Is a novel defined by its length or by a certain approach? Can we consider a story that is not long a novel if it is epic in scope, representing a range of experiences and emotions? If so, isn’t Snoopy’s It Was a Dark and Stormy Night a novel?
What is a novel? Dictionary.com defines it as “
Umberto Eco nominated El Dinosaurio (the dinosaur) by Augusto Monterroso: Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba allí. (“When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.”) I agree that this line is suggestive of an interesting story. It portrays characters and has a partial plot: there’s a dinosaur; before the story begins, a male character falls asleep or is knocked out; he wakes up, and the dinosaur is still there. Why is the dinosaur still there? Why is the man surprised? (Think of the word “still.”) But this line does not even make up a short story if you ask me because we can only guess at the relationship between the man and the dinosaur, what happened before, and what will happen later. Rather unsatisfying.
Another candidate is often attributed to Hemingway, but the author is unknown: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” This makes a better story. Somebody is selling baby shoes that were never used, creating a poignant mystery. Was there a miscarriage or a still birth? Was the baby killed or kidnapped? Although we cannot pin the details of the plot down, we feel empathy for the parents and the lost child. I will grant that it makes a good short story, but is it really a novel?
Snoopy’s novel is a much better candidate for the world’s shortest novel. Although it is not of “considerable length,” it represents a breadth of emotion and experience that are common characteristics of the novel.
Throughout Charles M. Schulz’s famous comic strip Peanuts, everyone’s favorite beagle is working on a novel or a series of novels that begin with the line “It was a dark and stormy night.” George Earle Bulwer-Lytton made this line famous in his 1830 novel Paul Clifford, but Snoopy is not the only one to use it. Madeleine L’Engle opened up her 1962 young adult sci fi novel A Wrinkle in Time with this famous line, and it has appeared in many pop-cultural references.
Snoopy uses it many times in many different ways. Here is one of them:
In 1971, Schulz published a metafictional cartoon book about Snoopy working on his novel, a compilation of jokes from previous comic strips, illustrating the struggles of the writer. Here is the cover of that out-of-print book with Snoopy on top of his dog house, slaving away on his typewriter.
Schulz’s book addresses writer’s block, plotting, publishing, critical reviews, and promotion–highly metafictional–but let’s consider Snoopy’s magnum opus on its own:
It Was a Dark and Stormy Night
Snoopy’s story can be considered a novel although it is shorter than most short stories, thanks to the author’s attempts to present what György Lukács calls “Great epic’s” potential to “give form to the extensive totality of life.” It was a Dark and Stormy Night has atmosphere, mystery, violence, family drama, pirates, class struggle, a coming-of-age story, a change of seasons, pathos, medical intrigue, a unification of separate story threads, a love story, a kidnapping, an escape, and a happy ending. (The ranch was saved!)
Snoopy sends his book away to a publisher and it gets accepted. It is reproduced as a book within a book. The cover, which Lucy volunteered to create (actually by Mark Knowland), demonstrates the novel’s epic scope, but includes other surprises. Here is Lucy’s proposal for the cover: “How about a bunch of pirates and Foreign Legionnaires fighting some cowboys with some lions and tigers and elephants leaping through the air at this girl who is tied to a submarine?”
This published version, with its own copyright page and dedication, is slightly longer than the version that appears in pieces earlier. I have marked the changes in blue:
It Was a Dark and Stormy Night
A Novel by Snoopy
For Woodstock, my friend of friends
This version adds a stampede, a fist fight, and a thoughtful, philosophical ending with the young intern in a cafe musing about what he learned. What had he learned about life? That life is a somewhat random knot of characters, events, and genres? If so, that is a profound observation.
I will leave it up to you to decide on the meaning of Snoopy’s famous novel, but the fact that the intern learned something about life does show us that Snoopy is attempting to capture a “totality of life,” a goal many of great novelists attempted, including Leo (Tolstoy, that is), who had to write huge tomes to give such an epic view of the world.
(Check out other metafiction for children: Who is the Monster at the End of the Book? It Isn’t Grover, Dear Reader., A Nightmare Reading of Harold and the Purple Crayon, and “The Limits of Language: Seuss Beyond Zebra.” To read more about the important role of the reader, read my book Narrative Madness, available at narrativemadness.com or on Amazon.)