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?