In praise of the novella


As Chris Power notes in this recent Twitter exchange, any conversation on the novella usually begins with an attempt to define what a novella is, or to “engage in a form of literary apologia.

Most reviews of novellas begin with similar elements: the writer’s arbitrary word count parameter, why “novella” sounds more diminutive than “short novel,” and a lament that publishers are unwilling to support the form. This essay is not such an apology. I am tired of threnodies. Writers of novellas have nothing to be sorry about. Novellas deserve critical attention as individual, not adjacent, works.

For Ian McEwan, it’s “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 best days). And this child is the means by which many first know our greatest writers. Readers come to Thomas Mann by way of Death in Venice, Henry James by The Turn of the Screw, Kafka by Metamorphosis, Joseph Conrad by Heart of Darkness, Albert Camus by L’Etranger. I could go on: Voltaire, Tolstoy, Joyce, Solzhenitsyn. And Orwell, Steinbeck, Pynchon. And Melville, Lawrence, Munro. The tradition is long and glorious. I could go even further: the demands of economy push writers to polish their sentences to precision and clarity, to bring off their effects with unusual intensity, to remain focussed on the point of their creation and drive it forward with functional single-mindedness, and to end it with a mind to its unity. They don’t ramble or preach, they spare us their quintuple subplots and swollen midsections.

Praise indeed, and a sentiment Philip Hensher shared recently when discussing Zadie Smith‘s The Embassy of Cambodia. Rather than apologise, Melville House too celebrate the form with their Art of the Novella series, as do the Paris Literary Prize. Last word goes to Biblioklept: “the constraint of the novella provides a control and rhythm that compels (and rewards) reading.”