Wednesday, April 15, 2009


novella--a literary form of greater length and complexity than a short story; a prose narrative of at least 15,000 words and as many as 40,000; a narrative of greater length and thematic structure than a novelette.

Although there have been some longer short stories with more than one point of view (See Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood for examples), this facet may be a way of drawing the arbitrary line between short story and novel more deeply; a novella could easily support more than one teller of the tale. A novella could also support more thematic density than a short story, leaving word length as a major boundary market between the novel, which begins at about 50,000 words.

Novellas are widely believed to have originated in Italy, probably at the hand of Bocaccio, who gave it a satiric bite and thus invested the form with a tradition of edge or corrective humor, which passed along to Chaucer who put the form to work and to rhyme in his Canterbury Tales. Given their own edge and relative shortness, chick lit could be argued into this tradition of providing outgoing characters whose reach to readers is based on their non-traditional approaches to the traditions held up to them by a conformist society.

One of the older American novellas was Herman Melville's Billy Budd, which spoke to the naivete of a young person. John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men is a poignant novella about friendship among a group of farm workers, taking its thematic title from a Robert Burns poem in which "the best laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley (go awry) and leave us naught but grief and pain for promised joy." It remains a stunning blend of tragedy and the reach for a satisfying life. Yet another facet of the thematic potential in the novella is found in Philip Roth's early Good-bye, Columbus, which returns the medium to the sharp edge of satire, directed against classism.

Because of its in-between size, the novella is not a comfortable fit for most book publishers. Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea first appeared in a magazine. The Roth novella appeared as a book, but the publisher added five short stories to provide greater bulk.

Arguably a writer who finds the length of the novella suited to his dramatic visions, Jim Harrison has produced a large number of them, his publishers bunching them in triads for book publication. His most recent collection of novellas is 2005 package,The Summer He Didn't Die.

Hint for writers: All the writers named herein have long since given up writing to a particular word length, rather they write for the story, regardless of its length or brevity. Should a novella emerge, it can be bundled with one or more others, used as a feature for a collection of stories, and simply mounted as an electronic publication.

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