What Is This Thing Called Novella?

Seth Satterlee -- December 9th, 2013

This past weekend at the Words & Music Literary Festival in New Orleans, Louisiana one of the more contentious panels focused on the evolution of the novella as a literary form. Digital publishing seems to be changing the rules of this in-between tradition.  On the dais were novelists Lisa Zeidner and Moira Crane along with the festival’s novella prize winners from the past two years, Daniel Castro and David Appel. Moderating was agent Chris Parris-Lamb from the Gernet Agency. Quickly a fundamental question divided the panel: is the novella an essential form?

Apart from length, what separates a novella from a novel? What about a short story? Crane spoke about the tradition of the novella, works like The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy, Death in Venice by Thomas Mann, and The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka that defined the form.  She argued that all three can be read in one sitting and maintain a tight focus on a single subject, yet encompass a narrative scope that cannot be recreated in a short story.  Castro brought up an Ian McEwan New Yorker article that spoke about perfectibility: “The poem and the short story are theoretically perfectible, but I doubt there is such a thing as a perfect novel… The novel is too capacious, inclusive, unruly, and personal for perfection. Too long, sometimes too much like life. It doesn’t need or look for perfection… I could at least conceive of the perfect novella. Or, rather, imagine one approaching perfection like an asymptotic line in coördinate geometry.”

It was Parris-Lamb who contended that the novella really isn’t anything unique in its own right, merely a term used to denote a short novel.  He spoke about the tradition of publishing novellas. Usually too long for magazines, too short for most houses to publish economically, it has taken on a taboo quality.  With the recent options for digital publishing, most literary agencies would rather market a “novella” as a novel, so as not to trivialize the work.  Why demote a work to novella status when it can be marketed as it’s more prestigious older brother?

But the novella seems to be going as strong as usual in genre fiction, with both the Hugo and Nebula awards giving out prestigious annual prizes in the category for Science Fiction.  Now that the traditional barriers on publishing works of this awkward length (or elegant, depending on perspective) are quickly breaking down, what is the future of this form?  It seems perfectly tailored to audiences craving the breadth of a novel while maintaining the precision of a short story.  What do you think? Is the novella a quirk from the past, or a category worth maintaining as an essential form?

9 thoughts on “What Is This Thing Called Novella?

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  2. Seth Satterlee

    There is definitely a lot of marketing at play here. But it seems like novellas have always been defined because of the marketing. If they really are ‘little novels,’ why do we still need the term? Something too long to be in a magazine, something too short for lucrative printing, don’t both of those constraints fall away with the rise of digital reading?

    I wonder, is there really a need for a specific category between a ‘short story’ and a ‘novel’? Great novellas–at least the ones cited at the panel–read much more like short stories than they do novels to me. They simply can pull off the tightened scope of a shorter work while approaching ‘novel length.’

  3. SU

    Missing in this article is a discussion of length of novellas. I see things listed on Amazon as “novella” ranging from as little as 25 pages to 185 pages. Without considering literary aspects, the best (?) guideline is that used in the SciFi and Mystery/Crime communities, based on Nebula award standards and Hubin’s monumental Crime Fiction. Novellas run about 46-50 to 100 pages (17,500 to 40,000 words); one can break the under-50 page group into vignettes, short stories, and novelettes, as well. But it is difficult to discuss the concept of novella without at least some general agreement on how long they are!

  4. Mike Campbell

    I totally agree with McEwan and Crane that from a literary critic’s point of view, the novel and the novella are two separate art forms. Madame Bovary is a novel, A Simple Heart is a novella.
    In modern days, I would argue that Lorrie Moore’s “Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?” is clearly a novella, and her publisher was forced to sell it (in 1994) as a novel in order to find an audience.
    Now, with e-publishing, new options are available.

  5. Carol Buchanan

    When an author conceives of a story to be told, both the digital and print forms should be molded to the story, not to a publisher’s marketing department. Self-published authors have that artistic freedom. I have self-published stories in print and digital in lengths varying from a novel of nearly 150,000 words to a 6,000-word short story, and in the future I’ll continue to use whatever length it takes to tell the story I envision. Does it really matter how the story is categorized by length? I’d much rather it were classified by readers as “Good.”

  6. GMD

    I seems to me, that it is being used by author’s as an in-between “books” to keep the audience hungry for more. There is a lot of time between “longer” works for an author to be published and readers are always clammering for more and more. This is a stop gap to keep readers happy and waiting for the next BOOK.

  7. JMS

    It seems to me that a lot of readers actively search out novellas as ebooks, particularly in science fiction, fantasy, and romance. Sometimes it’s a way in to a new writer’s work at a lower cost, both of money and time.

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