What even is a novella?

The great battle of literary forms seems to focus primarily on the short story versus the novel, with the general consensus being that the novel is superior in its greater scope and possibilities—just try selling a short-story collection to a publisher!—but this over-simplification neglects poetry; it neglects the ultra-short gems of flash fiction that are prevalent online; and it neglects the novella.

Personally, I love them all. So why focus this site on novellas? And what even are they?

Well. The first answer is simple: the novella is oft-neglected, and yet I’ve enjoyed so many of them in the past few years. They deserve the increased attention that they seem to be getting. And they deserve more!

But what is a novella? Is it just a short novel?

Well yeah. Type the question into Google and you’ll be told that a novella is “a short novel or a long short story”. But how long is a piece of string?

I generally say that a novella is between 20-50,000 words. Others says 30-60,000, but the broad range is the same. The guidelines for the Griffith Review Novella Project state that “while there is no firm word length requirement, writers are advised that works between 10,000 and 25,000 words are preferable; 35,000 words is the maximum”. This low-ish maximum perhaps reflects the fact that they publish multiple winning novellas in a single issue of their journal. Seizure’s Viva La Novella project goes with “a slim 20–50,000 words” and calls novellas “a movie-length reading experience and perfect for a digital read. Longer than a short story and shorter than a novel, it’s an under-published form”. Hear, hear!

More important than length, however, most novellas have a strong focus on their sole protagonist. Secondary characters are present, but there are less sub-plots and less depth to the secondary characters than you would generally find in a longer novel. In my experience, this intense focus can lead to intense (and wonderful) reading experiences.

Does any of this really matter? I went to Project Gutenburg and counted the length of my (so-far) favourite novella: Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. It’s 49,000 words, pushing the upper bounds of my definition. Some people do refer to The Awakening as a novel, but it’s usually published alongside a selection of Chopin’s short stories in order to bring it up to the “book size” that the buying public expects.

To me, The Awakening is definitely a novella and could be viewed as a perfect example of just what the novella can do (and that a novel can’t). I’ll elaborate more on this when I write about The Awakening in a future post.

Meanwhile, I hear a rumour that my box of novellas from Melville House has arrived somewhere in Sydney… stay tuned!

2015-03-13