In Praise of the Novella

What is a novella?

It’s a novel, that’s all: a novel that happens to have not as many words as some other novels do.

Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge, states that “Publishers and literary award societies typically consider a novella’s word count to be between 17,000 and 40,000 words.” That is, taking as a rough guide that 1,000 words cover about 3 printed pages, a novella is a novel of 120 pages (not including title page etc.) or fewer. Print size is a significant factor in this, of course.

Some famous novellas: A Christmas Carol, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Time Machine, Candide, Silas Marner, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Loved One, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Animal Farm, Of Mice and Men, The Old Man and the Sea, Wide Sargasso Sea, True Grit.

The pathetic thing is that despite the existence of these great, famous, beloved and admired works, the “novella” (i.e. the novel that happens to be short) is still widely devalued, simply on the grounds of word count. There was genuine controversy when Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2007 because some considered it to be “too short” to be a proper novel.

The above would perhaps not matter so much… I am sure Ian McEwan has learned to bear the sting… if it were not for the fact that this weird attitude affects what gets published in the first place.

Broadly speaking, a writer can only get their novella published if they happen to be a “name” already. The first time writer is advised, counterintuitively, that they must go big on their first attempt; anything small won’t even get looked at.

See, for instance, this guy called Chuck whose best advice to the novella-writer was: “finish this novella and stick it in a drawer. Then write a few novels, get them published, and gather a moderately loyal readership. When you do, a publisher will release your novella in a small print run and your loyal readers will gobble it up.” Thanks, Chuck!

But, of course, I mustn’t mock him. He’s only reflecting the actual attitude in the publishing world. The simple fact is that in today’s environment a first-time writer like H.G. Wells would not have been able to get The Time Machine published; nor would Rebecca West have been able to publish The Return of the Soldier. They would have had to limber up first with some bloated slab of prolix garrulity.

The intelligent reader may guess that I have myself written a novella and am having serious qualms as to whether it will be touched. Oh, intelligent reader, you are so sharp you may cut yourself. You are quite right.

I have written a novella, I confess it. It is short. Not a word is wasted. I have sent sample chapters to agents, and I am awaiting a positive response.

The longer I wait, the greater my qualms become. It is the best, and actually the biggest, thing I have written. If this does not work, what will? The voices that nag in my head become louder; all the louder to drown out the silence of the agents.

But that isn’t the point. No, intelligent reader, it is not, in spite of your quizzical look. I like short novels myself; I prefer them to long ones, all else being equal, because I know there will be no padding. I am impatient, especially in these times. The point of writing is communication. If that can be done quickly and precisely, is that a fault?

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