#5: Panthers and the Museum of Fire, by Jen Craig

In her Calibre Prize winning essay, Staying With The Trouble, Sophie Cunningham writes about walking:

Percy Grainger walked to avoid self-flagellation. David Sedaris walked to placate his Fitbit. Virginia Woolf walked the streets of London, and later the South Downs, endlessly: because she loved it, because she was walking her dogs, because she needed to think clearly.

In Panthers and the Museum of Fire, by Sydney writer Jen Craig, the protagonist—also named Jen Craig—spends the entire novella walking from her home in Glebe to a café in Surry Hills. She has in her possession a manuscript—also titled Panthers and the Museum of Fire—written by her recently-deceased friend, Sarah, and is walking to return this manuscript to Sarah’s sister, Pamela.

The physical space of this novella could become a two-dimensional prison, a line tracing a simple journey across inner Sydney and yet, as in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, it’s the expansive mental space of the protagonist that has the power to free us from the physical; a simple journey in time and space becomes a complex layering of different times, places, thoughts, characters and anxieties.

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The Arrival / The Opening

Oh. My. Fucking. God.

A very special box arrived today, and look what greeted me from the top layer:

 

The opening

 

I got a bit excited. A mess may or may not have been made. OK a mess was made:

 

Opened

 

I brought a few well-known favourites to the top. And then I went through them all, wondering where to start. What order should I read these in? Alphabetical by author? This has the advantage of reading consecutive works by the same author if they appear more than once, allowing me to provide sparkling insights into their novella oeuvre. Reverse alphabetical? (because my last name is Young and alphabetical gets a bit unfair!!) Or should I go totally random? Pick one from the box and see what happens? Some other method?

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What even is a novella?

The great battle of literary forms seems to focus primarily on the short story versus the novel, with the general consensus being that the novel is superior in its greater scope and possibilities—just try selling a short-story collection to a publisher!—but this over-simplification neglects poetry; it neglects the ultra-short gems of flash fiction that are prevalent online; and it neglects the novella.

Personally, I love them all. So why focus this site on novellas? And what even are they?

Well. The first answer is simple: the novella is oft-neglected, and yet I’ve enjoyed so many of them in the past few years. They deserve the increased attention that they seem to be getting. And they deserve more!

But what is a novella? Is it just a short novel?

Well yeah. Type the question into Google and you’ll be told that a novella is “a short novel or a long short story”. But how long is a piece of string?

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Yes. All of them.

In late 2014 Melville House announced their Art of the Novella series, an admirable project to publish classic novellas in book and ebook form. To celebrate the launch, they offered the first fifty-six of the books at a special price.

I couldn’t resist.

There have been some problems with the international shipping, but I’m expecting the books to arrive soon. When they do, I’m going to stare them in the face and read—in the words of Honey Bunny from Pulp Fiction—”every motherfucking last one” of them.

honeybunny

Along the way I’ll post reviews, my thoughts on the novella as an art form, favourite quotes and whatever else I can come up with. It could take years, but I’m in this for the long haul.

Join me!

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