The Novella: neglected middle child of prose

A canoe is not a small ship, a shrub is not a miniature tree, a child is not a pint-sized adult and a novella is not a short novel (sorry Merriam-Websters). It is the middle child of prose, defined against the (longer) novel and (shorter) story. And like a middle child, it is often left out and therefore free to make its own discoveries and carve its own path.

After poetry month (April) and short story month (May), June is novella month. We do not make this up. But someone did.

After poetry month (April) and short story month (May), June is novella month. We do not make this up. But someone did.

We’ve all read a number of novellas. The list of possibilities is impressive and includes: The Awakening (1899, Kate Chopin), Heart of Darkness (1899, Joseph Conrad), The Metamorphosis (1915, Franz Kafka), Of Mice and Men (1937, John Steinbeck), The Stranger (1942, Albert Camus), The Little Prince (1943, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry), Animal Farm (1945, George Orwell), The Ballad of the Sad Café (1951, Carson McCullers), A Clockwork Orange (1962, Anthony Burgess), Black Water (1992, Joyce Carol Oates)… Goodreads has a list (of course) of the “greatest novellas.”

Historically, some consider that English novelist, dramatist and spy, Aphra Behn, published the first novella. Oroonoko, a love story about an African king, slavery, dismemberment, decapitation and death was published in 1688 (she died the next year, at age 49). Of course the Russians made the novella into an art form. Ivan Turgenev published the autobiographical novella First Love in 1860, about a young man in love with a woman that he eventually discovers is his father’s lover (in a creepy scene involving a riding crop) and everything ends horribly (misogyny alert).

A novella is defined, in part, by its length — somewhere between 20,000 and 50,000 words (whereas a novel is generally somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 words). This translates to about 100-150 pages. While length isn’t everything, it does limit and guide structure. The novel has the luxury of more pages with which to explore sub-plots; a novella does not.

Novellas tend to focus on the personal, psychological journey of one main character, through one point of view, and usually over a period of just a few days.

Although, there are exceptions. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie covers 20+ years (1969, Muriel Spark). Like the novel, the poem and other written forms, “although, there are exceptions” could be added to each of the points I make here. Language is slippery like that. So are writers.

A novella does not usually have chapters. Like the short story, passages of time or changes of location are differentiated with extra paragraph spaces, or sometimes a blank page but not chapter numbers or titles.

Novellas are not easy to sell. I once came across what I thought a comical piece of advice to writers on a well-known publisher’s website. In answer to a writer’s question about how to get his novella published, the expert responded with something like, “my first piece of advice to you is to expand your novella into a full-length novel.”

Novellas are often published with other short stories, such as the case with Mavis Gallant’s The Pegnitz Junction: A Novella and Five Stories (1984) and Stephen King’s Different Seasons (1982), a collection of four novellas, three of which ended up on the big screen, including the popular “Shawshank Redemption.” Alice Munro’s “The Albanian Virgin,” considered by some to be a novella, was published in her short story collection Open Secrets (1994). By my rough estimate, this story is about 17,000 words, so a bit on the short side for a novella. And it’s much more complicated than many novellas in terms of passage of time, so again not neatly a novella. (But that’s Alice Munro for you. For each rule writer’s learn, any Alice Munro story can be held up as an example of breaking it).

Years ago, Descant sponsored a novella contest. Unfortunately, the time and money required outran the staff and volunteers at hand, so we didn’t keep it up. But our very own Michelle Alfano, now Descant’s assistant-editor-in-chief (administration), published a novella. Made Up of Arias won the 2010 Bressani Prize for Short Fiction. Michelle managed to pack a lot of character into the slim volume:

Lilla, Joey and Clara Pentangeli, their father Salvatore and their mercurial mother Seraphina live on Paradise Street behind a giant billboard, in a charmed world filled with operatic heroines. Seraphina idolizes Maria Callas. Between bouts of housework, she re-enacts Violetta’s death scene from La Traviata, dresses in a kimono like CioCioSan in Madama Butterfly, and concocts outrageous tales for her three enchanted children.

The Malahat Review sponsors a novella contest every two years. Their next deadline is February, 2016. Not many literary magazines will publish a novella for the obvious reason that they take up so much space. Publishing one writer’s novella means not publishing several other short story writers. But here is a link to a list of places that do consider novellas for publication.

Quattro Books Logo

Quattro Books, in Toronto, consider themselves “the home of the novella” (literary only, not genre). Their Ken Klonsky Novella Contest inspired my idea for this blog post. From June 1st to July 31st, 2014, they are accepting submissions for their novella competition. If you win, your  manuscript will be published this fall — yes, you could go from an idea to a book-in-hand in less than six months. Of course, in that same time, Stephen King will have written two blockbuster bestsellers, but don’t think about that. Think about the launch party and how great it will feel to be both a contest winner and an author, all in one fell swoop. (Just make sure you avoid clichés like that). One of Quattro’s Ken Klonsky Novella Contest winners for 2012 was Terri Favro, for The Proxy Bride (in which there are chapters). Writing tip #54: Always a good idea to read the work of previous winners before entering a contest.

Terri Favro won the Quattro Ken Klonsky Novella contest for The Proxy Bride, in 2012.

Terri Favro won the Quattro Ken Klonsky Novella contest for The Proxy Bride, in 2012.

I’m rereading James Joyce’s novella The Dead. If a short story is something to sink your teeth into and a novel something to which you lend your heart and soul, The Dead suggests to me that a good novella merges these two experiences. A novella is intense, like a short story, but it also refracts and extends your vision, similar to a novel. And, recalling the ending of James Joyce’s brilliant story, I want to add that the novella can bring you, suddenly, to your knees.

 

 

 

 

3 Responses to The Novella: neglected middle child of prose

  1. What a good piece. “A novella is intense, like a short story, but it also refracts and extends your vision, similar to a novel.” I think this is often because the language is so compressed, densely layered, elliptical. And we’d be poorer, as a literary culture, without this genre.

  2. Linda Leone

    This has reminded me, most of my favourite stories are novellas. I think I will go reread some of them. Thank you.

  3. This is a fine article, and the audience for literary novellas – quality reading for people short on time – is growing. I won the Ken Klonsky novella contest in 2010 for A Gardener on the Moon and it’s helped me realize how many readers out there love this form. As a writer, I’d add that intensity of language is a big plus in novellas, and it makes them a joy to write.

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