I have concluded that every piece of writing has its natural length. Take Flowers for Algernon, surely one of the great pieces of science fiction, or any other kind of fiction. When it was published as a short story, it was superb. When it was expanded to novel length, it was still a fine work, but it lost some of its impact. Charly, the Academy Award winning movie made from it, was clearly excellent, but not up the the quality of the short story.
That is, in my opinion – but what else matters in choosing the best of the best.
As a youth, I started off devouring short stories like candy. Over the years, my taste moved to novels, but throughout my life I have had a weakness for the novella length. It seems to bring out the best in writers.
Take Hemingway, for example. I love reading his work but I have never been convinced of his mastery. He seems more like the greatest writer of novels in which a man fights a war, makes love to a woman, lands a fish, and dies on the final page. Nevetheless, I don’t argue with his Nobel prize, because he won it for his one true masterpiece The Old Man and the Sea. A novella, you will note, even though it is sold as a novel.
Even people who don’t read Dickens love A Christmas Carol, which is a novella. Conan Doyle’s four long Sherlock Holmes stories, including Hound of the Baskervilles, are novellas.
Even two of the stories I hate most in science fiction are novellas: The Persistence of Vision (it won a Hugo and a Nebula) and A Boy and His Dog (it won a Nebula and was nominated for a Hugo) There is no accounting for taste.
I wanted to write appreciations of two of my favorite novellas (tomorrow and Thursday), so I decided to do a little background research. What a morass! No one agrees on anything, except that novellas are a hard length to sell.
In the science fiction world, the word of the SFWA is final for nebula award nominees. They set these lengths:
short story under 7,500 words
novelette 7,500 -17,500 words
novella 17,500-40,000 words
novel 40,000 words and up
Anything outside of science fiction doesn’t have to follow these rules, and very few outside the field have ever heard of a novelette.
Chuck Sambuchino of Writer’s Digest says, “Novellas generally run 20,000 to 50,000 words. About 30,000 words is average.” That may be true in 2016, but when I started writing in the 1970’s the typical paperback mystery, western, or science fiction novel came in at about 50,000 words.
A good cynic’s rule would be, “It’s hard to sell a novella, so stretch your story into a novel. If it won’t stretch, pretend it’s a novel anyway.”
Next, I went to Goodreads. I only recently got high-speed internet because I live in a dead zone in the Sierra foothills, so I am just now learning to use what is clearly a fine resource. I find their reviews surprisingly sensible, so I went to Listopia: World’s Greatest Novellas. It’s a nice list, well introduced, but if you want entertainment, slide down to the comments. I give these people credit for trying to make sensible choices in an under-defined situation, but it also looks like seven blind Hindus describing an elephant. Not that I could do any better.
Let me add one more bit. Here are some of the stories that, according to Wikipedia, are traditionally presented as novels, but still short enough to fall into the novella category — The Call of the Wild, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Heart of Darkness, The Stepford Wives, A River Runs Through It, Billy Budd, Animal Farm, Of Mice and Men, The Pearl, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Time Machine, and The Picture of Dorian Gray.
There are a lot of familiar faces here. One would almost think that our teachers and professors picked out books for their curricula because they were short; but that can’t be, can it?.
tomorrow, Hunter, Come Home