Introducing the Never Novels

Next month is National Novel Writing Month, which is an event that I’ve always felt a little estranged from. I’m a writer — at least, I think I am — but there are no likely novels on my horizon and no serious attempts in my past. I’m not sure that I’d even recognize a novel-length idea if ever one popped into my head.

So, November is no different from any other month for me. While others are giddily throwing up tottering piles of words and hoping they don’t collapse, I’ll be filing a few hundred words off another short story, trying to get Dick and Jane from conflict to resolution in 4,000 words or less.

But don’t cry for me, NaNoWriMos! Even if I’m never able to join your ranks, I can still shoot for membership in a club that’s just as distinguished. It’s called “the Never Novels”, and I’ve put together brief (of course!) profiles of a few of the founding members. There are others who belong, of course, so if you know any members I’ve forgotten please feel free to add them in the comments!

THE NEVER NOVELS — FOUNDING MEMBERS

M.R. JAMES — Considered a master of the English ghost story, M.R. James (no relation to Henry or William, so far as I know) is the quintessential Never Novel. For James, fiction was always a sideline. He was a medieval scholar and antiquarian, eventually becoming director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. He also served as provost of King’s College, Cambridge and Eton College.

In “Stories I Have Tried to Write”, James confesses that he never even attempted to write any stories besides ghost stories. His definition of “ghost stories” is a little broad — everything he wrote was meant to be spooky, but ghosts aren’t always involved — but the point is clear. All together, he produced just 31 stories over the course of twenty-four years. His life’s output of fiction fits neatly into a single pocket paperback, but the influence of his stories is undeniable all the same.

PAUL CAIN — American pulp writer Paul Cain (pseudonym of George Carol Sims) has one novel to his name — sort of. In 1933, he published a book called Fast One, now considered a noir classic. But the book was in actuality a repackaging of five short stories featuring the same character, all originally printed in Black Mask in 1932. (Hemingway was doing something similar with his Harry Morgan stories around the same time, but the resultant novel, To Have and Have Not, wouldn’t be published until 1937.)

Cain was hardly the first writer to cobble a “novel” together out of previously published shorts. Decades earlier, a host of proto-pulp and crime writers like Arthur Conan Doyle, Sax Rohmer, Arthur B. Reeves, Maurice Leblanc, and E.W. Hornung had done the same thing. (Those writers all also wrote more traditional novels which disqualify them from membership here.) Cain’s novel hangs together better than most others do, but it was still conceived as a series of short pieces. In all, Cain wrote 17 short stories and several screenplays, but no real novels.

KATHERINE MANSFIELD — Like some other writers on this list, Katherine Mansfield died young, succumbing to tuberculosis at 35. If she had lived longer, it’s possible she would have eventually turned her pen to novels. But there are countless novelists who at least attempted long work in their twenties or younger. Mansfield, though she left behind a great corpus of shorter work, apparently did not.

A New Zealand writer who had a tempestuous personal life, Mansfield also wrote poems and literary criticism (including a spirited damnation of the stream of consciousness novels gaining popularity at the time), but her stories are what are remembered today. Few writers of English-language fiction manage to earn a lasting reputation without at least one novel in their pockets, but Mansfield pulled it off.

AMBROSE BIERCE — Newspaperman Ambrose Bierce wrote some of his short fiction to fill odd inches leftover in his columns. His stories (many of which are what we might call “flash fiction” today) fall into two broad categories — Civil War stories colored by his own first-hand recollections and tales of the supernatural. Comparing the two, the Civil War tales are often more horrifying.

Bierce also wrote a couple of novellas, but he’s remembered for his best short stories (including “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and “The Damned Thing”, both of which are constantly anthologized) and his satirical reference The Devil’s Dictionary. His Collected Works were published in 1909, bringing together his stories, nonfiction, and satire into several volumes. Four years later, Bierce famously disappeared at age 71 while touring Civil War battlefields he had fought at, without ever having written a novel.

WASHINGTON IRVING — The earliest writer on this list, Washington Irving first rose to prominence with The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-20). The book was a success both in America and Great Britain, where he was living at the time. This is perhaps a little remarkable, as the acrimonious War of 1812 had only just ended a few years earlier. But Irving had spent a great deal of time in Europe and often wrote flatteringly of life and culture in Britain.

The Sketch-Book is a collection of essays, reflections, bits of folklore, short stories, and other miscellany covering a wide range of styles and topics. Its best known pieces are still familiar to almost every reader — “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”. Irving went on to write a couple more books of miscellany, as well as numerous (sometimes tongue-in-cheek) biographies and histories. But though Irving authored eighteen books in all, not one of them was a novel.

THE NEVER NOVELS — HONORARY MEMBERS

EDGAR ALLAN POE — Poe’s literary reputation is rightly built on his short stories and poems. However, he did write one complete novel called The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838). A well-researched tale of an ill-fated Antarctic expedition, parts of it were first published pseudonymously in the Southern Literary Messenger. It’s an open question as to whether Poe actually ever finished the novel — the story ends abruptly and unsatisfactorily, with no clear explanations given for its weird happenings. Some see this as Poe’s intent, while others think he simply got bored. (A second novel, The Journal of Julius Rodman, was unambiguously discontinued in 1840 after a dispute with the publisher who was serializing it.)

Poe attempted his two novels because he hoped they would pay better than his short works — a motive that probably drives a few NaNoWriMo participants today as well. Poe later called Arthur Gordon Pym “a very silly book”, and it’s not remembered or read much today, especially compared to his best known short stories and poems (of which there are many). Wikipedia charitably describes it as “one of Poe’s least accessible works”, but it was influential enough in its time to directly inspire such writers as Herman Melville, Jules Verne, and H.P. Lovecraft.

MAX BEERBOHM — Humorist Max Beerbohm is perhaps the only writer who is remembered as much for his caricatures and doodles as for his words. Though he was prolific in writing short stories, essays, and parodies, he produced only one novel in his life — Zuleika Dobson, or An Oxford Love Story (1911).

While Poe’s novel is forgettable and probably has little bearing on his reputation today, Zuleika Dobson is on the other hand revered as a comedic classic and a send-up of early twentieth century dandyism. The Modern Library even voted it one of the 100 best English-language novels of the last century. After publishing Zuleika Dobson, Beerbohm lived and wrote for another forty-five years, but apparently decided to quit with novels while he was ahead.

RAY BRADBURY — The lately departed Ray Bradbury wrote a great many novels, of course. Some of them — like Fahrenheit 451 and Something Wicked This Way Comes — were composed in the ordinary fashion, as single long works. (Though it’s worth noting that the ideas for both of those books first came to Bradbury in short story form, and were only later expanded into novels.)

But Bradbury also had a knack for combining previously published short stories into longer cohesive works. He even referred to The Martian Chronicles (1950) as “a book of short stories pretending to be a novel”. Bradbury admitted a creative debt to the similarly-constructed Winesburg, Ohio (1919) by Sherwood Anderson, but Anderson never attained the mastery over the form that Bradbury ultimately would.

At least three other novels by Bradbury followed almost the same pattern — Dandelion Wine (1957), Green Shadows, White Whale (1992), and From the Dust Returned (2001). If you’re willing to stretch the point, even The Illustrated Man (1951) can arguably be made to fit. Bradbury wrote enough long works that it would be disingenuous to call him a true member of the Never Novels — but his penchant for building novels out of short stories gives hope even to me that someday I might have a shot at it too.


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