Coming in from the cold - Mari Biella

The novella. It’s the wallflower of the literary world, continually snubbed and ignored, judged to be to nobody’s taste. Like an overlooked middle child, it has neither the star appeal of its big brother, the novel, nor the simple charm of the short story. Stephen King once described the novella as “an anarchy-ridden literary banana republic”, and tellingly said that even he – Stephen King, who by his own admission could probably get his laundry list into print if he wanted to – had trouble convincing a publisher of his novellas’ worth.

Big spines look good on shelves
By many accounts, publishers are indeed reluctant to take on novellas. I’ve heard this attributed to a very simple, and brutally commercial, reason: novellas are simply too small to have much presence in bookshops. Readers are more likely to pluck a book off the shelf if it is physically prominent, with a thick, imposing spine. Novellas are also perceived to be less valuable: if a reader is going to spend his hard-earned cash on a book, the reasoning goes, he’d probably prefer a doorstop-sized epic than a slim volume of 150 pages or so. Novellas, it seems, are just wrong: too long to be included in anthologies or submitted to newspapers or magazines, and too short to be sold as standalone products.

Of course, there is some disagreement about what precisely a novella is. According to many definitions, it’s a fictional work of somewhere between 20,000 and 50,000 words, but there’s no universally accepted designation. Arguably, however, it has less to do with word count than with focus. The novella, according to Warren Cariou, “retains something of the unity of impression that is a hallmark of the short story, but it also contains more highly developed characterization and more luxuriant description.” A novel allows the writer to “zoom out” and capture a broad landscape, one that encompasses several different events, themes and people. A short story, on the other hand, zooms right in, focusing its lens on the intricate, the particular. A novella combines something of both approaches, allowing for close-up examination of a particular theme, occurrence or character, and yet also leaving room for greater development and background.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

“Never write a book under 60,000 words,” F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote. He was lamenting the relative commercial failure of The Great Gatsby, no less, which comes in at about 47,000 words. If books were indeed to be rejected on the basis of their size alone, then also bound for the shredder would be such classics as Heart of Darkness (38,206 words), Of Mice and Men (29,160 words), and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (25,289 words). And while I wouldn’t normally argue with one of my favourite authors, I’m going to come right out and say it: by all means write a book under 60,000 words, if that is its natural size.

For there is much to be said for the novella. It allows for intense and detailed scrutiny of its subject, but also provides more scope for this than does the short story. It calls for no less dexterity on the part of the author; indeed, in certain respects it actually calls for rather more. The challenge of achieving a balance between overwriting and a rushed, “thin” narrative is all the greater, as there is less room for error on either side. And yet the novella also offers a degree of freedom. If it isn’t working, the author can put it aside for a while without undue worries; it is easier, and far less daunting, to return to than a full-length novel. It allows one to flex one’s writing muscles and try out something new, secure in the knowledge that even if you fail you won’t have squandered years of your life on it.

Certain stories just seem to suit the novella form; they can’t be condensed into a short story, but nor will they stretch to 100,000 words. My own novella, Loving Imogen, weighs in at 32,840 words, which just seemed to be its natural length. Less, and it would have been underwritten; more, and it would have been stuffed full of unnecessary padding.

Encouragingly, it seems that the novella could be undergoing something of a renaissance, as author Jenny Thomson argues here. The condensed form of the novella is arguably well-suited to the frenetic pace of modern life, where both authors and readers are time-poor. Thomson also points to the rise of the e-book as a factor in the revival of the novella’s fortunes. A novella’s lack of presence on the bookshelf is, after all, hardly an issue when it is being distributed electronically on the internet. As for its perceived lack of value, that too may be less of a problem. Self-publishers are generally able to keep their costs down and their prices low; e-books in particular are not especially costly to produce.

The self-publishing and e-book revolution holds out many tantalising possibilities. I truly hope that one effect will be to allow the novella – which Robert Silverberg described as “one of the richest and most rewarding of literary forms” – to finally come in from the cold. 


JO said…
e-books are just made for the novella - I can see that print publishers find it hard to sell a short book for £7.99 when another twice the length for the same price sits beside it.

But with ebooks anything is possible.
Lee said…
No argument from me about the value of a novella. The only thing is, how do you really tell the 'natural' length of a story? I'm not convinced it's been handed down by the gods.
Jan Needle said…
I've always loved novellas, which may be something to do with being such a slow reader, i suppose. Also, I find it very difficult to stop reading a novel even if it's 'doing me ed in' with boredom, etc. But some novellas are wonderful, and i'm with Lee all the way on 'natural lengths' Conrad's novellas are almost all immensely powerful, his full length novels don't really do it for me.

Now the ebook rev has made it all possible and exciting. And here's a thought - yesterday Endeavour Press brought out my latest novella, which is the start of a series about the life and times of Nelson, hoffentlich warts and all. Their plan is that every time I finish a set of three, say, it can come out as a 'novel' for those who prefer their fiction that way. Simple, eh? And in the meantime, it leaves me with much more 'free time' to work on other things.
And as anyone who wants to earn a crust from writing knows, opportunity, or opportunism, has to be the name of the game. On which principle I end with the url for Nelson - The Poisoned River. You pay a measly £1.99, I become a bloated millionaire!
Lydia Bennet said…
well plugged Jan! ;) these sound great - my first commissioned play was about Admiral Collingwood (a local lad) and Nelson featured in it, and I'm a long time fan of Patrick O'Brian's novels.
Lydia Bennet said…
Anyhoo, back to Mari's excellent post, wasn't there a book of four novellas by Stephen King which yielded several huge blockbuster films?
I hate padding, many big publishers put out books which could have a third or more deleted and be only an improvement. if the characters stopped lighting fags and making cups of coffee thousands of pointless words would vanish! Those dragon tattoo things were full of it, a trip round Ikea took whole lifetimes to plough through, I suppose at least that was realistic and padding helps to cover up plot holes. seriously, a lot of brilliant novellas would result if padding was removed from novels which have been increased just to be called novels! ebooks should help put this right.
Debbie Bennett said…
I've just finished writing my first novella at 42k. I was fairly sure when I started that it wouldn't be a novel as I didn't have enough plot (but never say never, and I don't plan so was open-minded). I was right. The natural end came out at pretty much where I was expecting. One main character and no sub-plots and I' really rather pleased with the result. It's not easy to write at mid-length though - you have to develop but can't afford padding.
Mari Biella said…
Thanks for the replies, everyone. Jo – I’m really hoping that e-books will lead to a renaissance for novellas; they do seem to fit together quite well.

Lee – I can only speak from my own experience, but regarding the “natural length” of a book I realised early on that I wouldn’t be able to do justice to my material if I limited myself to a short story – it needed greater development – but also that it was never going to stretch to more than about 40,000 words. It just seemed that the story fitted the novella form perfectly.

Jan – Well plugged indeed! It’s a wonderful idea to write novellas that can stand alone or could be put together to form a novel. Good luck with these!

Lydia – I’ve read quite a few books with unnecessary padding – one, which shall remain nameless, involved a trip to the corner shop in which just about every item available for sale was listed! I did get the feeling that the author was just trying to increase his word count for the sake of it.

Debbie – Good luck with your novella. Your experience mirrors my own – I guessed early on how far my story would stretch, and I wasn’t far off. And it is a bit of a balancing act between sufficient development and unneeded padding.
Dan Holloway said…
I was once on a panel about digital publishing and was asked what I thought was the best thing about ebooks, to which I answered that they would bring novellas to new audiences. What's wonderful is the way the past couple of years has seen this happen not just in ebooks but in print, thanks to small presses like Peirene, and Melville House's wonderful Art of the Novella series.
I've been meaning to comment on this excellent and thought provoking post since it went up. I have several projects stashed away that I think are probably novellas - and I will certainly be playing about with them in eBook form. I think readers like shorter forms of fiction. I just think publishers - but especially 'big publishing' - didn't make enough of a profit from them. I love Heart of Darkness, The Great Gatsby, Dr Jekyll, and could add A Christmas Carol, the longer stories of Oscar Wilde - Dorian Gray for instance - and others. I'm not entirely sure that you can know what form a project should take until you start working on it. The result of this - in my case - is that I have a few things filed away that I loved working on (as opposed to the things I abandoned because they weren't up to scratch!) but probably gave up on because I could see that there wasn't enough material for a novel. Or perhaps I mean that they weren't diverse enough for a novel. For a while, I was looking for that elusive 'breakthrough novel' and a number of things fell by the wayside. It takes a change of perspective to be able to see that there was intrinsically nothing wrong with those ideas and that I can now just write them and let them be what they want to be.

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