What's in a Name?

While pulling together our winter issue, in which we highlight the novella, I’ve been in a variety of settings where I’ve been asked to explain exactly what a novella is. Over several months of researching and gathering titles, keeping a running list of classic novellas, writing about novellas, editing people writing about novellas, reclassifying some short novels as novellas and changing them back again—never once did I pause to ask myself that very same question. And yet, when asked, I always had an answer.

Longer than a short story but shorter than a novel. Vague, erroneous, but a good starting point, I thought. People nodded, satisfied with the simplistic explanation and I concluded that I must possess a degree of authority on the novella, which I was beginning to understand was, for many—not me, of course—a rather vexing form of fiction. Dinner party after dinner party, reading after reading, the question was posed and before long, my recently qualified, authoritative, gesticulating-with-a-wine glass self was…elaborating. The novella? It’s a book that has the urgency of a short story and yet lacks the scope of a novel. Ahhh. It’s the shadowy space in a Venn diagram where the novel intersects with the short story. How interesting! Essentially, a novella is nothing more than a short novel—funny how some novels are shorter than some novellas! Hysterical. Novels—even very short novels—are sprawling things, where novellas have compact narratives. Sounds reasonable enough. Then came the string of words that has me forever wary of following red wine with too much espresso: If a novel is a painting, a novella is a painting that can’t exist without its frame. Kill me now.

Everyone seems to know what a novel is and most people can identify a short story when they read one, but the word novella throws people off. The question brings me, somewhat unfortunately, to the now clichéd phrase famously employed to explain pornography to the Supreme Court: I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it. It’s just as well. One doesn’t like a novella more or less because it’s called a novella. A rose by any other name, etc… That said, there’s something delightful about the novella form, something surprising, some subtle but very real something that sets it apart from other kinds of fiction. For those of us who appreciate them, novellas—whatever they are—make for a deeply satisfying read.

In this issue we’ve weighted our content towards recently published novellas—debuts and translations, as that’s our general bag. We also compiled a list of contributors’ favorite novellas: deep cuts and standards both. A sure addition to this list is the future classic, I Hotel (Coffee House Press, 2010). Karen Tei Yamashita’s epic novel comprised of ten linked novellas was a recent nominee for the National Book Award. The 600-page novella arrived on my doorstep, alone but for some bubble wrap: a testament to what the form can do.

Some of our reviewers take issue with the designation novella, others revel in it, many ignore it. In earnest, I asked one publisher if we could review an exceptionally short novel as a novella. They said it didn’t matter what we called the book, they’re just pleased we’re writing about it. The email’s tone: You’re kidding me, right? So, there you have it. Tomato tomato, novel novella. Until my one-woman show, “Increasingly Ridiculous Definitions for Literary Genres,” arrives at a dinner party near you, let’s call the whole thing off.

—Sara Nelson




  1. I love the article written by Sara Nelson. I have read of couple of reviews by her and I can only say it is a delight to read something written by her.

  2. Mark Levy

    Some writers claim that the perfect length for a short story is the novella length, a length that allows the writer to provide just the amount of flesh on the bones to make the story memorable.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: