Are novellas the next small thing?

Avid watchers of the bookish pages will have noticed Nick Earls, who was a bloody big deal in my youth, has just released the first of a series of five novellas and has been all over the paper and virtual broadsheets talking about this thrilling new form. Inkerman & Blunt are the publishers, and it’s more a package than a book – a novella comes out each month for the next five months, and all five have been recorded as audiobooks by stalwarts of the Aussie soap and telly-drama scene.

Meanwhile, Seizure recently announced the winners of its fourth year of Viva la Novella. This competition produces ridiculously gorgeous books, delicious little physical objects that demand stroking (and, hopefully, purchasing; I say this because I’m a past winner). In its third year, Viva la Novella produced Marlee Jane Ward’s Welcome to Orphancorp, which has been shortlisted for the Aurealis and Norma K Hemming speculative fiction awards, shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Awards and won the Victorian Premier’s Awards. It’s a pretty big haul for such a little book.

tinybooklukesiemensflickr
Photo by Luke Siemens/Flickr

Perhaps even more astonishing was the inclusion of a book that is not only a novella, but an experimental novella, in the Stella Prize longlist. Jen Craig’s Panthers and the Museum of Fire is a fascinating and strange little book put out by Spineless Wonders, following a writer who shares a name with the book’s author as she walks from Glebe to Surry Hills to return a manuscript that she wasn’t supposed to have read but secretly has. Nothing happens and a great deal goes on. Panthers unsurprisingly didn’t make the shortlist – Australian literary prizes are notoriously conservative – but still, it’s a bit of a win for novellas.

In his many interviews, Earls proposes that the novella hits the sweet spot for an audience who’d rather read a tweet than a novel – they’re short enough that you can get through them before you get distracted. They’re also an excellent length for adapting to film or telemovie (and rights are available for Formaldehyde, anyone who’s reading…). I don’t know if the ‘short enough you won’t get distracted’ argument holds up – if a book’s gripping it’ll hang onto you whatever its length (witness the three volumes of The Captive Prince I devoured in about a week, refusing to eat, sleep or talk to anyone for the duration); if it’s dull, even if it’s tiny, you’ll ditch it on the slightest provocation.

But the thing is, despite the uptick in novella-themed column inches and the claims this is the book-size that will Bring Back Reading, it’s a form that’s been around, celebrated, read and loved since forever. You may well know that a whole bunch of the classic ‘novels’ are really novellas – most famously the ‘greatest novel[la] ever’, The Great Gatsby. But did you know that Nicholas Spark’s The Notebook, which was on the best-selling novel lists for over a year or something ridiculous, is – True Shocking Fact – really a novella. It’s a mere 38,000 words (or the same length as Formaldehyde which – not that I’m bitter – I was told several times by publishers was too short to be worth publishing. No one buys short books, they reckoned).

I love long books. I love short books. I’ll read just about anything, let’s be honest. Oh, except All the light we cannot see; don’t make me read that thing again. But because lists are fun, here are my favourite short books which may or may not be novellas.

  • Coming through Slaughter, by Michael Ondaatje
  • Come Inside, by GL Osborne (it says on the cover it’s a novel, but no way)
  • Slade House, by David Mitchell
  • We have always lived in the castle, by Shirley Jackson
  • Dept of Speculation, by Jenny Offil
  • The wife of Martin Guerre, by Janet Lewis
  • Bruno Kramzer, by AS Patric.
  • Too Loud a Solitude, by Bohumil Hrabl
  • Three men in a boat, by Jerome K Jerome
  • Eugene Onegin, by Alexander Pushkin

How about you? Do you refuse to read any book shorter than 55,000 words, and do you call publishers beforehand to check the word count of any book you’re thinking of buying? Or do you love short books and think all those books I’ve listed above are actually way too long?

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21 thoughts on “Are novellas the next small thing?

  1. LOL I was amused by the marketing suggesting that a new form had been invented too. I did like Gotham (which I reviewed on my blog) but it is one of many novellas I’ve enjoyed. I’ve just reviewed another one called The Notebook, which is one of three linked novellas, so even the idea of themed novellas isn’t new.
    I’ve read some of your list, and LOL *just this week* I discovered that we have Coming Through Slaughter chez moi. Married 20+ years to The Spouse and I did not know that this novella was lurking in amongst his collection of books about jazz! Come Inside is one of my favourite debut novels ever, I love The Wife of Martin Guerre, and Three Men in a Boat has been a favourite since I was a teenager and dreamed of doing the same thing. (I wasn’t so keen on Eugene Onegin but I am quite sure it was the translation I didn’t like). To add a couple: Truman Capote wrote some beaut novellas: I particularly like Summer Crossing but of course Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a favourite too. And I also like Gogol: the Nose, (which I suspect you would love because it’s very weird and strange!) and The Night Before Christmas. I have lots more on my TBR especially in translation because so many of the European translation publishers focus on the novella.
    I have tagged 102 books on my blog as short stories and novellas (Giramondo publishes novellas under the label Giramondo Shorts) because I am not sure where the dividing line lies. As a reader, I have no idea how many words makes a novella, of course, I don’t count them. It’s a vague and useless definition but basically if it’s a satisfying short book of 100-200-or-so pages for me it’s a novella.

  2. I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s got a chuckle out of this flurry of novella excitement. The Gogol sounds like just my thing, you’re right.
    You should read Coming Through Slaughter – maybe it’s my adolescent, romantic self speaking but it’s one of the most beautiful, saddest small stories I’ve read. And how great (to me) to build the whole life of Buddy Bolden from one photo and a few scraps of words.
    I’d forgotten Giramondo Shorts! Anguli Ma should be on my list; so should An Elegant Young Man. Maybe novellas are the best books…

  3. Haha! I agree with everything here.
    I add Mrs Dalloway to this list, because I loves Woolf for ever.

    I read a funny little story by Murakami recently called The Strange Library (I think?). It’s tiny, took me less than an hour to read, clever illustrations, almost a graphic short story, if you get my drift. It’s described as a short novel on Amazon. When you’re Murakami publishers are cool with putting that out in book stores, in hard cover no less.

    Heart of Darkness is about novella length. Amazing marketing by Conrad. Ahead of his time. Looking forward to the book trailer.

    1. What if ‘Apocalypse Now’ WAS the book trailer????
      I’m scared of Woolf, after I was utterly defeated by ‘To the lighthouse’. Modernists scare me.
      Yeah, the little David Mitchell book listed above I got hardcover in a bookshop, and that wee thing China Mieville just released is also hardcover-as and goes for, oh, thirty bucks, despite being approx 20,000 words. Novellas are where it’s at!

  4. Beryl Bainbridge and Penelope Fitzgerald both wrote books that were called novels but by word count would fit the novella category – and they are mostly really great books. Muriel Spark’s Prime of Miss Jean Brodie probably does as well. I wonder if publishers who say people don’t like short books actually think people won’t shell out money for something that looks thin & therefore poor value for their money?

  5. Oh no! You mean I didn’t invent the novella? Don’t tell me that. What’s this Gatsby of which you speak?

    You make some very interesting points here Jane.

    Just in case there’s any doubt about where my mind is and whether or not I’ve been paying attention to anything further from my brain than my own navel, I have noticed that there were one or two novellas around before I started writing them. And I also accept that Boccaccio beat me to the idea of linked novellas by about 660 years (not that we’d tend to classify his Decameron stories as novellas by modern conventions).

    But take five linked novellas to a big publisher and you’re likely to get a groan or two and a trade paperback bind-up (if they take them). What we’re doing that isn’t standard is publishing the five individually at monthly intervals, each one simultaneously as a paper, e and audio book. That’s where it’s reasonable, I think, for Inkerman & Blunt to say they’re disrupting the standard model.

    A lot of the lauded novellas of the past century or so have rarely been given the change to stand alone, which I think is a shame. Heart of Darkness is a good example, first appearing serialised in a magazine and since then almost always published with other stories to create something closer to conventionally book-sized.

    On the subject of books smaller than conventional size, ‘leatherboundpounds’ comment ‘When you’re Murakami publishers are cool with putting that out in book stores’ is an important one, I think. Same applies when you’re Zadie Smith (The Cambodian Embassy), Roddy Doyle (Two Pints) and some of the others mentioned.

    I wanted to see if it could be done without being them. And I wanted to make it clear that this wasn’t a one-off between-novels thing, as it can sometimes appear when a big-name writer puts out a single small book while hiding away working on the longer one their publisher really wants.

    I agree with you Jane that dull books are easy to ditch. I don’t get to page 100 of most books I start and whatever length they were wouldn’t affect that. I suspect the ‘short enough that you won’t get distracted argument’ is more relevant for some people than others. It only has to be meaningful to enough people for small books to, I hope, have more of a place than publishers think they do now. I’d like publishing to work in a way that saw Formaldehyde assessed on its merits, rather than its size. It shouldn’t need to become a Major Motion Picture, or a classic meriting a 20,000-word introductory essay, or turn up as the work of a Kardashian for publishers to see it as viable.

    1. Nick! How ace to see you here – thanks for commenting. I’m actually really stoked that novellas are getting all this attention. And when I saw the publicity for your series I thought, ‘what a cool idea!’ (though I also thought ‘why don’t they sell it as a subscription and suck me in so I pay up front and then they deliver as they come out?’ It would have been very Dickensian. Or Captive-Princian, I guess, as that also started life as a subscriber serial).
      Though I talk about people ditching books it’s actually an almost entirely foreign concept to me. All these conversations about ‘why don’t people read?’ are pretty much entirely lost on me because it’s just about all I do – I really can’t imagine finding a text from someone distracting enough that I’d put down the book I’m reading. And that’s why I’m extremely poorly placed to give any kind of commentary on book publishing today.
      I suspect we are, as they say nowadays, in agreeance about most of this. A good book is a good book, no matter the length, and it’d be ace if publishers would also see it that way, and it’s super-pleasing that more and more of them are, and that many of them are being rewarded (with prizes and feature articles) for doing so.

      1. I know a handful of people who fit books into life whatever (and I’m trying to become one of them, by deprioritising some other inputs). So for them the ‘short enough that you won’t get distracted’ point can pass as blah blah blah and, from the point of view of alerting potentially interested readers to these novellas, I have to hope something else catches their interest.

        I also know quite a few people who will look at a big book that’s their kind of thing and think ‘that looks good but it’ll have to wait till my next holiday’. For them a book that clearly signals it’s a 2-3 hour read has real prospects. I’ve already heard from 8-10 people who have bought and read Gotham that its small size was a factor in them buying and reading it now. Some actually told me they would have steered cleared of it if it had been part of a fat five-novella bind-up.

        My ‘control’ for this experiment is Welcome to Normal, my collection of five short stories and three novellas published in 2012. I want to see how the reach of a novella series compares. And, if I can make the series work, maybe it can add something to the body of evidence that might encourage a re-think among big publishers. That wouldn’t necessarily mean they’d suddenly be open minded about one-off novellas from emerging authors, but it might mean they’d see a single-author novella series as more viable and/or set up something like a multi-author series of monthly novellas. That could create opportunities for some great work that they’re currently ignoring.

      2. I really hope your quest is successful, because this thing I’m writing now is stubbornly refusing to inch above 55,000 words, no matter how I rewrite it, and knowing most publishers won’t even want to read the first page because of its length is kind of frustrating. As a reader, too, I love the idea of series of little things; if I trusted a publisher, I’d gleefully subscribe to a year-long novella series by a bunch of different authors, in fact. How sweet would it be to have a little book show up in your letterbox on the first of each month, and to have the surprise of discovering who it’s by and what it’s about? (I recognise that, as usual, this is probably something most people would not enjoy; they’d rather get a known quantity, by an author they’re familiar with.) Plus, there is something physically delightful about small, well-designed things.
        For me, it is more fitting life around books than the reverse. I’ll go to sleep/cook dinner/get off the train/go to work/do the grocery shopping etc when this chapter is finished. And a lot of people I’m friends with – online and in the real world – are the same. It’s easy to forget that other people see reading like I see getting a massage or having a fancy restaurant meal, as an occasional treat. And I guess there are other people who see it more like cleaning the oven.

  6. I adore novellas! I also love long books – Dickens’ novels, Rohinton Mistry’s A fine balance, to name just a very few. But, there’s something about a novella, and I’ve discussed this often with local writer here, Nigel Featherstone. What I love about novellas is that they tend to be focused in theme, and tight in writing. I’ve read a lot of novellas, but none of those you’ve listed. Some I love are David Malouf’s Fly away Peter, Elizabeth Jolley’s The newspaper of Claremont Street, Albert Camus’ L’étranger, Martin Amis’ Times arrow, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a death foretold, to name a very few. I tend to define them by feel – as I have no idea how many words these novels are.

    I have your and Julie Proudfoot’s Seizure prize books on my TBR – I’ll get to them!

    1. Oh Julie’s is so creepy and tense! I hope you enjoy it (and mine, of course). I love long books too – Bleak House is one of my favourites, and Infinite Jest, Middlemarch, Cloud Atlas…

      1. Yes, Bleak House is great. And Middlemarch. I remember enjoying Cloud Atlas but for some reason remember nothing about it now. There’s also Haruki Murakami’s long books. But then, I love his novella After dark too.

        I’m sure I’ll enjoy your and Julie’s books. I wouldn’t plan to read them if I didn’t think so!

  7. Personally, I thought e-publishing would lead to an increase in the popularity of novellas. I have always preferred a good, tightly-written novella to a rambling novel, But people in general seem to prefer novels. I have no idea why, and it seems to contradict most other consumer behavior. But my readers have complained my novella was “too short”, so there is clearly some desire for longer stories.

  8. Reading all that was blindingly interesting. Truly. Writing first attempt at a novel. First draft was 60,000. Checking everywhere for word counts and found they were way higher than that generally but you have brought some comfort. Thanks.

  9. I love novellas! Not instead of longer works but as well as them. The literary landscape needs diversity! And a small beautiful text, complete in itself — yes! I agree about Coming Through Slaughter. And Malouf ( An Imaginary Life, Fly Away Peter). Kirsty Gunn’s Rain. Have recently begun a micropress with Anik See, Fish Gotta Swim Editions, to showcase the novella. Our first title, Winter Wren, is hot off the press!

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