What Is a Novella?
Let me start here: I do not know what a novella is, and no other writer, scholar, or critic has successfully defined it in a way that would make it recognizable to the common reader.
June has been declared National Novella Month by Dan Wickett of the Emerging Writers Network and Deena Drewis of Nouvella Books, a publisher specializing in novellas. During the month, there will be a series of posts put up by Wickett and Drewis, and hopefully many others, on the novella, linking to author essays, blog posts, novella recommendations, and other good things about the novella.
I think discussing the attraction of the novella will also help to define and recognize it, and perhaps too give us a reason to seek novellas out with greater frequency. I’ve only written one thing I would call a novella: my story “Keep,” which is the final story in my forthcoming collection.
“Keep” didn’t start out as a novella. When I sit down to write a new story, there isn’t a plan like word count or a “This is what it is!” definition floating around in mind. What initially was interesting to me was the relationship between a successful man and his mentally unbalanced brother at a time in their adulthood when the course of their lives seemed to be set. I wrote a draft, discovering elements of their lives that were intriguing to me. But I knew, somehow, that I wasn’t writing a novel, just a story, and so when the first draft clocked in at 9500 words, I focused on trimming the fat. What I ended up with by the third or fourth draft was a 7500 word story that I wasn’t happy with at all. The sentences were better, but to hit a word count, there were far too many things I had to eliminate.
Since I’ve worked on literary journals for six or seven years now, by the late stages of a story, I do think about word count. I probably shouldn’t. But it’s there, in the back of my mind, and eight thousand words has always struck me as pretty much the limit for a not-yet-famous writer. The story needed to be this lengthy if I wanted people to read it. Yet it kept gnawing at me: I’m leaving too much story out of it.
So, then, oh well: the next draft was twenty four thousand words. And the story was significantly better.
When editing was finished, the story was about twenty one thousand words. The list of magazines venues that would publish something of this length from, well, someone like me, was short: perhaps a dozen journals. I started sniffing around for places that would publish stand-alone novellas, and this too proved to be a tiny market. I did what many short story writers do: I made the novella the last story in my collection and sent the book out in the world that way, with the novella never before read by a wide audience.
Many good short story collections—and I’m not talking a Collected or Selected—have one novella. All prose writers, it appears, write at least one story that isn’t quite a short story and isn’t quite a novel either. It’s something in the middle, with a defining characteristic, it seems, of having a length that is challenging to sell. This—the marketplace—seems to me to be the cause for both the novellas naming and its challenges.
Here are some books that have been called novellas: The Great Gatsby, Heart of Darkness, Seize the Day, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Carrie, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Desperate Characters, The Story of Lucy Gault, On Chesil Beach, The Old Man and the Sea, The Mezzanine, The Fifth Child, Slaughterhouse Five, Tinkers, The Bluest Eye, Chronicle of a Death Fortold, and Train Dreams.
Are they? You might feel otherwise. You might say “No, they aren’t! I’ve seen those as books! Those are novels!” And, I have to admit, that’s my first instinct, too. There is probably some excellent wonky theory about embracing the language and mindset of a post-capitalistic worldview, but, you know, not what this venue is for. My point here is that we’re working backwards here. Rather than reading something and then discussing and pondering what it could be defined as, we’re defining it first and then reading it. Pretty normal, I suppose, in a culture that loves to make top ten lists of, well, everything.
Novellas are kind of like baseball. They take longer than football, basketball, or soccer, but unlike cricket, it can’t go on for two weeks. Baseball doesn’t have a clock: the game can take as little as two hours or it could go for six hours. Same with the novella: you might be able to read it in two hours, but it might take you the entire day. It’s more expansive than a story, but not as narratively complex as a novel. I could go on. But you get the idea.
The beauty of the novella is that is eludes definition. Which, when you think about it, is what makes art art rather than a product. Let’s embrace that.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye