The most common theme and technique in the contemporary novella is metafictional self-reflexivity, embodied in stories that have to do with the nature of storytelling itself. Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer (1979), in which external reality and fictional reality become inextricably blurred as the central character tells a story about the almost mythical figure Anne Frank, is one example. Perhaps the most commercially successful attempt at this kind of self-reflexive fiction, however, is Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five: Or, The Children’s Crusade, a Duty-Dance with Death (1969), which uses the popular science-fiction genre as a vehicle to explore methods of storytelling.
More sophisticated than Slaughterhouse-Five are the metafictional works of John Barth, Robert Coover, and William H. Gass. Barth’s “Dunyazadiad” (in Chimera, 1972) reflects his own fascination with the notion of characters in fiction becoming readers or authors of the very fiction they inhabit. “Dunyazadiad” takes its premise and its situation from the classic Scheherazade story, as told by her younger sister, Dunyazade. Barth transports a modern storyteller (himself) back to “Sherry’s” aid to supply her with the stories from the future that she has told in the fictional past.
Coover traces his debts back to Cervantes, who created a synthesis between poetic analogy and literal history and thus gave birth to the modern novel. Coover’s most popular novella, “The Babysitter” (in Pricksongs and Descants, 1969), is his most forthright example of this mixture of fantasy and reality. The story is a confused combination of the two realms in which, as is usual in the novella, unreality predominates over external reality. The story presents the fantasy reality in the same mode as external reality, so that in trying to unravel the two, the reader gets hopelessly lost in the mix.
Gass carries the self-reflexive mode to even further extremes. The primary premise of his novella, Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife (1968), is that the book the reader holds in his or her hands is Willie Masters’s wife herself. This trope is carried out by such devices as varying the typography and the texture of the book pages and by using graphics and other purely physical devices to give readers the sense that they are not simply seeing through the medium of the book but are dealing with the medium itself.
The novella was not a popular form during the renaissance of the American short story in the 1980’s, stimulated by writers, including Raymond Carver and Anne Beattie, who practiced a cryptic and abbreviated narrative style notoriously known as minimalism or hyperrealism, the ultimate extreme of which was the short-short story, sometimes dubbed sudden fiction or flash fiction. So many writers tried to profit from the popularity of the trend that reviewers began to criticize the form for lacking any moral or social content. The backlash spawned a return to a more expansive, discursive writing style in the 1990’s, closer to the classic realism of the novel form.
Typical of this reaction against minimalism by a younger generation is Christopher Tilghman, whose debut collection, In a Father’s Place (1990), features stories that affirm such novelistic middle-class values as family, the land, and tradition. The novella-length title piece...
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