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The Novella as Sleight of Hand

Short novel? Long story?

I’m interested in this sleight of hand: what makes the novella not just a long story, not just a short novel? Is the difference thematic? Logistic? Pacing? Structural? Authorial intent? Publishing practise? If The Dead is a novella (at 15,600 words), why isn’t Alice Munro’s “Carried Away” (at 21,000 words)? If The Old Man and the Sea is a novella, why isn’t The Great Gatsby? If Bellow’s “What Kind of Day Did You Have” was published as a story at 73 (compact) pages, why was his The Actual published as an stand-alone novella at (a widely printed) 103 pages? Does 30 pages make all the difference? And by publishing The Actual as a novella, how did Bellow alter reader expectations, the reading experience, the way readers approach and interpret the text? And importantly: what can be gained (or lost)—for a writer—by self-defining a project as a novella? Can it aid in the writing of a longer work? Allow a slow-boiling story the narrative time to rise to a rolling heat? Or is it just a meaningless aesthetic choice, a superfluous matter of page-count? Is it an ‘in between’ form, orphan genre—poised for publishing scorn and reader confusion?

In his introduction to The Granta Book of the American Long Story, Richard Ford—author of four novellas (one published as a stand-alone book, three published together in one collection)—struggles to define the novella, eventually settling on the term “long story.” For Ford, it’s a functional name for those stories that outgrow or ‘under-grow’, one that reflects his experience in writing the form: “Setting out to write a novella...I didn’t do anything very different, just let the story contain more and go on longer” (xiv-xv). Despite his success with the form, Ford is ultimately unconvinced by its uniqueness: if the shortness of the short story “suited certain writerly ambitions, generating and conducting intelligence in possibly more focused ways than novels,” and “novels were big swampy things” (xiv) that “drew the writer out,” than the “long story” was a story that neither called for focus nor required expansiveness. For Ford, it’s just a story—of a middle length; not really a genre at all. Some stories, like Ford’s novella “The Womanizer,” come to their “natural page 103.” Others don’t.

With this functional definition in mind, and in the context of my implicit appreciation of the form as a reader, I hope to read a series of unrelated and diverse novellas in an effort to explore and develop a working definition for myself—or at least an arsenal of ‘writerly understandings’: technical, logistic, thematic and otherwise—of what the novella is, and what it can or might or could be, or has been over time. I’d love to construct this definition with an eye toward exploring the boundaries by which some story seeds might be asking to grow into “long stories” (to borrow Ford’s term), while others might be better suited to the novel form, and yet others might require the length and concision of the short story.

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