The novella is a form of writing which has fallen out of favour in recent times, and that’s as bewildering as it is unfortunate. We are constantly told that there is little appetite for epic fiction (fantasy aside). If you happen to have a novel on the go at the moment there is a good chance it is between 60-80,000 words long, something which is as much about finance as fashion.
Another trend from the last ten years has been the happy resurgence of the short story which is once more being taken seriously, especially in Scottish literature with Anneliese Mackintosh’s Any Other Mouth, Janice Galloway’s Jellyfish and Kirsty Logan’s The Rental Heart And Other Fairytales all featuring in the recent Books Of The Year lists. If the trend is towards shorter fiction in general, whither the novella?
It has a laudable tradition – longer than a short story but much more than simply “a short novel”, the best of them stand up against any writer’s longer work. Think of James Joyce’s The Dead, Dostoevsky’s Notes From The Underground or Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange – these are among the finest works of fiction ever written, yet some may continue to think of novellas as somehow a lesser literary form, as if quality is measured in quantity. If you are one of those you are missing out as well as wrong. Often concerned with a single idea or theme, novellas are tightly written and edited – clear in thought, intention and narrative.
Louise Hutcheson’s debut is The Paper Cell, and I am going to claim it is in that tradition. It seems no coincidence that the Scottish novella it is closest to in tone and content is Alexander Trocchi’s Young Adam, and, like that book, it sits more easily in a recognisably European literary tradition than a Scottish one. The other text I was put in mind of is Albert Camus’ The Stranger, (which explicitly gets a mention in The Paper Cell). Like both of those Hutcheson has written a “whydunit?” rather than being overly concerned with “who” as all three present a death which is foretold from the beginning and the reader is then left to try to work out not only the reasons for it, but the motivations driving the central protagonists.
In The Paper Cell that protagonist is Lewis Carson, a publishing assistant who becomes famous with a manuscript which belongs to someone else. It raises the question, “How far would you go for success?”. It’s a question as old as art itself, or at least commercial art. A short cut to a sure-fire hit is a temptation which is hard to ignore. Lewis Carson wants to be identified as a “novelist”. Whether he has the talent to be one is secondary to him. The Paper Cell is a reminder that what we love and what we desire may be different things, but the lines can be blurred and dangerously so.
As this is also a story which deals with the passing of time (it moves between 1953 and 1998) it is also reflects how an individual’s morality and drives change as well. Carson’s sin becomes his cross to bear, and while sympathy for him is most definitely a struggle I doubt there will be many who can’t empathise with a decision made in youthful haste which still pricks your conscience years later, and perhaps will for ever. “Be careful what you wish for” has rarely seemed so apt.
There’s a Noel Coward song called ‘Don’t Put Your Daughter On The Stage, Mrs Worthington’, which warns a mother about letting her daughter go into show business. A reader of The Paper Cell may think twice about letting their loved-ones get involved in publishing. There is betrayal, bitchiness, cruelty, debauchery, and that’s before there is any suggestion of death. From lust to pride and back again, all the deadly sins are present and correct. The characters are mostly beyond redemption, which of course makes them utterly captivating.
With The Paper Cell Louise Hutcheson has written a book which is literate, literary, thoughtful and thoroughly entertaining. It is not your average crime fiction, whatever that may be, and if this is a sign of things to come from the Contraband Pocket Crime Collection then it will be worth collecting. Once again Saraband and Contraband have shown that they are willing to think outside the box and publish fiction which may struggle to find a home elsewhere as it isn’t easily defined or categorised, and we should be thankful for that.
I’m honoured to be hosting the launch of The Paper Cell at Waterstones in Byres Road on the 23rd of June (7.30pm), and it would be great to see you there.