In praise of small books with big hearts and minds, I have begun collecting novellas that alter the shape of the world by inches, degrees, and so subtly readers barely realize they are standing on shifting earth.
Max Porter’s Grief is a Think with Feathers is one of those little books that nudges and prods even as the reader tries to fall asleep and begins dreaming about surely crows, nonsensical, huge talking black birds whose foreign ideas begin to creep in like a Ted Hughes’ crow poem. How Crow comforts a grieving family is as much a mystery as death itself.
Inaccurately labeled a novel out of fear of the novella genre-buying audience perhaps, this is a heavy card-sized book about survival after the loss of a woman, a wife, a mother, not the Teho Teardo CD, unfortunately, of the same name. Porter’s book is also a hybrid of sorts, sections of it reading as poem but always affecting.
There are plenty of classics in the novella category, like George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan; Giovannia’s Room by James Baldwin and Of Mice and Men by James Steinbeck; One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Solzhenitsyn. Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt, The Awakening by Kate Chopin, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, The Stranger by Albert Camus, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and The Old Man and The Sea by Hemingway.
With these and so many other mysterious, wondrous novellas, it is strange that publishers shy away from the form, dictate unnecessarily the length of a novel as 80,000 – 100,000 words. Readers know these parameters are only adhered to by writers without agents, writers still struggling to gain audience in a partially-closed publishing industry. Try writing or reading in these shorter forms.