Craft Superstar

I first encountered the work of Steven Millhauser about 10 years ago, and, ever since, he's been my favorite living writer of fiction. He's rather a mysterious fellow. When, in 1997, his novel Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer won the Pulitzer Prize, the New York Times reported the story under the headline "Shy Author Likes to Live and Work in Obscurity." Despite his penchant for spotlight-shunning, he has, over the years, granted a handful of interviews, all of which are well worth reading. There's this one, with Jim Shepard, for Bomb; this one, for Transatlantica; and this one, for failbetter.com.

Here's how his conversation with Jim Shepard begins:

Jim Shepard: Perhaps as much as any American writer I can think of, you've been drawn to the novella. Are there aesthetic advantages and disadvantages peculiar to the form? Does it even have a form?

Steven Millhauser: Is it possible not to be drawn to the novella? Everything about it is immensely seductive. It demands the rigor of treatment associated with the short story, while at the same time it offers a liberating sense of expansiveness, of widening spaces. And it strikes me as having real advantages over its jealous rivals, the short story and the novel. The challenge and glory of the short story lie exactly there, in its shortness. But shortness encourages certain effects and not others. It encourages, for instance, the close-up view, the revelatory detail, the single significant moment. In the little world of the story, many kinds of desirable effect are inherently impossible—say, the gradual elaboration of a psychology, the demonstration of change over time. Think of the slowly unfolding drama of self-delusion and self-discovery in Death in Venice—a short story would have to proceed very differently. As for novels: in their dark hearts, don't they long to be exhaustive? Novels are hungry, monstrous. Their apparent delicacy is deceptive—they want to devour the world.

The novella wants nothing to do with the immense, the encyclopedic, the all-conquering all-devouring prose epic, which strikes it as an army moving relentlessly across the land. Its desires are more intimate, more selective. And when it looks at the short story, to which it's secretly akin, it says, with a certain cruelty, No, not for me this admirably exquisite, elegant, refined—perhaps overrefined?—delicately nuanced, perfect little world, whose perfection depends so much on artful exclusions. It says, Let me breathe! The attraction of the novella is that it lets the short story breathe. It invites the possibility of certain elaborations and complexities forbidden by a very short form, while at the same time it holds out the promise of formal perfection. It's enough to make a writer dizzy with exhilaration.