In Praise of Novellas

Why did I write a novella and not a full-length novel?

The novella has been “having a moment” off and on for the last decade (I haven’t written the only “In Praise of Novellas” blog post), but I can’t blame trendiness. Many years ago, a “meme” in the original Web 1.0 sense—what I think YouTubers now call a “tag”—circulated among bookish denizens of Livejournal (to give you an idea how many years ago I mean) canvassing our literary tastes. One of the questions: Epic or novella? I remember thinking it was a strange questions—why choose between forms so utterly different?—and many years of reading later I still have trouble with the question. I’m exaggerating for effect, but my favorite works of fiction are either epics or novellas.

Your world-recording and world-making ambitions should either be so great that it can scarcely be contained by 500 pages, or you should whet your chosen philosophical conflict, aesthetic mood, and/or character study down to a 100-page edge. Perhaps the 300-page novel has become either formulaic or programmatic, at least for literary fiction. Even truly great 300-page novels often feel either too long or too short: McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses canters on long after we’ve gotten the point, while Morrison’s Paradise leaves too many byways in its town and rooms in its convent unexplored. Novellas and epics: for me, the most ideal forms of fiction.

(Though I often think the already vague and porous definition of novella should expand to contain works over 50,000 words but still noticeably shorter than your average 90,000-word novel, such as The Scarlet Letter or Mrs. Dalloway. Doesn’t a 60K-word work have more in common with a 50K-word one than a 200K one?)

The attractions of the novella for the proverbial common reader should be obvious. Novellas are ideal for mobile reading, both digital and analog, whether because you can read one on your phone over two or three lunch breaks or because you can carry a print copy in your back pocket. They even create a sense of confidence and accomplishment—surely reading a 100-page book is still reading a book!—for readers with an eye on their Goodreads count. There’s also an appealingly countercultural edge to the novella in our era of the binge, whether we are binge-watching prestige TV or binge-reading Knausgaard. Novellas, finally, be a less intimidating way to get acquainted with authors who have a fearsome or formidable reputation: you can start with Bartleby, not Moby-Dick; The Dead, not Ulysses; Death in Venice, not The Magic Mountain.

For writers, the attractions of the form can be just as great. Telling a story that is varied but cohesive in tone and convincingly populated in 10,000 to 50,000 words instils discipline, inspires concision, and builds self-assurance. Shorter forms of all kinds can also serve as a laboratory to experiment with styles, genres, archetypes, and points of view that you aren’t sure would work at greater length. And novellas, with their briefer compass, allow writers to focus more closely on prose, whether the goal is faithful realism or stylized artifice, a priority that sometimes goes missing when you’re trying to hold 100,000 words’ worth of plot and characters in mind.

For both readers and writers, the diverse publishing platforms of today make the novella more viable than ever. If the magazine market that supported the genre’s emergence and heyday in the late 19th and early 20th centuries has evaporated, the novella is still a perfect form for both partisans of the well-designed artist’s book or for ease of e-reading. To celebrate this sometimes neglected form, I offer this lightly annotated list, a non-exhaustive baker’s dozen, arranged by authorial surname, of some of the best novellas I’ve discussed at this site over the years, with an emphasis on those that haven’t always had the attention they deserve.

RECOMMENDED NOVELLAS

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César Aira, An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter
A hallucinatory journey across the lightning-struck 19th-century Pampas that raises and even sometimes answers every philosophical question you’ve ever asked about art’s relation to life.

Jayinee Basu, The City of Folding Faces
A poet’s kaleidoscopic science-fiction dream, a semi-surreal love story of shifting and elaborating identities with all the texture of 21st-century metropolitan life.

Stephen Crane, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets
A pitiless objet d’art wrought from and offered in tribute to the agonies of the late-19th century New York underclass; no writer today would dare.

Christopher Isherwood, Prater Violet
An eloquent coming-of-age tragicomedy in which a budding English writer is hired to work on an insipid commercial movie with a radical Austrian Jewish filmmaker during the rise of Nazism.

Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of the Pointed Firs
A heartfelt and sometimes almost mythical travelogue commemorating the vanishing lifeworld of the late-19th-century Maine seacoast.

Nella Larsen, Quicksand
A subtle and ironic psychological study of of an African- and Danish-American woman questing for freedom from the Deep South to Denmark to Renaissance-era Harlem.

Valeria Luiselli, Faces in the Crowd
A Möbius-strip of a poet’s narrative braiding contemporary Mexico City with modernist New York, life with death, maternity with art, featuring cameos by Ezra Pound, Nella Larsen, Federico García Lorca, and more.

Herman Melville, Billy Budd
A tragedy of law’s conflict with justice set on an allegorical ship roiling with concealed passions in revolutionary times, written in a cunning and coiled style that makes the text as ambiguous as its characters.

Toni Morrison, Sula
A half-century chronicle of a small black town in Ohio, a magic-realist myth of two archetypal characters’ loves and losses centered on female friendship, a counterintuitive inquiry into the nature of good and evil.

Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49
A paranoid, cryptic, paronomasiac, absurdist, moving quest for the meaning of America across the strange landscape of a California underworld pledged to all the meanings “freedom” might have.

Philip Roth, Goodbye, Columbus
A comic cross-class romance whose narrator, a bookish young man from a working-class Jewish family, is shocked to dazzling omni-observance by the wealthier milieu of his new girlfriend; a relationship fails, but a writer is born.

Juan Rulfo, Pedro Páramo
A sometimes comic, sometimes uncanny, always dreamily vivid ghost story encompassing decades of Mexican history as a chorus of the dead narrates the eponymous anti-hero’s rise and fall.

Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North
A disturbing examination of postcolonial eros set in a Sudanese village, as the narrator assembles the story of a neighbor who spent his academic life in England turning the metropole’s fetishes against his white lovers.

2 comments

  1. Excellent post. In some ways the novella is the ideal form for telling a story; if it is making a comeback, that’s good news. A few side points:

    1. In my experience long novels rarely justify their length. In part, this is due to the fact that as they get longer, it opens the door to more imperfections, mistakes of judgment, and extraneous material. Often I read a modern novel and think: “That was a good 300-page novel. Too bad it’s over 500 pages.” For older novels, since they were often published serially, authors were often forced to pad due to word count requirements.

    2. Regarding the exact boundaries – while there’s no hard and fast boundary as to where the novella turns into a novel, the same is true on the other end: is a long short story a novella or not? (Case in point: “The Dead,” which you mentioned. Wouldn’t “Portrait of the Artist” be the correct counterpart novella to “Ulysses”?)

    3. It’s not just that reading a novella provides a sense of accomplishment; it’s also better value for money and time. In the time it takes to read a great long novel (featuring characters and situations that you may well get tired of in the middle), you can read 3-4 completely different stories, each with its own characters, plot, style, etc.

    • Thank you! I agree with most of what’ve said. I do think that for some long novels, length is part of their artistic statement, as they are trying to capture the entirety of a place, time, city, industry, historical event, etc., and as such are intended to be exhaustive, immersive, encyclopedic rather than concise or efficient. Your point about earlier fiction’s relation to serialization is true; as I understand it, those works were often written to be read aloud in families and friend groups and were thus meant to be experienced like TV shows today, with allowances made for distraction or missing an episode.

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