When does a novella become a novel?

26 Apr

And so we move from an earlier post about the composition of sequels and multiple volumes to one concerning a form at the opposite end of the writing spectrum, the novella.

When does a short story become a novella?  And for that matter, when does a novella become a novel? It’s a question that’s often asked and one to which we struggle to supply a satisfactory answer. Everyone knows the order – short story, novella, novel – but at what point does the transition occur?

The distinction is frequently made in purely numerical terms. Using word count leads us inevitably to artificial and arbitrary cut-off points. Does a short story, then, turn into a novella at 10,000 words? Or is it 12,000 words or 20,000? Is a book 50,000 words in length a short novel or a long novella? We can say for sure that a story 2,000 words in length is a short story and that one of 80,000 words is a full-length novel, but it gets messy somewhere in between.

22-04-2013 20;26;12

An illustration from my long-disowned first novella (felt pen on printer paper!)

Perhaps the novella should be seen as narrower than the novel but somehow purer also. It often sticks to a single narrative, told from one point of view, exploring a single theme. Is it then, perhaps, more akin to the yarn, closer to the ancient oral tradition of storytelling than to the novel and all the complexities that it brings to narrative? Think how much easier it might be to persuade a publisher to take on a novella if it were re-branded as such. ‘Dear Sir/Madam, may I bend your ear for consideration of my latest yarn?’ This doesn’t mean that we should view the novella as a necessarily less sophisticated form. It calls for an almost poetic economy in its use of words. There is no room in the novella for writing that is either flowery or flabby. Such compression calls for no little skill on the part of the writer and can imbue those words that do remain with significantly greater force.

I have already confessed my fondness for the novella as a literary form (see 21 Great Novellas), both from the reader’s perspective and the writer’s. Over the years, I have completed three novellas  (one renounced) and put a further one on hold (excerpts here, here and here). Although I have been working on longer fiction in recent times (my last completed manuscript weighed in at 150,000 words!) in many ways, I feel that the novella is my natural metier. The novella is better suited to the time that I have available for composition (which is far less than I would like). Needless to say, the time required for writing shorter, straightforward works is much less than for those with complex narrative structures and themes. The novella’s length also fits in with the limited time that I have for reading (demanding job, single dad, etc.). I suspect that I’m not alone in this. In the context of our pressurised modern lives, perhaps the novella is a form whose time has come… Since so few are published, though, there’s a problem in finding decent examples to read.

22-04-2013 20;27;48

A further illustration from the same novella (same media)

For an English writer whose fiction has yet to be published, all of this is unfortunate. Publishers aren’t generally interested in novellas, especially not from unpublished novelists. Unlike much of the rest of Europe, in the UK the novella has largely been removed from the literary landscape. I see it as a further aspect of the cultural decline of my home country. And this, despite the fact that some of the finest works to originate from these shores have been novellas. Think of Animal Farm or Heart of Darkness, for example, books that I would argue come just about as close as is possible to literary perfection. A while back, I discovered the website of a UK publisher specialising in novellas. Unfortunately, by the time that I’d found it, the house had ceased trading (I forget its name. I think that it was Welsh, but I’ve been unable to track it down again since – was this merely wishful thinking?). Self-publishing is a way around the problem, of course. If you become your own publisher, a book can be any length you want it to be. It’s tempting, but I continue to resist. Meanwhile, the search continues for a sympathetic house to publish my completed novellas… We can but dream!

All text and images © PSR 2013


11 Responses to “When does a novella become a novel?”

  1. Mari Biella April 26, 2013 at 10:28 am #

    Interesting post, Paul, as always. The exact distinction between short stories, novellas and novels is inevitably pretty shaky, and I’d agree that rather than thinking about it in purely numerical terms we should perhaps see it as a matter of ‘focus’. To use a (possibly rather oversimplistic) photographic analogy, a novel is perhaps akin to a landscape; in a short story or novella, you ‘zoom in’, and focus on detail. And it does require greater economy, and no small dexterity, on the part of the writer.

    I, like you, feel that the novella is ideally suited both to many writers and many readers, given the pressures of time inherent in modern life. I, for one, would be very happy to read more novellas. One explanation I have heard of publishers’ reluctance to publish them is the simple fact that, since they take up less physical space on a bookshelf, they are less likely to attract the attention of potential buyers. It seems very sad that novellas should be overlooked for such a purely, brutally commercial motive.

  2. Paul Sutton Reeves April 26, 2013 at 6:30 pm #

    Hi Mari and thanks for your comments.

    I like that analogy. I’m chewing over how fast it holds!

    Hmm, I’d not heard the bookshelf explanation before. It makes sense from their point of view, I guess. I’d just assumed that it was to do with the standardisation and commodification of culture – there’s a standard ‘product’ that the ‘consumer’ has been educated to expect and defective products don’t make it to market. I’m sure that you’re right that a purely commercial approach is contrary to the interests of literature.

    How long do you think your novella will be? Any hints as to the theme?

    • Mari Biella April 27, 2013 at 4:41 am #

      I think the standardisation of culture may be part of the reason too, Paul. As ‘consumers’ (a term I hate), we’ve become accustomed to books that run to hundreds of pages and have multiple characters, complex plots, subplots and the like. I enjoy long, complex novels as much as anyone, but there’s plenty of room for other things in a balanced literary diet.

      My novella currently runs to just over 30,000 words – a good length, I think – though this may well change! Its theme is really very simple: the relationship that develops between a young woman and an older man. To stretch the photographic analogy a little further, it seems to me that in much fiction (outside the romance and erotica genres, obviously) the characters’ romantic relationships are often part of the background, or form an interesting but small feature in the landscape. I like the idea of zooming right in and examining it more closely, but not through the idealised lens of romance or the overtly sexual lens of erotica. Whether or not I have succeeded will be for other people to judge!

      • Paul Sutton Reeves April 27, 2013 at 10:04 am #

        You’re right, Mari. Variety should be at the heart of the reading experience but it runs contrary to the desire of most publishers for standardisation and marketable product subcategories. Ho hum…

        I like the sound of your novella. I’d be very interested to read it when it’s reached a state with which you’re happy, if I were to be given the opportunity. I’ve read a couple of novellas that focused on relationships in the last couple of years – both of them obscure to English-speaking readers – and agree with you that the form is well suited to such singular themes. ‘Con Brio’ by the Slovenian writer, Brina Svit was engaging, also concerning a younger woman and older man. I don’t know about you, Mari, but if I hear about a book with a similar theme to the one I’m writing, I avoid it like the plague! So I read Len Deighton’s ‘Bomber’, but only after I’d completed my big war novel. Talking of which, did you see ‘Lost in Translation’ and if so, what did you think of it?

  3. anytimefrances April 26, 2013 at 7:58 pm #

    Yes, Paul, an interesting topic for discussion. I like the short story but like the novella even better. It’s a form that gives more than the short story and is as demanding so it satisfies by more detail than the short and never so much as the spendthrift novel. One I remember as being a turning point for me in ideology was A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. More impact than is possible with the short and longer lasting.

    One I enjoyed was an early work of Doris Lessing. I see it’s classed as non-fiction in Wiki but I recall finding it a wonderfully concise piece of fictional writing, called ‘In Pursuit of the English’. It might as well have been ‘British’ as it was realist and I don’t think anyone can claim to be seeking out anything as elusive as the ‘English’ but maybe that was the point.

    Also Lessing’s Briefing for a Descent into Hell, though I thought it less fictional and more psychological than the other.

    D H Lawrence wrote something about ‘the Gypsy and the girl’, something like that which i remember as being sort of Novella, maybe long short.

    I remember reading something by Orwell I though a very good novella, called ‘Coming up for Air’ – about the changes made in perhaps the 30’s when urban spread, souless concrete, was spoiling the magic memories of childhood for the hero.

    I’ll offer my own theory about it’s decline, that in this thoughtless, and one might say brutal age few writers are able to apply the sort of concentration that I think the from requires, nor its sensivitiy, to reader and hero character.

    I wondered if those illustrations were yours. I think they show some real talent. I’d be envious but I’m not the sort to envy others, just enjoy a fine piece of art. I think I’d die of grief if I allowed it myself there being so much talent everywhere.

  4. Paul Sutton Reeves April 26, 2013 at 9:15 pm #

    Hi there, Franny and thanks for your comments.

    Solzhenitsyn’s books had something to say, that’s for sure. And to compress so much into the novella form – that’s a great choice, Franny. I’m aware of Doris Lessing but have never read her. Another one for the list, then! Lessing is more in her case, it would seem. ‘Coming up for Air’ I’ve read a couple of times and loved. I seem to remember that being longer than a novella, though. ‘Animal Farm’ definitely falls into that category and is, I believe, his masterpiece, though several of the others were pretty damn good too. The very brevity of AF has allowed me to read it multiple times. I remember as a schoolboy, reading it for the first time in one sitting without leaving my chair. And now, as a writer, I still find it inspirational.

    Yep, the scribbles are mine. I like to think that my untutored hand lent them a vague charm if viewed in partial light when wearing the wrong spectacles!

  5. Mari Biella April 28, 2013 at 6:21 pm #

    It will be interesting to see where this comment ends up, Paul, as I wasn’t able to ‘reply’ to your last comment! Thanks for the offer to take a look at the novella when it’s in a slightly more presentable state – I may take you up on that! I haven’t read ‘Con Brio’, but I shall add it to my reading list. Like you, though, I try to avoid books similar to the one I’m writing, as I tend to be influenced by them, to such an extent that I worry about (unintentional) plagiarism.

    I haven’t seen ‘Lost in Translation’ – does it have a similar theme?

  6. Paul Sutton Reeves April 28, 2013 at 6:47 pm #

    Hmm, WordPress glitches, Mari… It didn’t go in the spam – a mystery!

    Yes, I’m afraid of the unintentional plagiarism thing too as I tend to soak up whatever I happen to be reading at the time. ‘Lost in Translation’ does indeed have a similar theme. It has a good cast and I rather enjoyed it.

    Talking of looking at work, I’m going to carry out one final revision of my war novel this summer, so if you ever have the time to give it a read, your thoughts would be much appreciated. There are still a few things that I feel I need address in it.

    • Mari Biella April 29, 2013 at 8:16 am #

      Of course, Paul! I’d be delighted to read your work, and offer my thoughts (for what they’re worth, of course). 🙂

      • Paul Sutton Reeves April 29, 2013 at 3:50 pm #

        Thanks, Mari. A Kindle copy will be winging its way to you soon, then.

  7. Marian May 14, 2013 at 10:02 am #

    Reblogueó esto en marian395's Blogy comentado:
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