some damn good reads and have a bunch more in store.  But for now, we’ll bask in the limelight and say this.

We’re Back!

were-backGet ready folks!  Fall is here and guess who is back?  That’s right failbetter fans, we’re back baby!  Our fall 2012 issue is unfolding as we speak.  Sure, some folks might not be so excited about the news.  And others still may mock the point of it all.  But we’re thrilled (just like this guy) and we hope you are too.  Sure, we could make this personal, but really, this is all we’ve got to say.  After all, if you are reading this , it is kinda self-evident. So….We’ll let the new issue speak for itself.  Go check out Girl X.  And feel free to listen to our snazzy non-official theme song for the issue as well.

We’re Taking The Month Off — August

hand drawn cartoon characters - swimsuits and tanning 2392097Folks -

We here at failbetter need a break from the heat…and the computer.  Thus, we’re taking the month of August off.  Rest assured we’ll be back in September with new works and exciting things for your viewing pleasure.  Until then, power tan.

On influence and craft: 3 questions
for Anthony Carelli


Anthony Carelli’s first book Carnations was published in 2011. Currently he’s a Hodder Fellow at Princeton University.


In an article in a Princeton magazine, US 1, you mention Hart Crane as one of your favorite poets. Is there a specific poem that inspired you to write the way you do now? Do you remember the first time you came across Crane’s poetry?

“To Brooklyn Bridge” is the Hart Crane poem that has most captivated me. I wonder if it is also the poem that has most inspired me to, as you say, “write the way [I] do now”. Looking back at the Proem this evening I notice that the petitioning of the Bridge in the poem’s last two lines, “Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend / And of the curveship led a myth to God” would have been a suitable epigraph to my book Carnations.

In my puzzling quest to write poems Crane has been more my guiding star than my captain; I don’t really know how to take instruction from him; I don’t know how to glean strategies of craft from his impeccable poems. Crane’s is the highest pitched lyric my ears are capable of hearing. I stare up awestruck into his poems and wonder “How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!” which is a line of baffled praise that Crane utters at the marvel of the Brooklyn Bridge. In fact, if I were asked to name one aspect of Crane that has most determined my path, it would be his orientation as a poet of praise. My poems tend to be praise poems, too.

I began reading Hart Crane in earnest in September of 2001 because one evening my teacher Philip Levine said the dead poet’s name. I’m sure Levine had much more than a name to say – I know Crane is one of Levine’s favorite poets – but I don’t remember exactly what Levine said that so turned me on. All I know is Levine said Crane’s name and I went out soon thereafter and bought a paperback copy of Crane’s complete poems. The Proem happened to be the very first poem in that paperback edition. When I started reading the book I found the poems to be both intoxicatingly exquisite and utterly incomprehensible. Those years I was living in Brooklyn and I would often take my Crane book to the Brooklyn Heights promenade, in Crane’s old neighborhood, and read the Proem while standing in the very spot Crane stood when he conceived of the poem, looking out along the Brooklyn Bridge as is spanned the East River and landed in Manhattan. I would try my best to figure out how Crane translated vista and vision into those marvelous words.

Along those same lines, do you feel that the poetry that influenced you as a beginning writer (whether it’s Hart Crane or other writers) is still as inspirational at this point in your career? If so, what made it “stand the test of time” for you, but if not, what changed in your connection to the poem or poet?

The poets – Jack Gilbert, Seamus Heaney, D.H. Lawrence, Hart Crane, Elizabeth Bishop – that strongly influenced me at the beginning of my career continue to influence me now. I can’t get enough of them. I read them all the time. Though I don’t know any of them personally, these poets have become something like my poetry friends. They are the crowd I hang with. I look to them for guidance. I feel safest when I’m in their midst. Yet I have no idea what makes a poem or poet retain my attention over many years.

Your biography on Memorious mentions that you graduated with your MFA from New York University in 2003, and your first collection, Carnations, was published in 2011. Once out of your graduate program, what was your writing routine like, if you had one at all? Did it change over the years?

Between 2003 and 2007 I lived in no single place for more than six consecutive months. I lived in various homes in Wisconsin, New Jersey, and Georgia, and twice spent extended seasons in South America (primarily in Paraguay, and Chile). I worked odd jobs, including a stint at a golf course in Madison, Wisconsin and at a seaside boardwalk t-shirt shop in Wildwood, New Jersey. During that time my writing routine was as varied as my environs. I was writing plenty but most of what I wrote was wild and pretty terrible. Over those years I kept in constant mail correspondence with the poet friends I had met in graduate school. Along with letters sharing details about my nomadic life and whatever books I was reading I would enclose poems, hoping for (and often, weeks later, receiving) my friends’ thoughtful feedback.

At the very end of 2007 I gathered my wild unfinished poems and settled in Brooklyn. In addition to working at a savory pie shop, I joined a poet gang called Freshkills and with the help of the other Freshkills poets I began finishing poems. I finished the bulk of my first collection while writing with them.

In your time working towards Carnations, how did you arrange your life to make sure your writing was still important? Has your writing routine changed at all since the publication of your first collection? If you could create an ideal location and atmosphere for writing (a white sand beach on the Gulf Coast… Paul Muldoon’s posh living room…) what would it be?

I don’t know if I ever arranged my life in a way to, as you say, “make sure [my] writing was still important”. I just try my best to find a sustainable (here I’m speaking in terms of personal economics rather than ecology) lifestyle that allows me as much time as possible to write. But within that framework my writing routine changes every day. This was true before I published Carnations and it continues to be true today. I have no notion of an ideal location and atmosphere for writing. Well, I like a roof above my head, and I like having ready access to my books, but beyond that I don’t demand much of my environs. I write in all different corners of whatever house I find myself in. I write standing, sitting, and lying down. But mostly, alas, I don’t write. I read and fuss and play and drink coffee.

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