Is the novella making a comeback?

images When it comes to books I keep reading that bigger is better and shorter, as in a novella, is inferior and unpopular:

“For me the word denotes a lesser genre. If you pitch a book to a bookseller as a novel, you’re likely to get more orders than if you call it a novella.” Karolina Sutton (Curtis Brown Literary Agency)

“The novella has fallen into disuse because it sounds like a patronising diminutive – without the scope of a novel or the discipline of a short story.” Claire Armistead (Books editor, The Guardian)

200px-Black-water-joyce-carol-oates But are shorter books really inferior to chunky doorstops? In the past there have been heaps of great novellas, each with the scope of any novel  …

 Of Mice and Men by John SteinebeckA Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess,  Joseph Conrad‘s Heart of Darkness,  H. G.Wells’ The Time Machine,  George Orwell‘s Animal Farm,  Joyce Carol Oates‘s Black WaterErnest Hemingway‘s The Old Man and the See, Robert Louis Stevenson‘s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In The Castle …

Curiousincidentofdoginnighttime-1 And more recently we’ve had  The Curious
Incident of the Dog in the night by Mark Haddon, and  Julian Barnes’  The Sense of an Ending, which won the Booker Prize in 2011! I’ve also noticed that more and more e-books are novella length. Do you know any others?


200px-The_Sense_of_an_Ending Is it possible the novella is making a bit of a come-back? What do you think?  Are you getting a tad fed up with weighty doorstops? When it comes to reading do you refer a chunky door stop of a book, or a slender volume, or don’t you care as long as it’s a good story well told?

As always, it’d be great to hear from you 🙂

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20 Responses to Is the novella making a comeback?

  1. Wendy Clarke says:

    I have read and loved many of the books you have mentioned – especially The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night (which I also recently saw as a London play – it was amazing). I think that there is something about the word ‘novella’ that conjours up in my mind parasols and petticoats (but that’s probably just the strange way my mind works) and it doesn’t seen to have the same authority as the word ‘novel’.

    • I know what you mean, despite there being so many good novellas out there – and there’s the word novellete now, which sounds even worse to me – I think of the novella as something less than a novel, which is wrong. As for writing one …hm????? Would you consider writing a novella? Especially in the present writing climate when writers are bringing out not one, but two books a year, it could be a way to compete?

      Finally, two quotes in praise of the novella:)

      “To reduce the novella to nothing more than a short novel is like saying a pony is a baby horse.” George Fetherling, Canadian poet and novelist

      “The novella is one of the richest and most rewarding of literary forms… it allows for more extended development of theme and character than does the short story, without making the elaborate structural demands of the full-length book. Thus it provides an intense, detailed exploration of its subject.” Robert Silverberg, American Science Fiction author

  2. john gray says:

    I loved all the stories by Edgar Allan Poe, but would “Murder in the rue Morgue” be called a Novella or a Short Story. Is there an actual definition in terms of numbers of words?

  3. Here’s what I found on Wikipedia, which is echoes what is generally thought :

    … novels can vary tremendously in length; Novelist Jane Smiley lists novels as typically being between 100,000 and 175,000 words, while National Novel Writing Month requires its novels to be at least 50,000 words. There are no firm rules: for example the boundary between a novella and a novel is arbitrary and a literary work may be difficult to categorise. But while the length of a novel is to a large extent up to its writer, lengths may also vary by sub-genre; many chapter books for children start at a length of about 16,000 words, and a typical mystery novel might be in the 60,000 to 80,000 word range while a thriller could be over 100,000 words.

    The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America specifies word lengths for each category of its Nebula award categories:[10]
    Classification Word count

    Novel over 40,000 words
    Novella 17,500 to 40,000 words
    Novelette 7,500 to 17,500 words
    Short story under 7,500 words
    ps I think Murders in Rue Morgue is a shorty story

  4. I’m a little bit put off by great big, thick books – thinking how heavy it will be to hold, and how heavy to carry round in my handbag! I don’t have a problem at all with shorter books – as long as it’s a good story.

    • Weight is an issue for me too – I don’t like hardbacks precisely because they are too heavy to hold. As a reader I don’t mind short stories as long as (as you say) they are good, but as a writer I’d think twice before writing a novella. I’m not sure why, possibly because I’ve focussed my efforts on writing novels that I don’t feel skilled enough to write a novella, or maybe my ideas don’t lend themselves to a shorter long narrative. Alternatively, it could be I think it’s too much of a risk given booksellers don’t much like them – which is odd, given that readers do like them!

  5. Ruth F Hunt says:

    Hi Marianne,
    I think it depends on the story, yes, there are plenty of examples of brilliant shorter novels or novella’s. However, I have read more, in my opinion, exceptional stories that have been longer. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace or 2666 by Roberto Bolano to name just two, couldn’t be written in a shorter format. I also find there is an added ‘ah’ or satisfaction element, with reading over a length of time a longer novel. This isn’t to say the novella hasn’t got a place. It all depends on the story and how that story is told.

    • I think you’re probably right, the form is determined by the story idea. My only issue with a longer novel is time – I tend to save them for when I’m on holiday when I can immerse myself in the bigger story and I’m really looking forward to reading Infinite Jest and 2666, both top of my to-read list! Oh, yes, and some long novels are really shorter ones bulked out, which makes for very boring reading.

  6. If I’m going to read a book on a long-haul flight (i.e. 24 hours or so) I want a doorstop. Don’t want to be reading The End somewhere over Singapore, and twiddling my thumbs for the rest of the journey.

    But apparently ebooks are leading to a resurgence of the novella. Whether it’s that formerly non-readers are being lured into reading by the new possibilities, or whether the format just lends itself better to a quick read, who knows?

    I’ve thought about writing a novella, but I was trying to write 80,000 words with my novel and got 100,000 — and that was after a lot of editing to cut it down! I don’t fancy trying to restrict myself to under 40,000…

    (and novellette sounds like a brand of toilet paper)

    • Until I looked it up, I hadn’t heard the term ‘novelette’ before but its been in use since 1814! And it does sound like a brand of toilet paper – ha ha 🙂 I too like bigger books for long haul flights, i want to immerse myself in the dream world of the story and stay there! But it is interesting that there are more and more shorter novella length e-books being published and read, and, yes, it looks as if the digital format has opened new possibilities for readers and writers, which is no bad thing 🙂

      • Ruth F Hunt says:

        Although it’s positive that a shorter length book attracts readers it does make me feel concerned. If readers go for flash fiction or novella’s then what is the future for books in general. It concerns me that people are put off by the size of a book. Surely if you are pressured time wise it can be read chapter by chapter. Yes it’s good that people are reading, but what and how they read could indicate trends that maybe are not so positive.

        • I think choice is everything so the more choice the better. However, I also sometimes worry that as a result of more and more information being delivered online via bite sized morsels, the reading public will look for books to be delivered similarly ie: in smaller chunks. Although it has to be said that some smaller books are part of a series,which when put together sort of make a big thick chunky one – I’m thinking of Game of Thrones, which was the first in series of novellas ( I think?). I’m not sure, yet, if how we read does impact on what we read. It’ll be interesting to see how things develop.
          ps The problem I have with reading chunky books is that it can be that long between chapters I forget what I’ve read and have to start all over again. Ha! It is not a satisfying way to read, which is why I like to wait for a holiday to enjoy them 😉

  7. A very interesting topic but whether it’s a novel, novella, novelette I think what needs to be avoided is the padding out of a story in order to achieve some magic number. A good story will grip you irrespective of length.
    On the subject of long books – one good thing about the digital revolution is that you can carry your own library of long and short tales with you – although I know not all books are available as ebooks…yet.
    Best wishes

    • I agree, it would be wrong to force a story to be something that it is not – I hate padding, there’s nothing worse. I do think we writers do have to be careful not focus too much on a word count as it can be distracting and restrain creativity. That said, it’s interesting that poetry (in its many forms) is full of writing restraints, but these restraints work to heighten the writing rather than confine it … oops, I think I digress! Yep, I love my digital library, especially when I am on holiday and I imagine almost all books will soon be available as ebooks.
      Thanks for comment 🙂

  8. Being a wordy gal, I never seem to manage to write a story in less than 100,000 words. But the idea of the novella is very appealing – a sort of elegant minimalism about it, with vague conotations of German romanticism and Turgenev. So I have often thought about writing one, and in these days of epublishing it is even more appealing. I believe one of these stylish small presses Peirene, is specialising in the novella in translation and doing very well with it. So an interesting time to be thinking about it!
    However, novelette will now forever be a brand of loo paper. Wonderful.

    • Ha ha ha! I’m a sort of wordy gal myself 😉 How interesting that Perienne is specialising in the novella in translation – it does suggest there is an interest in novellas, after all, doesn’t it? (And this is the second time this week I have come across Perienne!) Thanks too for the link.
      The revolutionary thing about e-publishing (apart from carrying a library in our handbags/pocket) is that traditional publishers don’t call the shots any more … I may be wrong about this, and someone please correct me if I am, but traditional publishers, until recently, dictated the length books should be – demanding bigger, chunkier novels from writers because bigger novels bring in more money. With e-publishing though, the length of a piece of work isn’t a cost factor, this means we writers can pick and chose what we want to write, regardless of length, and, equally, readers can pick and chose what they want to read. In many ways, e-publishing is democratising the book world, but maybe I am being naive?

  9. Kendra says:

    Hi everyone,
    It is an interesting discussion. For myself, I like both novellas and novels. I think it depends on the story being told as well as the skill of the storyteller. If a writer is skilled at what they do then I am happy to follow them for as many pages as it takes. I would agree that people should be concerned with the story and not with the length. One thing that came to mind when reading the comments is how long the term ‘novella’ has been in common use. Looking back on some of the ‘novels’ I read when I first fell in love with books I realised that they would probably now fall under the term ‘novella’. I’m thinking of Steinbeck’s Mice and Men, many of Hemingway’s ‘novels’ and some of William Faulkner’s (As I Lay Dying is apparently only 56,000 words). I don’t think any of these have suffered for being ‘short’ and I wonder if they were not considered ‘novels’ at the time (I think they were but I don’t actually know).
    Also Ruth’s point about people’s attention spans not being able to take in long books anymore is interesting. I’m not sure if I agree though. I think that it takes a lot of skill and discipline to produce something sharp and short and also to read it, especially at a time when readers maybe want fewer details left to the imagination. It’s certainly something to think about though.
    As for the novelette, it definitely sounds like toilet paper.
    Re Peirene Press. I believe they were giving out a free newsletter here in London a few months ago about their work. It seemed very interesting and something which I’ve been meaning to investigate further. Thanks for the reminder.
    Thanks too for the thought provoking blog post and discussion.

    • Hi Kendra, thanks for joining in and for your comments. I agree we can’t judge the worth of a story or piece of writing by something as arbitrary as its length. I looked up the meaning of novella as a literary term and was surprised to discover it has been used as far back as the 1400s. I also found this while looking on wikipedia and thought it very apt:

      Commonly, longer novellas are referred to as novels; Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Heart of Darkness are sometimes called novels, as are many science fiction works such as The War of the Worlds and Armageddon 2419 A.D. Less often, longer works are referred to as novellas. The subjectivity of the parameters of the novella genre is indicative of its shifting and diverse nature as an art form. In her 2010 Open Letters Monthly series, “A Year With Short Novels,” Ingrid Norton criticizes the tendency to make clear demarcations based purely on a book’s length:

      Google “novels” and “length” and you will find tables of word counts, separating out novels from novellas, even from the esoteric and still shorter “novelette” — as though prose works were dog show contestants, needing to be entered into proper categories. But when it comes to writing, any distinctions that begin with an objective and external quality like size are bound to be misleading. The delicate, gem-like jigsaw of Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Ray [sic] could not be more unlike the feverishly cunning philosophical monologue of Albert Camus’ The Fall, but both novels are about the same length.

  10. Marc hawey says:

    Of mice and men:
    Here in Québec,we saw at T.V. in the years ’70 the piece of John Steinebeck:”Des souris et des hommes” (of mice and men);a great performance by Jacques Godin and Hubert Loiselle.Mr Loiselle is died,but Mr Godin is still alive.This piece is still in my mind…I like to go to theater,in Québec city,like to Theatre Le Periscope.
    Robert Lepage is an other great Quebecer performer and author…:Le projet Henderson,Les 7 branches de la rivière Otha,La face cachée de la lune,Des aiguilles et de l’opium…
    Each year,in May we have “Le carrefour international de théatre de Québec”;many performances from many countries…I like to be touched in my heart by a text,a performance…..

    • Quebec sounds a bit like Edinburgh in that it has some great theatre. I think the power of great writing – whether a play or story or poem or song – is that it does touch us, connecting us with humanity or humankind. Thanks for comment 🙂

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