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The Novella: the Best of Both Worlds

This is the last week of the Italian school year. When the final bell rings tomorrow, that’ll be it: no more lessons until mid-September. I have a little impromptu celebration planned for this evening (if that isn’t a contradiction in terms), as a result of which today’s post will be mercifully brief. Given that I’ve just cracked open a bottle of Soave, it may also rapidly descend into complete unintelligibility (hic). You have been warned.

I just know I’m going to regret this in the morning. Oh well. Carpe diem, and all that. Anyway, on with the post…


The novella: unloved, unappreciated, and all but unpublished. It’s the Cinderella of the publishing world, condemned to stay at home whilst its by-no-means-ugly sisters, the short story and the novel, get invited to all the glittering parties.

In some ways, of course, it’s understandable. Short stories are just the right length for inclusion in newspapers, periodicals and anthologies. Full-length novels can be packaged as doorstop-sized books, all broad spines and big writing, that just invite readers to pluck them off the shelves. The novella can perform neither function with ease. It is both too long and too short, too detailed and too concise, too much and too little.

Or is it, as in Goldilocks and the Three Bears, just right? (I seem to have fairytales on the brain today. Perhaps it’s something to do with my current reading material: Italo Calvino’s Italian Folktales.)

Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Image: public domain | Wikimedia Commons
Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Image: public domain | Wikimedia Commons

The novella, after all, has a long and prestigious history. What is Boccaccio’s Decameron, if not a collection of novelle? And a large number of novellas have become classics. Of Mice and Men; Breakfast at Tiffany’s; Animal Farm; The Old Man and the Sea; The Time Machine; The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; Heart of Darkness … these are just some of the most famous examples, the ones that spring most readily to mind. There is much to be said for the humble novella, it seems.

Authors’ minds are usually brimming with ideas. Some are viable, others are not; those that come to fruition are highly variable and intensely individualistic. Some are suited to the short story form, and others to a novel-length treatment. Still others are different. They won’t necessarily stretch to 100,000 words, and nor can they be condensed into 5,000; but 20,000 or 30,000 words might be ideal. This is where the novella comes into its own. The novella retains something of the short story’s “focus”, and yet also incorporates something of the novel’s scope, with room for greater characterisation and description, and the opportunity to develop themes more fully, than a short story would allow.

Recently, discussing the novella with my writing friend Paul Sutton Reeves, I compared the novel to a panoramic, 360° landscape shot, and the novella to a more focused, detailed study of a particular feature within that landscape. I’m not convinced that this photographic comparison is a particularly good one on reflection, but at the same time I can’t seem to get it out of my head. A short story is, perhaps, a quick snapshot, a brief development of a single theme, event, or character. (One of my own short stories can be downloaded for free here, if anyone’s interested.) The novel allows the author to “zoom out”, so to speak, and examine several themes, characters and occurrences, and their relations to one another. The novella includes something of both these approaches and, by combining both smaller scale and greater length, allows for a story to be developed with both focus and depth.

Perhaps it is, indeed, the best of both worlds.

What do people think?

8 thoughts on “The Novella: the Best of Both Worlds

    1. I suppose ‘All the better to see you with’ would be the appropriate response here. Sadly, they are so short-sighted that, without glasses or contacts, I am all but blind…

  1. A very well thought out and intriguing post, Mari!. To your list of excellent novellas, I’d like to add that wonderful one by Pushkin, ‘Dubrovsky’ so sadly unfinished. ‘The Heart of Darkness’ is so brilliantly done that I never tire of reading it, and say some philistine publisher had suggested Conrad string it out a few more thousand words to make it financially viable, that would have reduced half its impact.

    The ebook medium is particularly appropriate for novellas.

    I assume it

    1. Thank you for the comment, Lucinda! I haven’t read ‘Dubrovsky’ – another one to go onto my reading list, by the looks of it. And ‘Heart of Darkness’ is one of my all-time favourites.

      I am praying that the advent of the ebook will help to revive the novella’s fortunes, especially in the English-speaking world. We shall see…

      I assume it…? 🙂

  2. As a fellow admirer of the novella, Mari, I enjoyed this post enormously. You made a highly convincing case.

    Calvino was a master of the novella – ‘Invisible Cities’, ‘The Baron in the Trees’, ‘The Cloven Count’… I’ve not read his fairy tales, though – they’ll have to go onto my reading list. Had Calvino been an unknown author in modern Britain, none of those works would even have found a publisher, I suspect.

    The Italian term finishes now? You’re not back at work until mid-September? Here in England we have another five weeks to go, moan, moan… Anyway, joking aside, enjoy your well earned break and I hope that you get lots of writing done. I’m off to download your short story…

    1. Thank you for the comment, Paul! ‘Invisible Cities’ is marvellous, isn’t it? I read it years ago, and am thinking of taking another look to refresh my memory. The folktales, weighing in at over 700 pages (small print) may be something to dip into rather than read from start to finish. We shall see…

      I agree that, if Calvino were a modern British author, he might have some considerable trouble winning a publishing deal. I also suspect that this tendency to overlook the novella may be rather specific to the English-speaking world, for whatever reason. Here in Italy, at least, the novella tends to fare much better. But then the Italian cultural scene on the whole (once you rise beyond the level of trash TV, at which Italy obviously excels!) seems a little more lively in general than in Britain – or could it be that I’m just viewing it through rose-tinted lenses? Is it the same in France?

      Yes, the school year is almost over! All I have to do is make it through to 7.30 this evening, and then I’ll have no more excuses and will have to buckle down to the writing. This is just as well – my liver is complaining after last night. I hold my drink about as well as a sieve… 😦

  3. Britain just goes from bad to worse in terms of dumbing down. For all that, there are pockets of resistance. The town where I live tries very hard to promote the arts – we have an arts festival here at the moment. A novella from an unknown author, though, just won’t be published. The state of publishing here is a great worry. France is in much better health. Every town has a bookshop and most have several – always a good indicator, I think. I’m pleased to hear that the novella endures in Italy.

    I read your beautifully written and atmospheric tale. I loved the narrative style – I could almost smell the salt air! Good luck with your writing this summer – I’m sure that you’ll get plenty done.

    1. Thanks for the reply, Paul, and for reading the story. I’m glad you enjoyed it – a compliment like that means a lot, coming from you! And hopefully it will be a productive summer.

      It’s always heartening to encounter these defiant little bursts of cultural activity, isn’t it? I seem to remember that Cardiff had quite an active cultural scene, when I lived there – plenty of independent bookshops, galleries and art centres. In the late 1990s there was quite a lively debate about whether to spend a rather limited pot of money on the Millenium Stadium or an opera house. It says something for the Welsh love of music that the opera house nearly won…

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