Book chat

What is a novella?

In his role as the Laureate for Irish Fiction, Colm Tóibín writes a monthly blog on the Arts Council of Ireland website, which always makes fascinating reading.

This month he has written about novellas (which makes me wonder does he know about Novellas in November hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck?) and made some very bold statements about the genre.

In response to the question “what is a novella”, he writes:

A novella is something no one wants. Publishers live in dread of them because no one much will buy them. There is no prize for the best novella of the year; there never will be. If you are engaged in writing a novella, it is with a lonely feeling that no one is waiting for you to finish it. No one is ever going to say: I am so looking forward to your next novella.

He later goes on to argue that, caught between a short story and a novel, the novella generally has just “one plot-line, one protagonist, and its meaning can unfold or be revealed without any recourse to transcendence”. On this basis, he suggests that “Claire Keegan’s ‘Foster’ is a novella, but her ‘Small Things Like These’ is a novel”.  That’s because:

Furlong’s own life story is dramatized as much as the actual events that occur in the novel’s time-span. If we didn’t have the story of his upbringing, then the book would be a novella.

This made me think about all the many dozens of novellas I’ve read over the years that have complex storylines, with back stories and present stories all combining to form a single narrative. Have I misunderstood what a novella is?

I generally decide if a book is a novella by the number of pages it possesses, because if I haven’t read it, how do I know if the story is complex enough to meet the definition? My rule of thumb is this: if the book has less than 150 or so pages, it’s a novella (sometimes I might push it to 200 pages if the font size is large); more than 150 pages and it’s a novel.

According to this Wikipedia article, a novella is determined by word count — between 17,500 and 40,000 words — but that’s not something you can easily work out by picking up a book. That same article also confirms Tóibín’s idea that the narrative in a novella is generally less complex than one in a novel.

A novella generally features fewer conflicts than a novel, yet more complicated ones than a short story. The conflicts also have more time to develop than in short stories.

Later in his blog post, Tóibín suggests that some of the very best writing is to be found in the novella form (to which I agree) but then argues that because so few novellas get published, they often get buried away in short story collections and are never discovered by readers.

“But maybe novella-writers should rise up,” he writes.

Or maybe the name itself – novella – should change, just as Windscale, which had a bad reputation, became Sellafield, or Facebook became Meta. Or maybe these categories – short story, novella, novel – really make no sense and have no clear borders.

You can read the blog post in full here.

What do you think? What does the term novella mean to you? And does a definition really matter?

26 thoughts on “What is a novella?”

  1. Not sure I entirely agree with him. I tend to go by length and although that can be elastic depending on who you talk to, I think around 100 pages or so. Getting up to 150 is almost novel length. I don’t accept what he said about the lack of complexity – some novellas I’d read are packed with layers. TBH I’ve never heard this kind of definition before, but maybe I just missed something!

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  2. Apparently the Germans have this single plot line definition – or some Germans anyhow.

    For me a novella is a short novel – roughly up to 150pages (because I can’t count words) but it does depend on page and font size so it’s a rule thumb for me.

    However, I do also take into account tightness – in plot, cast of characters, etc. One of the reasons I like them is because they are *in general* tight and focused. I made this point in my Winter in Sokcho post in fact. I think a tight, focused story can be multi-layered. Layering can be about how it is written. That is, I don’t think you need multiple storylines etc to be layered? A simple story can be layered.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Interesting about the Germans…

      Like you, I love a good novella because they’re usually so tightly written, so every word counts and there’s no “flab”. And agree with you re: layering. Layering can actually be an emotional element to the story, or simply an undercurrent, or even a deeper meaning as per a fable or myth.

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  3. I don’t think I agree with him at all – I do understand that from a publishers point of view, novellas aren’t that popular – in terms though of the hundreds of novellas that have been read over the last few years of Novellas in November, I feel that many contain as much, if not more complexity than many novels.

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  4. Yes, I too don’t agree about complexity not having a place in a novella. But in general, I don’t think definitions matter one bit – unless you’re joining in a challenge, and have to identify a novella!

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    1. Lol! Yes, we do get caught up in definitions, don’t we? Which I think maybe Toibin’s point with that last bit I quoted… Whether it’s a novella or a short novel, I do enjoy them and they may possibly be my preferred genre/format.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Yes, that’s so true. If it’s a favourite author I’m there in a heartbeat, but if it’s someone I’ve not read before I have to *really* be intrigued by the story because it’s such a big time commitment…

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  5. How interesting that Toibin should post on this topic — I feel like I’ve seen so much novella-related chatter about on Twitter this month, and links to articles. There will always be interest in short books, not just because of modern readers’ distractibility and lack of time, but because taking all the depth and complexity of a novel and condensing it to under 200 pages is a rare and valuable art! Keegan herself referred to Foster as a “long short story,” saying it doesn’t have the pace of a novella. So who decides these things … author, publisher, or reader?!

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    1. How interesting that Keegan described Foster as a long short story and not a novella, because that’s probably how I’d describe it too. I read it online years ago and it was a quick read. I can’t imagine reading a novella on a website because they generally take 2+ hours and I spend enough time in front of a screen for work purposes that I don’t really want to do the same during my precious leisure time.

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  6. At fishgottaswimeditions.com we love novellas! If other publishers celebrated their elegant sufficiency (and some do), then the literary conversation could continue to be beautifully textured and wide-ranging.

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    1. How great you set up a press focussing on novellas! I love Periene Press in the UK which only publishes novellas in translation and I have amassed quite a collection of their publications. They are perfect to read in a single afternoon.

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      1. The Periene Press books are lovely. And an afternoon is the perfect time-frame for reading a novella. For most writers and publishers, I think novellas are considered to be between 20,000 and 40,000 words, with flexibility at either end. I believe the most perfect novella is James Joyce’s The Dead, which is about 16,000 words, but is self-contained like the best novellas: a world in itself, more complicated, less fragmentary, than a short story, but without the extra strands of a novel. We have a Life List at Fish Gotta Swim Editions and welcome suggestions to add to the list.

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  7. Well, first of all, he’s wrong about there being no award. There is Seizure’s Viva La Novella award every year, and you can read my reviews of the winners here: anzlitlovers.com/category/literary-awards/seizure-viva-la-novella-prize/
    Even if we cut him some slack because #sarcasm Australia, you know, is so far away and not seriously part of world literature, all he had to do was Google it and see the Wikipedia page. Even though it doesn’t mention the Seizure Award because the Wikipedia Hit Squad probably doesn’t think it’s ‘notable’ enough, it lists 18 awards/ #NuffSaid.

    Secondly, I don’t agree with his ideas about length. FWIW I reckon under 100 pages is a short story because I can read it in an afternoon —and I’ve usually forgotten what it was about by the next day because of its limitations with character development.
    Sue will tease me about this because despite my claim to prefer the novel, I’ve reviewed four short story collections this year. But it’s true, I can now only remember one thing from those four collections, and that was because of the pandemic. (The author described a character with shaggy lockdown-no-hairdressers-open mane as a lion.)
    I define novellas as between 100 and 200 pages, give or take a bit for font variations and size of page. I’ve read quite a few of them and I really enjoy #NovNov!

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    1. Ah yes, you put me onto Seizure’s Viva La Novella award and I have purchased many of their e-editions but just haven’t got around to reading them yet. (That’s the downside of ebooks – they are “invisible” when they are hidden away on your Kindle, so it’s easy to forget you have them.)

      And I’m with you re: your definition. I reckon 100 to 200 pages is about right.

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      1. I know, I’ve just bought a Yemeni book written in a similar way to The Unwomanly Face of War, by Svetlana Alexievich, (translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky) because Stu recommended it, and I felt a kind of shame that the way the West responds to war and refugees depends so much on skin colour and religion.
        As soon as I checked the Kindle to see that it had downloaded I discovered that I’d started something else and forgotten about it. I wish it had a ‘currently reading’ feature so that people like me who read more than one book at a time could keep track of things.

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  8. This is a really interesting discussion. I love short stories but generally struggle with novellas, so for me there is a difference, but I don’t think it can be pinned down to length or complexity (I definitely don’t agree with Toibin’s definition). I feel like, for me, a short story is something I can read in a sitting, but that isn’t necessarily just about page count, but about the unity of the way the narrative unfolds, i.e. no chapter breaks etc. Whereas I can’t read a novella of the same length in one sitting without feeling like I’ve rushed through it.

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    1. That’s an interesting point about rushing through a novella… I sometimes feel that but I’ve learned to pace my reading better and tend to read novellas if I know I’ve got an entire day/afternoon free so that I can read them in one, or two, sittings. I tend not to remember the story if I space out a novella longer than that – ie. over the space of a week. Short stories I never seem to remember at all, unless there’s something really significant or impactful about them.

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  9. YES! Writers of novellas (and short stories, for that matter) RISE UP! I love a good novella, much like I love a good short story. I think it takes more artistry to write in the shorter format. Anyone can keep writing and writing tens of thousands of words to get the whole story told, but to tell a whole story in a shorter form is HARD.

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    1. Totally agree that a novella does take more artistry to write well… it reminds me of that phrase “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter” because it takes time and effort to really hone text so that every single word works.

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