The Contemporary American Novella & Its (Dis)contents
John Keene | December 2018
In the contemporary landscape of American fiction, the novel remains the form to which most writers aspire and which most publishers await. Novels fill bookstore shelves, best-seller lists, and secondary, college and graduate-level literature course syllabi. In fiction writing classes, however, the short story often serves as the standard form for introductory and advanced practice. Many—perhaps a majority of—baccalaureate and MFA fiction theses comprise stories collections, including novels consisting of interlinked short stories. A third fictional option, however, tends to receive comparatively less attention, let alone discussion in classrooms. That option, the novella, perpetually misunderstood by readers and writers and unloved by publishers, has nevertheless been an important and viable form for storytelling for a good portion of the genre’s history.
What is a novella? The Oxford English Dictionary states that the word “novella” is Italian in origin, with its suffix “-ella” suggesting smallness, or brevity.1 The word is the feminine form of “novello,” or “new,” and is linked etymologically to our English term “novel,” which has multiple origins linking it not just to Italian “novella,” from the Latin etymon “novellae,” but also to the kindred French word “nouvelles,” which translates in English as “news,” one of the things that novels, novellas and short stories purport to give us. The OED originally defines “novella” as “a short fictitious narrative,” with a change of meaning today to signify “a short novel, a long short story.” Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary offers similar definitions; the first is “a story with a compact and pointed plot,” with the Italianate plural “novelle,” and the second, using the standard English plural ending in an “-s,” is “a work of fiction intermediate in length and complexity between a short story and a novel.”2
In European literature, the earliest novellas, particularly in the prose form now considered the formal baseline, initially appeared during the late Medieval era, in the work of the Florentine author Giovanni Boccaccio. His 1353 compendium Decameron comprises roughly one hundred of them, equalling ten stories told by ten different travelers fleeing the Black Death, though some of these narratives are probably more akin to long short stories and tales than what we would consider today to be novellas. The New World Encyclopedia notes that novella-influenced literature appeared in other forms as well: Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, though written in verse, showed the considerable influence of Boccaccio’s Decameron, as did a number of William Shakespeare’s plays, including Romeo and Juliet.3 One of the earliest English uses of the term appeared as the title of Richard Brome’s 1653 play The Novella, first performed in 1632 in London by the King’s Players. Brome’s use of the term refers to a young woman, however, and not a literary text of any kind.4
Under the influence of Italian Renaissance narratives and starting in the late Romantic period, especially in German literature, texts that most writers would consider today to be novellas began to appear. They then occur with varying frequency throughout the 19th and 20th centuries in a variety of languages. Several key German-language works defined the form, focusing not on length but on scope; novellas sought to “[focus] specifically on one event,” often with an unanticipated turning point leading to a “logical conclusion.”5 Examples of the genre might include Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), usually considered a novel; Heinrich von Kleist’s The Marquise of O (1808) and Michael Kohlhaas (1810); and the texts gathered in Ludwig Tieck’s Collected Novellas (1852). An English-language standout is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843), whose narrative contours and emotional impact press beyond yet also satisfy the parameters of the novella form of this era.
The way people usually describe and discuss novellas is in terms of page length, or total words. Basically, a novella is longer than even a long short story, but shorter than a novel. Or: a long short story runs about forty–fifty pages, or 10,000 words, and a novel is usually at least 100 to 125 pages or longer, or a minimum of 60,000 words, and yet you have noteworthy works called novellas that fall in between these limits. One also might add say that there are long short stories that could be considered novellas, and novels that are quite brief in length, but are still considered novels. So, size—or rather length and amplitude—is not all that matters.
One way I would analogize these forms is to compare the short story to a boat trip across a river; a novella a sail around a lake; and a novel to a journey across the sea. (Or, as Mark Twain demonstrated, partway down one of the longest rivers in the world, the Mississippi.) Another analogy might be a short story compares favorably to a bike ride across and around town; a novella is short trip to a nearby city and back; and a novel is just getting on the road and going somewhere, near or far, whether you return or not. Jack Kerouac in fact used this as a template for his famous novel, On the Road, which unfurls aimlessly, yet full of incident, not unlike life itself.
One way I would analogize these forms is to compare the short story to a boat trip across a river; a novella a sail around a lake; and a novel to a journey across the sea.
The issue is less one of length, I think, however, than narrative scope. The imaginative, affective, and narrative scope of a short story is fairly small, even if it draws upon a vast array of experiences and jumps around a bit. Certainly some highly regarded short fiction writers, like Alice Munro, Deborah Eisenberg, Edward P. Jones, and Jorge Luis Borges, to name several, are known to jump around in time and place, yet if we survey the form historically and gauge many contemporary examples, most short stories proceed from the principle of compression. On the other hand, the imaginative, narrative scope of a novel is expansive, even if it is fairly brief in page length and its temporal span is short, or it is deep, traversing multiple layers of experience, consciousness, and concept, perhaps through the perspective of a single character or several. One excellent example of this is James Joyce’s Ulysses, which unfolds in a single day, but captures in its fictional net an entire city and society with the richness of many contemporary mini-series, running over multiple seasons.
The novella, however, falls between these two poles, as it were. It pushes beyond the constraints of the short story, allowing the writer to develop a character or characters and a scenario much more fully than would be possible in a short story, but the novella’s comparatively concentrated scope and focus are such that it does not attempt to encompass as much of the world as most novels do. If the short story is akin to poetry in its deployment of the principle of condensation, and the novel not unlike the autobiography in metonymically depicting a world or worlds, the novella might be analogized to a stage play that offers a glimpse of life, richly and deeply dramatized, but not the whole. Or, as Lindsay Drager quotes Judith Leibowitz stating in her 1974 study Narrative Purpose in the Novella, “Whereas the short story limits material and the novel expands it, the novella does both in such a way that a special kind of narrative structure results, one which produces a generically distinct effect: the double effect of intensity and expansion.”6
Related to scope are the elements, espoused in slightly different form by Aristotle in his Poetics, of formal unity of narrative and effect, conflict, and plot. Since Modernism, however, even this expectation of novels has fallen by the wayside, though Laurence Sterne was already pressing against it in English literature as far back as 1763 with Tristram Shandy. For one of the epigrams to my first novel, Annotations, I quoted author and artist Clarence Major, who noted that “anything is possible in a novel” (though he cannily added that “life is a different matter”), and his point includes not just content but form as well. Taking into account the novel from its origins through our current moment, anything truly is possible in one.
You could conceivably have novels that consist, in terms of macroformal organization, of linked but distinctive short stories, as Gloria Naylor does in The Women of Brewster Place, or as Elizabeth Strout achieves in Olive Kittredge; or of distinctive but linked voices as you find in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, or A.B. Yehoshua’s A Late Divorce, or Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao; or completely distinct narratives only loosely linked by power of association, theme, style, etc., as we see in Jaime Manrique’s Twilight at the Equator or Roberto Bolaño’s 2666; or an associative, highly poetic collage of texts that together suggest a life or a coming into a life, like Theresa Ha Kyung Cha’s Dictee (which is also considered a book of poetry as some experimental novels are); or concurrent narratives that link up eventually, as Margaret Atwood does in The Blind Assassin; or connected narratives told backwards, like a puzzle, as we get with John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van and Samuel R. Delany’s Dark Reflections; or internal voices competing with the main narrator’s, as one encounters in William Demby’s The Catacombs; or short, poetic narratives that could be read almost as prose poems or stories in themselves, as we seen in Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street.
Or one might consider novels created through inventive forms of internal formal play; a novel could consist of lists of various kinds, as one finds in the works of Édouard Levé; or strings of dialogue, as in most of the work of Ivy Compton-Burnett, William Gaddis’s J.R., or Yannick Murphy’s The Call; or plotless interiority, as in Samuel Beckett’s landmark trilogy; on run-on dialogues, as perfected by Thomas Bernhard or Juan Goytisolo, especially in Count Julian and Makbara; or a nonliterary form, like the double ledger B.S. Johnson uses in Christy Malrie’s Double Ledger; or a lipogrammatic rule, as one sees in terms of letters in George Perec’s A Void and moods and tenses in Christine Brooke-Rose’s Amalgammennon; or anthropological and linguistic investigations, as Renee Gladman explores in her Ravicka series; or a series of fragments with clues, as you find in Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves; or works that unfold like phenomenological experiments, as Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute pioneered, and on and on.
Then there are the numerous and proliferating works that straddle the line between fiction, nonfiction and memoir, some falling under the title of autofiction in the strict sense that Serge Doubrovsky designated the term back in 1977, with many others more loosely moving between the real and fictional, as does Pamela Lu’s brilliant Pamela: A Novel, or nearly every novel by Chris Kraus, Guillaume Dustan, and Patrick Modiano. (And this is only a tiny sampling of the innumerable ways people have gone about novel writing over the last 150 years, to limit the scope, one might say.)
In fact, many American publishers, agents, and journal editors respond to novellas as if handling nuggets of uranium; they neither like them nor know what to do with them.
Moreover, in a novel you can just keep stretching the canvas ever wider, such that you get immense polytychs of the kind you see in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, on through series like Honoré de Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine, Marcel Proust’s multivolume A la recherche du temps perdu, George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, Delany’s Neveryöna books (which include a collection of stories), and Ann Leckie’s recent Imperial Radch trilogy or Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti novels (and novellas). With Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume My Struggle, you have life itself, his life, down to its minutiae, woven into an immense, almost overwhelming tapestry, for all to see. One can even leave the planes of reality and speculation altogether, as Marianne Fritz demonstrated with her massive, unreadable (fully, that is, except by her), untranslatable and unfinished Naturgemäß novel series about Austria, consisting of increasingly recondite, visually arresting charts and concret(iz)e(d) text. This list constitutes only a small portion of works that, if the authors were immortal, might continue forever.
This is not to say that given the novel’s seemingly infinite formal possibilities, novellas need eschew formal experimentation, but rather that, along Aristotelian lines, there is usually a clearer narrative through-line than one may find in many novels, particularly novels written from the Modernist period through post-Modernism and up until today. Even if you cannot predict where a novella is going to end, at least by the opening pages, often based on the conflict the text foregrounds, you have a sense of where it is going. A novella’s author often will flag in a variety of ways where the text is headed. They do this in a variety of ways: through a limited number of characters; through a concentration on the consciousness of one particular character or a singular, unified voice; through a quick delineation of setting that grounds us in a particular space and place that will be the site where nearly everything takes place; and so on in this vein.
At the center of this lies the limited nature of the central emotional conflict between the protagonist and other characters, which usually is more sustained and perhaps even more complex than that of a short story, but usually not as complicated as that of many novels. This is also true of plot. While you can have a short story without any plot whatsoever—and this became somewhat of an American trend in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, with stories possessing a particular kind of Chekhovian lineage, a Joycean one, or both depending upon whom you asked—and, in rare cases, novels without any plot, it is probably fair to say that in novellas you almost always have some semblance of a plot, but not one that is too elaborate. Again, consider the boating or biking analogies.
A fourth key component is time, or temporality. One can imagine a short story as a mere sliver or slivers of a life: something that happens at a given moment, heightened by the memory or experience of something that transpired a long time before. One of my favorite examples of this is Stuart Dybek’s unforgettable short story “Pet Milk.” Another that a graduate school professor shared that I often return to is Isaac Babel’s famous story “Crossing Into Poland,” also known as “Crossing the River Zbruch.” Then there are Jayne Anne Phillips’ brief, revelatory early stories, in her collections Sweethearts and Counting, and Lydia Davis’s minimalist anecdotes and paradoxes, stylized into high art. These authors in essence present mere flashes of experience, highly compressed and dazzling. The temporalities of novels could occupy an entire conference; with novellas, however, time unfurls at greater length than one usually gets in short stories—though there are counter-examples, on the short story side and on the novel side, most certainly—and less than one gets in novels.
Lastly, as in poetry, so in short stories: every word matters. In novellas, as in novels, the writer and text have more leeway, more real estate, more space to play, though the kitchen sink, garage, and the condo tower or park next door and everything happening in them are more the province of the novel than the novella. Yet the ultimate result is like a small bungalow whose contents fit it (almost) perfectly. In this light, what come to mind are many well-known novellas like Tolstoy’s The Devil and The Death of Ivan Ilich, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, Anton Chekhov’s The Duel, Delany’s Atlantis: Model 1924, Gustave Flaubert’s A Simple Heart, Joyce’s The Dead (also known as the final “short story” in his remarkable collection Dubliners), Gabriel García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold and No One Writes to the Colonel, Herman Melville’s Billy Budd and Benito Cereno, Kenzaburo Oe’s Prize Stock and Seventeen, and Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, to name just a few. Some contemporary authors have specifically written in the novella form; one example is Yoko Ogawa, whose The Diving Pool: Three Novellas, comprises three striking texts in the genre. Other authors, like César Aira, tend to shift between very short novels, like Ema, the Captive and Ghosts, and novellas such as How I Became a Nun and An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, the latter two of whose titles perhaps tip the author’s intentions in formal terms. To quote Lindsay Drager again, “While other fiction aims outward, the novella curls in, coiling around itself until there’s no distinction between the story’s body and the story’s shell.”7
In spite of these attempts at definition, my aim is not to be categorical at all, but to suggest some ways of thinking about what novellas are and how to identify them. I would also say that some of the books I note above are regularly referred to as short stories (as in the case of Oe’s Prize Stock) or novels (Chopin’s The Awakening). To offer one final point of definition, though, what often distinguishes the novella from the long short story, I would argue, is that the short story tends to end on a point of openness in terms of plot, especially ones written post-Chekhov, or under his influence. Not always, but often. Whereas with many novellas, they conclude on a point of closure that suggests that if they were to keep going, you essentially would have a novel in your hands. Again, this is not a definitive point, but draws upon something I have observed reading more than a few novellas, and something to consider when writing one.
I say all of this in light of the fact that in contemporary American literature, and more specifically American publishing, the novella has tended to be treated like a pariah, primarily for commercial reasons. In preparing to teach novella-writing and then again in drafting this essay, one of the things that intrigued me was to consider how many major writers known either for short stories or for novels had written novellas or what would constitute novellas, and how some of these mid-length texts numbered among their finest work. To give one example, Henry James, one of the most important novelists in literary history, showed great mastery in and even became famous in part for his novellas, which include distinctive works such as Daisy Miller (1878), The Aspern Papers (1888), The Turn of the Screw (1898), and The Beast in the Jungle (1903). Faulkner, another pathblazer in the short story and novel forms, produced several novellas as well, including the trio usually published as Three Famous Short Novels: Spotted Horses, Old Man, The Bear (which appeared respectively in 1931, 1939, and 1942).
Yet in English and American literary circles, it remains an unloved form. Among the list of novellas I detailed above, a number are part of the US literary canon, and many writers have been assigned novellas at some point in their education. I am thinking specifically of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, for example, once a staple in junior high school classrooms. Yet US publishers, especially the big conglomerates, and many independent ones as well, like the agents who sell authors’ books, tend to want novels. They are also less interested in collections of short stories than in novels, a fact I always find intriguing given our fellow human beings’ reportedly shrinking attention spans and struggles with linguistic and lexical complexity in the era of social media.
In fact, many American publishers, agents, and journal editors respond to novellas as if handling nuggets of uranium; they neither like them nor know what to do with them. As Joe Fassler reported in his April 2012 Atlantic Monthly article “The Return of the Novella, the Original #Longread,”8 literary agent Karolina Sutton told the Guardian in 2011, “For me, the word denotes a lesser genre,” and went on to add, “If you pitch a book to a bookseller as a novel, you’re likely to get more orders than if you call it a novella.” Even if, in the author’s and publisher’s eyes, it is a novella! Moreover, as Suw Charman-Anderson notes in her 2013 Forbes article “The Novella Economy: Making Novellas Profitable,”9 contemporary authors see validity in the form even when publishers remain wary:
When iconic SF author Jeff Noon made his return to prose writing with Channel SK1N, the press release definitively called it a novella but the press consistently referred to it as a ‘comeback novel’. I asked Noon if he felt there was perhaps a little prejudice against novellas, and if his decision to self-publish an ebook only freed him to write at whatever length he saw fit.
“Definitely,” he says. “I know that publishers have always looked down a little on the novella. I don’t know why, because I love them, myself. So self-publishing allowed me to go with the flow and to let the story exist in its natural state. Nobody ever told me to make it longer. Maybe with some paper publishers that might well have been an issue.”
In other word, naming can be everything, no matter what you actually have in your hands. Fassler’s title also suggests that, in fact, the novella has or at least had been in fashion at some point, though it is probably fair to say that while it never really was in fashion, at least in American literature, American writers, like their literary compatriots elsewhere, have always written them, and that they will keep on writing them, especially given that a few publishers, like Melville House, the subject of Fassler’s article, looked at the publishing marketplace and realized there was a gaping hole where novella publishing should be.
Even if you cannot predict where a novella is going to end, at least by the opening pages, often based on the conflict the text foregrounds, you have a sense of where it is going. A novella’s author often will flag in a variety of ways where the text is headed.
The rise of e-books and those alleged shortening human attention spans have also paved the way for novellas. In the case of the former, it may be financially less risky for publishers—or anyone, since we all are potentially publishers now—to issue a book of fiction of between seventy-five to 100 pages—than it was even ten years ago, and given the new equilibrium that has developed between e-publishing and traditional print publishing, with side possibilities in on-demand publishing, traditional publishers may feel that novellas are less of an issue than before. In the case of the latter, if people are increasingly less likely to be able to get through a 300-page novel, let alone a 700-page one, might not a work of fiction one third of the length but constituting one continuous narrative, rather than a collection of seven–twelve short ones, be likely to draw new readers in? I guess this remains to be seen, though Melville House and other publishers are ensuring that novellas appear in bookstores and readers’ hands.
To speak a bit about teaching based on practice, when I was working on my most recently published work of fiction, Counternarratives, one of the challenges I set for myself, based on my classroom experience at Northwestern University, was to write a novella or several. Whether I could publish them was another matter, leading me to put the issue aside as I wrote, but I felt that the charge, which I’d given to students for a decade from 2002 through 2012, to write a coherent, long work of fiction that outstripped conventional short story length and scope, but that was achievable within the time-frame of a quarter-length term and a half—i.e., the second half of the fiction-track year-long sequence—was something I should personally attempt. Though my students had done so for years, could I do it, I wondered? What would emerge? As it turned out, I found that I had several long stories and novellas inside me, and wrote them in the course of producing Counternarratives.
When we were down to the mechanics of what would go on the cover, I suggested, given the abstract, almost academic-sounding nature of the title, which is, interestingly enough, constantly in the news these days because of the larger social and political context we live in, that we go with “Stories and Novellas” as the subtitle, so that readers would know it was a work of fiction and because the “novellas” component of the title might be a bit of a draw. Whether that is the case I don’t know, and few of the reviews have taken up the formal question of the novellas’ presence in the collection. On the other hand what I have found amusing is how some reviewers have pronounced the collection of stories and novellas a “novel”! This has happened not just in a few US reviews, but also in British and French ones. I suppose that speaks not only to the collection’s thematic coherence but, as I noted before, to the novel form’s array of possibilities. Or perhaps it is a sign that when people see “novella” they already start thinking “novel,” and ultimately, what’s the difference either way so long as they’re reading (it). To quote Lindsay Drager one final time:
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.10
So remember, scope, depth, perspective, length: if you start out on a fictional path but plan to walk as far as you can knowing that an end is in sight, you may be undertaking a novella. Uncharted as it may be for you, and for many a fiction writer, the novella also just might be worth the try.
John Keene’s recent books include the story and novella collection Counternarratives; the art book GRIND; an art-text collaboration with photographer Nicholas Muellner; and the poetry chapbook Playland. He also has translated the Brazilian author Hilda Hilst’s novel Letters from a Seducer. His recent honors include an American Book Award, a Lannan Literary Award for Fiction, and the Windham-Campbell Prize for Fiction. He chairs the department of African American and African Studies, and teaches English and creative writing at Rutgers University-Newark, and blogs at J’s Theater.
1. OED Third Edition, December 2003.
2. “Novella.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 17, Jan. 2018.
3. “Novella,” New World Dictionary.com, New World Dictionary.com, n.d., January 17, 2018.
4. From what I can tell, Richard Brome is perhaps among the first writer in English literature to use the term, in the title of his 1635 play The Novella, a sexual farce involving racial confusion set in Venice. In Brome’s play, “novella” refers to a strikingly beautiful, newly arrived young woman who has sparked the interest of men in the city, and thus carries the meaning of “novelty” or “innovation.”
5. “Novella,” New World Dictionary.com, n.d., January 17, 2018.
6 Lindsay Drager, “The Novella Is Not the Novel’s Daughter: An Argument in Notes,” Michigan Quarterly Review/MQR Online, http://www.michiganquarterlyreview.com/2015/10/the-novella-is-not-the-novels-daughter-an-argument-in-notes-2/, October 23, 2015.
8. Joe Fassler, “The Return of the Novella, the Original #Longread,” Atlantic Monthly, April 2012, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/04/the-return-of-the-novella-the-original-longread/256290/.
9. Suw Charman-Anderson, “Ebooks Breathe New Life Into Novellas,” Forbes, August 27, 2013, https://www.forbes.com/sites/suwcharmananderson/2013/08/27/ebooks-breathe-new-life-into-novellas/#1f6894f24305.