02 November 2012


I came across a piece by Ian McEwan in The Atlantic, entitled Some Thoughts on the Novella.  McEwan's love for this literary form is adamant ~ "I believe the novella is the perfect form of prose fiction.  It is the beautiful daughter of a rambling, bloated, ill-shaven giant (but a giant who's a genius on his better days).  And this child is the means by which many first know our greatest writers.

" .... [a novella is] long enough for a reader to inhabit a world or a consciousness and be kept there, short enough to read in a sitting or two and for the whole structure to be held in mind at first encounter ~ the architecture of the novella is one of its immediate pleasures .... To sit with a novella is analogous to watching a play or a longish movie."

Let's backtrack, and roughly define the prose forms being described ~

  • short story ~ under 7,500 words, or under 37.5 pages
  • novelette ~ between 7,500 and 17,500 words, or 37.5 and 87.5 pages 
  • novella ~ between 17,500 and 40,000 words, or 87.5 and 200 pages
  • novel ~ over 40,000 words, or over 200 pages
By convention in the submission of manuscripts, at a standard font size and double-spaced, there are on average 200 words per page.  The above word counts are an approximation, with latitude allowed for interpretation by the writer/editor/critic.

McEwan takes issue with those who look upon prose which is less than a novel in length as being an indication of the author's inadequacy.  He likens the novella to shorter pieces in classical music ~ "Composers, including those of the highest rank, have never had such problems of scale.  Who doubts the greatness of Beethoven's piano sonatas and string quartets or of Schubert's songs? Some, like me, prefer them to the symphonies of either man.  Who could harden his heart against the intimate drama of Mozart's G minor trio, or not lose himself in the Goldberg variations or not stand in awe of the D minor Chaconne played on a lonesome violin?"

Point well taken.  When it comes to classical music, I'm partial to all forms.  But while there are novellas which do possess me, somehow I remain most interested in the epic depiction of life to be found in novels.  There is so much more room for character development, for stroking in the colors and textures, the sounds and landscapes, of one or many environments ~ and the changes in all those qualities over time.

Some writers overdo a good thing, of course.  300-400 pages is a good length for a novel.  600 pages or more suggests that further editing might be profitably employed.  My own novel (which perished when my laptop's hard drive died) was a modest 50,000 words, or 250 pages.  The next one will be longer.

There are those in writing classes who suggest that it's best to start small (short story) and work up.  Perhaps.  But short stories fail to engage me.  They're too much like an overheard snippet of conversation ~ not long enough to give a sense of setting, depth, nuance.  IMHO.

Coincidentally, McEwan likens a novella to a movie screenplay (about 20,000 words).  I've noticed that after over four years of Netflix movie rentals, I gravitate more and more toward long-running, multi-disk dramatic TV or cable series which run for years.  A regular movie is fine too, but the series (the good ones) are more like real life ~ the characters grow and change, new elements are introduced, and one develops a feeling of kinship with their lives.  Not unlike reading a novel.

So, Sir Ian, we'll have to respectfully agree to disagree.  And I remain open to persuasion.

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