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.