Monday Motivation: A new form of fiction for the age?

 In Monday Motivation, Richard Benyon's blog

“The Palazzo Falconieri stands on a promontory on one of the smaller Italian lakes…”

So begins a novella by Luke Jennings called Codename Villanelle. It’s a thriller, and it could just mark the start of a new trend in fiction of very long stories – or very short novellas.

Jennings confesses that he’s always been a thriller-lover. He adores James Bond, for instance – but believes the genre has staled. In an article he wrote for The Guardian he says, “All those Special Forces fuck-ups and wry, loner cops. All that embittered whisky drinking and late-night jazz. All that technology fetishism. Why not turn the genre on its head? I wondered. Why not have some fun?”

So he invented Villanelle, a sociopathic “child of post-Soviet chaos, as brilliant as she was ferocious… employed by an avant-garde global corporation as their in-house murderess.”

And as her antagonist, Eve Polastri, the intelligence officer who sets out in pursuit of her. Eve has settled for love, and the rather staid life of a married woman in London. Villanelle, by contrast, is the brilliant and mercurial killer.

The stories play out on a world stage. Villanelle uses a variety of clever methods to assassinate her victims in cities across the planet. Eve is just as astute – and soon the two women are locked in a relationship of hunter and prey that is, in fact, the central attraction of the story.

But it’s the length of the “novellas” that intrigues me, and the habits of a changing reading public that might portend.

I’ve just read the first four novellas, collectively published, as I say, as Codename Villanelle. They were originally self-published online. Each of the four, linked stories takes between half an hour and forty-five minutes to read. You could read one on a single commute. You could read the entire collection over the course of a single flight from London to Rome, or Johannesburg to Cape Town.

Well, this might suit very well the reduced attention span of the modern reader, I suppose. Pondering the implications, something else about the phenomenon struck me, though. These short novellas – just about 15 000 words apiece – resemble nothing so much as… television episodes.

And then, lo and behold, I learned that the Villanelle stories have been picked up by BBC America, the first series has been broadcast, and has captured a large and swiftly growing audience in the States fascinated by what Jennings believes is not only the “transgressive edge” lent it by murder and psychopathy, but, more centrally, the fact that it is “about female power and female desire, and for LGBT fans, many of them living troubled and secretive lives”. The show, he says, has “become a refuge, a rallying cry, and a social manifesto.”

Film and television tell stories powerfully and economically – and their influence on writers writing for the page has been enormous. The primacy of scenes, for instance, is directly attributable to the fact that films rely almost entirely on scenes to tell their stories.

The opening stanza of Codename Villanelle points to another enormous debt that written fiction owes to visual story-telling modes.

After the initial wide-angle establishing shot, Jennings moves his “camera” into the building that “faces the lake, and is fronted by tall windows through which silk curtains are visible.” And then his eye moves in through those curtains into the conference room behind them, and “the twelve men sitting round the table” who look ordinary enough, but who make up the board of that secretive global corporation that employs Villanelle.

What he does, in short, over the opening page of his story, is provide us with a single camera movement, familiar to any fan of film, that zooms slowly in from the panoramic shot of the lake, to the building on its shore, through a window, past the curtains, to the room within and the conclave of men engaged in a nefarious conspiracy…

Happy writing,

Richard

Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog: ‘Writing Secrets: Don’t neglect the most evocative of the sense

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