Leicester Kyle: Letters to a Psychiatrist (2017)
Welcome to Novella
Leicester Kyle: Letters to a Psychiatrist (c.1975)
Novellas … boy, as far as marketability goes, you in a heap o’ trouble.
This quote from Different Seasons (1982), bestselling author Stephen King’s first collection of novellas, gives a pretty accurate picture of the received wisdom about the form: amongst publishers and agents, at any rate – the views of readers tend to be far more positive.
King’s book did, after all, inspire three feature films: Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me (1986), Frank Darabont’s Shawshank Redemption (1994), and Bryan Singer’s Apt Pupil (1998). The first two of these are now regarded as modern classics, and are certainly among the most successful among the many, many screen adaptations of his work.
King has gone on to publish three more such collections: Four Past Midnight (1990), Hearts in Atlantis (1999), and Full Dark, No Stars (2010). Clearly, then, the novella form appeals to him strongly. No fewer than five movies have been made, to date, of the thirteen stories in these three books.
The reasons for this are not too difficult to ascertain. Novellas make good films because they contain the thematic scope and heft of a novel without its immense weight of detail.
Despite the brilliant acting and production which distinguishes both Stand by Me and Shawshank Redemption, their success as films can be laid solidly at the door of story. In each case certain things may have been left out and added to the original novella, but the narrative remains essentially intact.
So, if a good novella can be equated with box-office gold, why do they continue to be regarded as a drug on the market?
First of all, what exactly is a novella? Stephen King’s quick, workmanlike definition in the afterword to Different Seasons specifies any story between 25,000 and 35,000 words, which he refers to as ‘numbers apt to make even the most stout-hearted writer of fiction shake and shiver in his boots.’ He goes on:
There is no hard and fast definition of what either a novel or a short story is – at least not in terms of word-count – nor should there be. But when a writer approaches the 20,000 word mark, he knows he is edging out of the country of the short story. Likewise, when he passes the 40,000 word mark, he is edging into the country of the novel.
Mary Doyle Springer, in Forms of the Modern Novella (1975), is somewhat more liberal in her choice of vital statistics. She defines it as ‘a prose fiction of a certain length (usually 15,000 to 50,000 words).’ She does, however, go on to stress that ‘this is a length equipped to realise certain formal functions better than any other.’
What this appears to mean in practice – to booksellers, at any rate – is a story too short to be marketed successfully by itself. It therefore has to be shoe-horned in somehow with a group of other pieces as part of a larger collection.
This prejudice against the commercial possibilities of the form does not seem to weigh so heavily on publishers in other languages. Novellas continued to be available as single volumes in French, German, Russian and Spanish bookshops, and many of the most celebrated works by authors in those languages have always been issued in this way.
The aversion to the risk of the single-volume novella runs deep in the English-speaking world, however. Even such classics of Modernist fiction as Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and James Joyce’s The Dead, were all first issued as parts of a larger collection: James’s in The Two Magics in 1898; Conrad’s in Youth (1902); and Joyce’s in Dubliners (1914).
And yet, properly packaged, there can be little doubt that readers do respond positively to short focussed pieces in pocket-sized volumes. Certainly that is the philosophy espoused by American publisher Melville House in their new series “The Art of the Novella,” dedicated to celebrating ‘this renegade art form and its practitioners.’
Melville House confines itself, for the most part, to the classics of the genre. Turning to the New Zealand publishing scene, I would note that there’s been considerable success here for works of non-fiction presented in single volumes.
Lloyd Jones’ Four Winds Press essay series (2002-2003) was succeeded (from 2004) by Awa Press’s “How to” series, and (more recently) by Bridget William Books’ BWB texts – accompanied, now, by Martin Conrich’s NZ film studies series. In each case a piece of prose of roughly 25,000 words (give or take 10,000 or so) is presented for purchase at a very reasonable price.
So why has the same not been done here for fiction?
To which, of course, the answer is that it has.
In May 2005, at Diamond Lil’s bar in Auckland, hot on the heels of Peter Simpson’s successful anthologies of classic New Zealand novellas (Seven New Zealand Novellas, 2003, and Nine New Zealand Novellas, 2005), local publisher Brett Cross, of Titus Books, kicked off the Titus Novella series. Distinguished novelist Mike Johnson was on hand to launch the first three volumes: William (Bill) Direen’s Coma, Olwyn Stewart’s Curriculum Vitae, and my own Trouble in Mind.
In her Landfall review of these books, Katherine Liddy remarked that:
the Titus novella series presses ahead of the pack with something new, smart and strange. Kiwi literature just got a whole lot more interesting.
Titus Books soon shifted to publishing full-length novels, as well as short fiction and poetry collections, and their novella series did not continue. The positive response to this initiative – as well as to Peter Simpson’s anthologies – seemed, however, highly suggestive of things to come.
All of which serves as a preamble to the present project: Paper Table Novellas. This is intended as a stand-alone series, with its own aesthetic and mission statement: to publish contemporary novellas in attractive standalone volumes, and – by doing so – to assert their importance not only to modern fiction as a whole, but to New Zealand writing in particular.
How many recent novels (both here and overseas) are simply bloated novellas?
After a hundred or so pages of gold – sharp, focussed writing – the narrative meanders off into supernumerary scenes and plotlines, with occasional spasms of dialogue.
Why is this? Could it be that the superior saleability of any work marketable as a novel outweighs the aesthetic advantages of conciseness and relevance?
That’s not to say that there aren’t many excellent novels out there, but invariably these are works which demand that length and weight of considered detail to make their point, whatever that may be.
The temptation must be strong to pretend that you’re writing a novel when actually what you have on your hands is a potentially fine novella. But what shame can there be to add to a form which can boast such masterpieces as Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1911), Stefan Zweig’s The Royal Game (1942), Gabriel García Márquez’s Leaf Storm (1955), Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), and Marguerite Duras’ The Lover (1984), as well as such local classics as Katherine Mansfield’s Prelude (1918), Frank Sargeson’s That Summer (1946), and Kirsty Gunn’s Rain (1994)?
The first book chosen for the Paper Table Novellas series, Letters to a Psychiatrist, was originally self-published by its author, poet, priest, and ecologist Leicester Kyle (1937-2006), in a small cyclostyled edition in the mid-1970s. It received little attention at the time, and has since become fabulously rare – as have his other three novella-length works, issued at roughly the same time: The Abbot and the Rock; Deosa Bay: A Pastoral; and The Visitation; An Account of the Last Diocesan Visitation of John Mowbray, Bishop of Calcutta.
Though Leicester’s reputation rests mainly on his poetry, written from the early 1990s onwards, there is much of interest in these early prose works. By far the best of them – to my mind, at least – is Letters to a Psychiatrist. Its topographical and botanical exactness about the South Island seashore below Karamea, based on his own intimate knowledge of the West Coast, are combined with a vivid account of a spiritual vastation, drawn again – I suspect – from the deepest roots of the author’s own experience.
I first read this story (along with the others listed above) at Leicester’s house at Millerton, in the hills above Westport, on a visit in the late 1990s. Perhaps one of the reasons it appealed to me more than any of the others was because he had guided me to one of those very beaches – accessible only on foot – only the day before. We had walked together through the dense bush, explored those strange, magical landscapes.
Letters to a Psychiatrist has the specificity characteristic of Leicester’s best poetry, still decades in the future when he wrote these stories in his late thirties. As one of his two literary executors (along with poet David Howard), I was overjoyed to discover a copy of it among Richard Taylor’s wonderful collection of Kyle-iana a few years ago, while working on the comprehensive online index of his surviving work now to be found at the Leicester Kyle website [http://leicesterkyle.blogspot.co.nz/].
Leicester’s story is roughly 23,000 words long, right in the middle of the novella range. It seems to strike an ideal tone for the launch of the Paper Table series. It has enough action and ideas for a full-length novel, but is composed with the concentration and precision of one of its author’s own short stories.
My own pair of twin novellas, The Annotated Tree Worship, completed in 2015 (some forty years after Leicester’s) will be the next in the series. I can see, now, that many of the thematic links between them are not accidental, but were motivated by this early reading of his novella. I wasn’t at all conscious of that at the time I was writing, but it now seems to me another good reason for placing them side by side.
In any event, let’s hope they’ll be the first of many more to come!
King, Stephen. Different Seasons. 1982. London: Futura, 1984.
Liddy, Katherine Liddy, “Something Strange: Reviews of Coma by William Direen, Trouble in Mind by Jack Ross & Curriculum Vitae by Olwyn Stewart.” Landfall 212 (Spring 2006): 185-88.
Springer, Mary Doyle. Forms of the Modern Novella. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975.
“Afterword: Welcome to Novella.” In Leicester Kyle: Letters to a Psychiatrist. ISBN 978-0-473-41327-9. Paper Table Novellas 1. Auckland: Paper Table, 2017. pp 81-87.