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?