(Once Again) What Is a Novella?

by GH

The Basilica of Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy. (Photo by C.K.H., via Flickr.)

The Basilica of Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy. (Photo by C.K.H., via Flickr.)

 

[Reposting this because I got the question again the other day.]

I’ve had good luck with novellas lately. I recently published one as a Kindle Single and I had another one accepted (although I don’t have a pub date yet).

Anyway, it got me thinking: what is a novella?

Of course it’s an issue of length. A novella is longer than a short story and shorter than a novel. But how much longer? How much shorter?

A little Internet research turned up the rules for the Nebulas, a science fiction award. Here’s their criteria:

  1. Short Story: less than 7,500 words;
  2. Novelette: at least 7,500 words but less than 17,500 words;
  3. Novella: at least 17,500 words but less than 40,000 words
  4. Novel: 40,000 words of more.

Note the category for “novelettes,” which strikes me as a little fussy. But it does make sense for the judges: it doesn’t seem right to put an 8,000-word story in the same category as a 17,000-word one.

Rules aside, I found a lot of interesting stuff about novellas—interesting because there’s a certain defensiveness about them.

In the New Yorker, Ian McEwan calls the novella “the perfect form of prose fiction.” But only after mentioning that the critics gave him a hard time after he published one.

More recently, in the Millions, Nick Ripatrazone proclaimed that “Writers of novellas have nothing to be sorry about.” Which is the kind of thing you say after someone expects you to be sorry about something.

The defensiveness is justified. When Julian Barnes won the 2011 Booker Prize with a 150-page book, the Guardian published a dubious piece about novellas.

Personally, though, I don’t feel the need to defend the genre. A story suggests its own form. You make it as long as it needs to be. It’s very hard to publish novellas, but it’s hard to publish anything.