“...the novella is not an immature or effeminate novel.”
November 10, 2015 7:29 AM   Subscribe

The Novella Is Not The Novel’s Daughter: An Argument in Notes by Lindsey Drager [Michigan Quarterly Review]
“Therefore, I would like to argue this: the novella is not a work of fiction between 15,000 and 40,000 words. Rather, a novella is a book-length work that uses conciseness and unity to create a narrative of suggestion that feels at once compressed and expanded. The novella is slender but gaping. It embraces pause and pattern and gesture. It declares, “I can say more with less” and then it does. It is not an unwieldy short story but cohesive, taut, succinct. It is the novel’s architectural foundation, the stripped and fleshless core that argues the frame of a story might be enough. The novella is a kind of constellation. It is not less than the novel. In that it crafts and calcifies a story world, harnessing concision and brevity to widen the scale and possibilities of our own, the novella might be more.”
posted by Fizz (37 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
All the discussion of physical shape in that article convinces me that the presumed status of the novel over the novella is more an artifact of publishing economics than a value judgement in its own right. As though the real, fundamental problem with the novella is that the author can't read his own name on the spine from across the room.

One of the great gifts of the Internet is that text is unconstrained by physical media and its economics. Your story can be as long as it takes to tell that story and no longer, and that's OK, and blog post or novella or novel length or whatever is pretty much irrelevant.
posted by mhoye at 7:44 AM on November 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


Many (maybe most) novels I have read did not need to be as long as they were. Plenty of non-fiction, too. Writers have a hard time getting to the point. I know for some style is its own reward, but I would point those people to Thursbitch.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 7:50 AM on November 10, 2015


Rather, a novella is a book-length work that uses conciseness

Concision!
posted by clockzero at 7:50 AM on November 10, 2015 [9 favorites]


#Sandkings
posted by belarius at 7:53 AM on November 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


Many (maybe most) novels I have read did not need to be as long as they were.

Indeed, I've read great novellas or short stories that were later padded out into mediocre novels. Does that happen anymore? It's been a long time since I can recall seeing it.
posted by mhoye at 7:54 AM on November 10, 2015


Novellas and short novels are definitely not a lesser version of longer works.

If anything, the craftsmanship involved in building a short work that carries whole worlds of meaning and potential for further discovery in revisiting is far greater than just being able to turn out immense spongy masses of metastasizing extraneous padding and pointless diversion intended to convey some sense of noteworthiness through grueling expansion of elaboration.

Compare the Bible to the Tao Te Ching, for instance, or The Lathe Of Heaven to almost any nine-hundred-page epic of modern blowhard endurance. Do the shorter works fail as a consequence of their scale?
posted by sonascope at 7:54 AM on November 10, 2015


If anything, the craftsmanship involved in building a short work that carries whole worlds of meaning and potential for further discovery in revisiting is far greater than just being able to turn out immense spongy masses of metastasizing extraneous padding and pointless diversion intended to convey some sense of noteworthiness through grueling expansion of elaboration.

What you did at great and unnecessary length there: I see it.
posted by mhoye at 7:57 AM on November 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


At least in science fiction, novellas and shorts still get expanded to novel-length or longer.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 7:58 AM on November 10, 2015


I forgot to link to the Ian McEwan essay "Some Notes on the Novella" that Lindsey Drager is responding to. It is also worth reading.
How often one reads a contemporary full-length novel and thinks quietly, mutinously, that it would have worked out better at half or a third the length. I suspect that many novelists clock up sixty thousand words after a year’s work and believe (wearily, perhaps) that they are only half way there. They are slaves to the giant, instead of masters of the form.
posted by Fizz at 8:05 AM on November 10, 2015


"E-Book" seems to be the prefered descriptor these days.

Oh, and are we going to mention the crazytown nonsense of there also being "novelettes"?
posted by Artw at 8:16 AM on November 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


At a certain point it's just courtesy, you say what you came to say and are done with it. Nothing fancy about that.
posted by graymouser at 8:24 AM on November 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


Oh, and are we going to mention the crazytown nonsense of there also being "novelettes"?

I am waiting for pamphlets and zines to make a more glorious return.
posted by Fizz at 8:24 AM on November 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


Novelettes? Dear God. Never heard of them, and I'm not going to Google the term, either. Ignorance is sometimes bliss, or at least better than asking the brain to retain new silly memes/word. Pamphlets/zines: yay!

The observation about novellas leaning towards allegory is pretty good, although obviously not universally true.
posted by kozad at 8:27 AM on November 10, 2015


Only people who are not widely read would think novellas are inherently inferior to novels. In speculative fiction, some of the best work by Gene Wolfe and Lucius Shepard are in the novella length, as are mainstream classics by Henry James (Turn of the Screw), Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness), Herman Melville (Bartelby and maybe Billy Budd), and in recent years Roberto Bolano and especially almost the entire body of work of the wild and wonderful Cesar Aira. I'm also thinking Faulkner's The Bear and Kate Chopin's The Awakening are novellas.

Noted: Melville House novella series.
posted by aught at 8:28 AM on November 10, 2015 [5 favorites]


Rather, a novella is a book-length work that uses conciseness
Concision!


What's sort of odd is that the author uses "concision" elsewhere in the article.
posted by aught at 8:32 AM on November 10, 2015


Note that in French and German, the words for novel and novella are not cognates: novel is roman/Roman and novella is nouvelle/Novelle.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 8:36 AM on November 10, 2015


Is the novella feminized? That's not a trope I've seen before, although I've certainly encountered its opposite (the Big Serious Novel About Everything, by Some Dude).
posted by Gerald Bostock at 8:41 AM on November 10, 2015


In Russian, the povest' (novella/short novel) is a recognized form and is taken just as seriously as the novel.

> Rather, a novella is a book-length work that uses conciseness

Concision!


"Conciseness" is a perfectly good word. Use your dictionary.

> Oh, and are we going to mention the crazytown nonsense of there also being "novelettes"?

> Novelettes? Dear God. Never heard of them, and I'm not going to Google the term, either.

"Novelette" is a perfectly good word. Use your dictionary.
posted by languagehat at 9:14 AM on November 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


I think novelette is a silly term because at that length I still consider it a particularly long short story but I have no objection to its use. It's meaningful.

I much prefer novellas. Give me forty thousand sharp words and I'm likely to finish it. Some doorstopper? Not as likely.
posted by solarion at 9:28 AM on November 10, 2015


The strongest evidence that the novella can be far superior to the novel: Stephen King.
posted by maxwelton at 9:32 AM on November 10, 2015 [3 favorites]


Full Dark, No Stars versus the crappy Shining sequel...
posted by Artw at 11:49 AM on November 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


I use "novelette" as a marketing term to indicate that readers should expect something longer than a short story but not as long as a novella or novel. For me, at least, it's about managing expectations so I don't get a bunch of one-star Amazon reviews from people angry that the $3.99 ebook they just bought is really, really short (something that's obvious in print form, but not for an ebook, unless you're specifically looking for the length).

I do wish it were a less precious-sounding term, though.
posted by joannemerriam at 11:49 AM on November 10, 2015


I much prefer novellas. Give me forty thousand sharp words and I'm likely to finish it. Some doorstopper? Not as likely.

You're just saying you'll read good writing, not that you prefer novellas. I doubt you'd read 40,000 crap words over a well-written "doorstopper".
posted by Sangermaine at 12:01 PM on November 10, 2015


I suspect if the Hugo category did not exist Novellete would not be used at all, unless there's some non-genre holdouts.
posted by Artw at 12:02 PM on November 10, 2015


okay, here's how it is according to my first proper creative writing prof:

a novella is not defined by its length, nor is a novel. Both are defined by their intent.

The intent of a novel is to be concerned with the big picture, life-the-universe-EVERYTHING. This is why many of them end up being long. If it was a book, Annie Hall would be a novel.

The intent of a novella is to be concerned with only one thing, a particular incident (or a connected series). There's a set beginning and an inevitable ending. Pretty much every whodunnit (on page or screen) is a novella because it's singular concern is to resolve a particular mystery.

I don't necessarily agree with this, but it's stuck with me.
posted by philip-random at 12:26 PM on November 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


What's funny about all this gender coding is that the novel, at one time, was the light and feminine work. And there was a bit of a gendered moral panic regarding how the form inflamed the passions of, women who "read with one hand." This alarmism was part of a patent medicine craze that transformed masturbation from a private kink to public health menace in the 18th century.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 12:39 PM on November 10, 2015


"Conciseness" is a perfectly good word. Use your dictionary.

Well, it's a perfectly apt word.
posted by clockzero at 1:15 PM on November 10, 2015


Lighten up, nerds.
posted by Artw at 1:20 PM on November 10, 2015


Doesn't every movie adaptation of a Novel essentially squeeze the story into Novella-length? Yeah, "Gone With the Wind" was a 3½-hour movie but it was also a 1400 page book. (Then again, THAT one might've been better done under 2 hours) I remember in my youth the novelty of adapting the 'epic length' (as they were called) books "Roots" and "Rich Man, Poor Man" into 12-hour TV 'mini-series' (please, UK people, don't laugh too hard) and how disappointed I was when that the format ended up isolated into the 'highbrow' PBS Masterpiece Theater. I don't recall any movie-based-on-a-novel I've both read the book and seen the movie that didn't leave out stuff I wish they hadn't. (Didn't EVERYBODY who did both feel that way about "The Martian"?) And one of my most satisfying reading experiences was Arthur Clarke's "2001: A Space Odyssey" book AFTER Stanley Kubrick's movie. But I digress.
posted by oneswellfoop at 1:32 PM on November 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm reading The Martian after watching the movie right now and TBH the movie is vastly superior so far. Book version The Martian is like reading a particularly interesting Reddit thread on a nerd subject but there's no human engagement at all.
posted by Artw at 2:19 PM on November 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


> The intent of a novel is to be concerned with the big picture, life-the-universe-EVERYTHING. This is why many of them end up being long. If it was a book, Annie Hall would be a novel.

The intent of a novella is to be concerned with only one thing, a particular incident (or a connected series). There's a set beginning and an inevitable ending. Pretty much every whodunnit (on page or screen) is a novella because it's singular concern is to resolve a particular mystery.


That's the usual distinction Russians make between a roman [novel] and a povest' [novella].
posted by languagehat at 2:42 PM on November 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


that was probably part of the lecture. over thirty years ago now.
posted by philip-random at 2:46 PM on November 10, 2015


Novelettes? Dear God. Never heard of them, and I'm not going to Google the term, either.

Moist novelettes are usually the best ones.
posted by thelonius at 2:49 PM on November 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


Mhoye:

"As though the real, fundamental problem with the novella is that the author can't read his own name on the spine from across the room."

The prompted me to see if I could read my name on the spine of one of my novellas from across the room.

Answer: Yes.

So I have that going for me.

As for the argument that a novella is something other than a story longer than 17.5K words but shorter than 40k words, probably something arty-farty, etc., well, okay, fine, but in point of fact when I sign contracts to write novellas, what is specified is a particular length, not some specific artistic goal ("The WORK must contain CONCISENESS and UNITY to create a narrative of SUGGESTION; violation of this structure shall require remit of advance monies"). As with so many topics, it's possible to overthink these things.

I wrote five novellas in the past year (four of which were then compiled into The End of All Things, my latest book, which was then marketed as a novel) and I will say the format has its definite charms. Some stories don't need to be any longer than 40k words (the average size of the novellas I write is between 25k and 30k words) and stretching them out any further doesn't necessarily improve them. As someone upthread noted, one of the nice things about living in the publishing era that we do now is that it is possible to publish novellas and have them sell as novellas -- indeed in science fiction, a number of the major publishers, including Tor (my contractual home) have started imprints specifically for the format. It's an exciting time for this particular length of story.
posted by jscalzi at 5:10 PM on November 10, 2015 [4 favorites]


, but in point of fact when I sign contracts to write novellas, what is specified is a particular length, not some specific artistic goal

That's a very, ah puppy-ish view of things.

Note that a fair view classic sf novels would arguably be classified as novellas by modern standards.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:32 PM on November 10, 2015


MartinWisse:

"That's a very, ah puppy-ish view of things."

Meh. It's a very practical view of things, to be sure. I didn't find the Puppies notably practical, either in their arguments or their execution. Also, when one is talking contracts, one does have to be practical, and one has to be specific.

"Note that a fair view classic sf novels would arguably be classified as novellas by modern standards."

Entirely possible and an artifact of the genre's pulp days, when novels were generally substantially shorter than they are today because they were sold in supermarket racks. The contractual length of a modern SF/F novel is dictated as much by what size of book looks good on a bookstore shelf as any other factor.

That said, the current "novella" definition, at least in SF/F, was largely defined by the Nebulas when the novella category was introduced in 1966, which pegged it as 17.k to 40k words. This definition was largely adopted by every other genre award with a novella category.
posted by jscalzi at 11:27 AM on November 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


FWIW all my WFH comics work comes with a contract specifying length. Not sure that's really "puppyish" as such.
posted by Artw at 11:29 AM on November 11, 2015


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