The novella is the Bigfoot of fiction

The main page of Nouvella’s website for the month of June.

It’s both funny and somehow appropriate that it’s taking many of us until the middle of June to realize that June now celebrates the middle child of fiction: the novella. National Novella Month is something Dan Wickett (oh he of the grand and holy Dzanc Books) got started a couple of years ago, and I love that it now exists. To be honest, I didn’t realize until last month that May had been deemed National Short Story Month, but I was thrilled when I found out, because poetry — holy and beautiful and worthy of praise though it is — has been hogging the spotlight in April for years now. Okay, sure, we set aside April for poetry because that poor form goes so under-appreciated the rest of the year, but, excepting my writer friends (and maybe even including some of them), when’s the last time you picked up a story collection? They sell about as well as poetry collections these days, which is a damn shame, because I love short stories.

But the novella? Forget about it. We can’t even agree on what the the novella is for crying out loud! Nouvella (whose excellent graphic I stole for this post) calls for submissions of novellas between 10,000 and 40,000 words; Caketrain, whose chapbook contest allows for novellas, asks for 12,000 to 26,000 words; Main Street Press, who published Ben Tanzer’s novella My Father’s House — which I read not long ago — calls for manuscripts of 30,000 – 50,000 words (“This is a FIRM number,” they say); the Malahat Review‘s novella contest asks for a scant 10,000- to 20,000-word range, which the magazine The Long Story would not consider a novella but simply a… well, long story (their range is nearly identical to the Malahat contest’s range).

Tom Franklin’s award-winning novella “Poachers,” which led to him landing an agent and eventually a book contract that included his story collection of the same name, takes up only 60 pages in the book version of Poachers. My Penguin edition of Saul Bellow’s Sieze the Day runs 118 pages. My own novella, which I’m currently shopping on the market, clocks in at a whopping 135 pages.

And notice the ways in which I handle the titles. Many novellas wind up in italics as stand-alone works, like novels, but I put the 60-page “Poachers” (as opposed to the whole collection) in quotes, like a short story. In my case, I do this as a matter of form — the novellas that appear as stand-alone books I treat with italics, but Franklin’s novella — as part of a collection — I put in quotes. But peruse other writers’ and publishers’ and critics’ usage, and you’ll see it’s pretty widely variable. And what on earth would I do with a novella that had appeared as a stand-alone and then got anthologized, or vice-versa?

So let’s set aside length and discuss what else distinguishes the form from the long story (on the one hand) and the novel (on the other). Should the novella satisfy Poe’s “unity of effect” or his idea that “all works of literary art” ought to be readable within “the limit of a single sitting”? And if the novella does satisfy these terms, does that just make is a really long short story? Or, if it doesn’t, are we simply looking at a really short novel? (Or, is this just another way of talking about length?)

I think the answer is neither, because to compare the novella to either form is counterproductive. No one thinks of short stories in terms of their relationship to the novel. Well, we do — one of the most common things you hear in (sometimes lazy) fiction workshops is, “I think this story could be expanded into a novel,” and certainly most of Joseph Conrad’s novels developed that way; and I’ve often remarked on what I felt were overindulgent and under-edited novels that they probably ought to have been short stories (Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby, I’m talking about you!). And don’t get me started on the story cycle, which tries to be — and sometimes calls itself — a “novel in stories”!

But in general, we don’t really think of the story as being just a shorter version of the novel, or vice versa. They accomplish different things. The story is about limited scale, single events or single characters or single settings — Poe’s “unity of effect” — and in focusing that way, they most often speak to us as individuals, as though we were having a conversation with ourselves or, at most, the small gathering of human beings we surround ourselves with. Novels, on the other hand, are more expansive, not just in length but in scope — they are a conversation with the whole world — and they have room for more grandiose commentary on philosophy, society, and the human condition. There’s overlap, sure, but the intent is what’s important. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is a love story about Lizzie and Darcy, sure — and Austen’s a marvel at the minutia of human character — but it’s more largely about Regency society and marital tropes. Hemingway’s “Hills for White Elephants” is about abortion, sure, but it’s more specifically about what these individual people do in this particular kind of (un)romantic situation and, by extension, what we ourselves might do.

It’s easy to distinguish the story from the novel because they’re so far apart in their intent. Our difficulty in talking about the novella, I think, lies in our insistance on drawing a line between the story and the novel and then trying to drop the novella somewhere along the spectrum. And to my mind, that’s a bit like drawing a line between warthogs and elephants and trying to figure out where the rhino falls between them. The novella is simply a different creature altogether.

When I set out to write my novella, I knew going in that I was writing a novella — not a novel, and not a short story. I knew I wanted to deal with large social issues and cultural themes, but also that I wanted to focus those issues through lens of two distinct characters in a smaller-than-novel scale. (See, I’m still not immune to the spectrum/comparison approach.) I knew that I wanted the story to span a full year — actually, five seasons, plus a prologue that sets up a backstory — but also that the story would remain focused on these two characters and this one location. The scope of a novel but the scale of a story, maybe.

So, okay, maybe I can’t get away from comparing the novella to a short story or the novel, but I still don’t see it as just a waypoint on some kind of evolutionary scale. It’s more like the offspring of the short story and the novel, and which traits get passed along from which parent form depends a bit on breeding and a bit of the mysteries of genetics. The novella isn’t a stop on some line, it’s the third point in a fiction triangle.

Or something. Look, we’re all still trying to figure this creature out, really. Maybe calling the novella the rhino on a warthog-elephant scale isn’t the best analogy. Maybe it’s the Bigfoot of fiction, some mythical creature that everyone sort of knows the general description of but that no one can agree on regarding specifics (and that some people still don’t believe in), and none of us is quite sure if it’s some kind of missing link or another species altogether. But that doesn’t stop us from celebrating it.

Which is why it’s so terrific that June is National Novella Month. Maybe in the process of celebrating the form, we can start to observe it more closely and learn a little more about it. Or at least sell really big plaster casts of its footprint.

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4 thoughts on “The novella is the Bigfoot of fiction

  1. I’ve written novellas, Samuel (yeah, I wrote one that Jersey Devil Press bounced, and I’m not likely to let you guys forget that in a hurry). Even my about-to-be-published novel, at just under 40K words, could arguably be called a ‘novella’. I do not think it is so much the size as the concept that defines the novella. Obviously – yes – there is an approximate size-bracket, but there comes a point where a plot develops beyond the focus of a short story, but before it achieves the potential intricacy of a novel. And then there is a point beyond which plot intricacies, scope, etc makes a written work into more than a novella. Thus my ‘The Last-but-one Samurai’ at just over 13K words is definitely a novella in structure and length, whereas the plot developed in ‘Lupa’ definitely makes it a short novel rather than a novella (in my own opinion).

    M

    1. Yes, yes, and yes! I’m still leery of language about development, though. It seems to me that a successful novella ought to start out as a novella, rather than just be a story that got too big for its britches or a novel that never finished its growth spurt. Of course, I say that knowing full well how many novels started out as short stories. But even knowing that, I don’t think anyone confuses stories with novels, whereas, when we stick to language about development or evolution or continuums, no one quite knows what to call a novella. I just want to call it a novella, regardless its relationship to stories or novels. Except I also don’t know yet how to do that.

      Other than calling novellas Bigfoot, apparently. Or rhinos. 🙂

      1. Well okay. I know when something *feels* like a novella. That was just the first time I had ever tried to put it into words. Be gentle with me. 🙂

      2. Gentle with each other, aggressive with the definitions, and if you figure it out before I do, let me know, because I still don’t know quite how to wrestle with this creature! 🙂

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