Call Me Fish-Owl: Reflecting on the Novella’s neither Fish nor Fowl Status

After reading Eugene Marten’s novella Waste, struck by its concentrated unity, its razor-sharp timing, its immediacy, etc., the way it zipped along like a guilty-pleasure page-turner but with Gordon Lish-approved sentences, penetrating insight, and an underlying critique of consumption and waste, I wondered which works of comparable length had a similar effect on me and why? What immediately came to mind were books that I’d read as a teenager like The Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men and The Pearl, Billy Budd, The Metamorphosis and In the Penal Colony, Animal Farm, The Old Man and the Sea, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Fahrenheit 451, Heart of Darkness, The War of the Worlds, etc. While these are all arguably significant works, I wondered why, in contrast to novels, had my reading of novellas since then been so meager. This led to thoughts about how a novella is, or even whether it should be, defined. Is a novella simply a work of prose having a certain amount of words, a fiction that’s longer than a long story, or a novellette, but shorter than a novel? Or are word and page counts really just arbitrary considerations in determining how to define a work? Is this kind of categorization simply shaped by marketing forces? Is it even worthwhile to ask these questions?

The term “novella” is definitely elastic. One person’s short story is another’s novella, one’s novella is another’s novel, after all. Justin Taylor, after “sussing” out with Kendra Grant Malone “what the standards for a novella might be,” wrote to me that Stephen King called

a short story…anything up to about 50,000 words, a novel is anything over 75,000 words, and a novella is anything in the middle. That’s all well and good for King, but what about the rest of us? Dennis Cooper, for example, is one of my favorite writers of all-time. I was lucky enough to publish his story “The Ash Gray Proclamation” in a book I edited. Dennis considers this story a novella, though at approximately 8,000 words, it’s not even the longest short story in the anthology. Well, relative to the size of Dennis’s novels, it makes sense. I think the question, in the end, has to do with intention. Barry Hannah wrote at least four books that are about 120 pages a piece (Ray, Hey Jack!, The Tennis Handsome, Boomerang) and these are some of my favorite books, but Hannah is very clear that they are novels, not novellas. Then there’s the question of shifting definitions. I think “novella” is a much more popular term than it used to be. I’ve seen Henry James’s “Turn of the Screw” described variously as a story, novella, and novel.


Yes, perhaps we can blame Henry James for the muddle we’re in. James, to paraphrase Robert J. Clements and Joseph Gibaldi in Anatomy of the Novella, used the word “novella”—a term originally denoting extreme brevity—to define not his shortest but the longest of his short stories. While “[s]cientific precision is, of course, neither feasible nor perhaps even desirable,” they argue, “[n]evertheless, one is compelled to argue at the very least for a certain rigor in the definition and use of literary terms that would preclude the kind of confusion and misinformation generated by this slapdash application of the term novella.” These are strong words. But what relevance do they have for the contemporary reader and writer?

Sometimes going backward is the first step toward going forward. According to Clements and Gibaldi, the novella’s “roots [are] quite plainly in the Latin adjective novellus (the diminutive of novus), meaning ‘young or new’—primarily to matters dealing with husbandry (vines, goats, chickens, bulls, arbors, and so on),” and was sometimes used “more liberally…to mean anything new or young.” It was also employed “to signify a ‘newly planted tree.’” In the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, a “novella was a story, true or fictional, new or simply unusual, written or recited,” and collected in “the frame-tale or cornice.” It was a form of entertainment, with brevity and verisimilitude its chief ideals. Clements and Gibaldi lament how the novella since then, “despite considerable protest[,] has…been drafted to serve as one of those ill-starred literary terms whose misfortune it is to be so overused and abused that it comes to signify anything and everything its employer has in mind.”

While Clements and Gibaldi’s survey of the novella’s origins, that is, its roots in the tale collections of Boccaccio, Chaucer, Cervantes, etc., is certainly interesting, if not exhaustive, as is their treatment of the Renaissance theory of the novella, I would argue that sometimes ambiguity and elasticity enriches the dialogue about literature. One need not be mired to etymology, or an idea’s “proper” meaning in order to understand, label, critique, or produce something meaningful. Ascribing absolutes to an artform may simply render it a dead thing, a skeleton, a fossil. Fluidity is certainly preferable to that. Renee Gladman, in a contextualizing paragraph below, posits that

it is the contemporary form of the novella, which exists outside of the above traditions, that seems to bewilder critics and theorists. What excites me about teaching a course on the novella, or even just having a conversation about it, is that we can’t take for granted what the term “novella” means. In fact, to venture into the writing of our own novellas, we have to, in a sense, define what is at stake. What is it about our subject, or our relation to that subject, our thinking of it, that demands this particular form? I like the idea that the genre is difficult to grasp, that the form itself changes with every new attempt, and that there is no recognizable canon. . .I see the novella as a compressed narrative with a singular textual presence, like an extended moment. A gesture, or walk in the city, or question held for a special duration, long enough for micro-happenings to occur along a string of thinking but not so long that any of these events separate and demand their own space of story.

Shifting focus briefly to commerce: While short paperback originals continue to have tremendous success in Europe the major publishing houses in the U.S. continue to employ dubious strategies to sell shorter works in hardcover (with requisite overpricing, of course), adding heft to a book by surrounding its text with blocks of white space. The novella has been stigmatized as something less than the novel; it’s less ambitious, it’s incomplete, it’s the transitional work of major writers, etc. Often difficult to get published, at least with the corporate media outlets, these longer-than-a short-story, but shorter-than-a-novel books get short shrift. However, if one looks toward independent publishers, a different paradigm emerges, and one that bodes well for works of any length. For instance, since 2004, Melville House Publishing has been reprinting classics in its classy “Art of the Novella” series. Besides familiar titles by Chekhov, Tolstoy, Melville, Doyle, Dostoyevsky, Joyce, etc., it’s also released the first-ever translation of Marcel Proust’s series of parodic pastiches The Lemoine Affair, Honoré de Balzac’s The Girl with the Golden Eyes, and Heinrich Von Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas. The success of the series was perhaps the impetus for its “Art of the Contemporary Novella” series in which Gilbert Adair’s satirical murder mystery The Death of the Author is flanked by Imre Kertész’s The Pathseeker, Samir El-Youseff’s The Illusion of Return next to Kevin Vennemann’s Close to Jedenew.

The novella’s beauty may be found in its condensation of perennial themes like freedom from oppression, against-all-odds love, loss of innocence, the fight against injustice, to name a few. They’re distillations of friendship, the hero’s journey; they’re often meditative and melancholic mood pieces. They’re usually limited to a single event, conflict, or challenge, they usually take place in one location, usually revolve around one or a few characters, and usually have very few sub- or parallel-plots. There are countless exceptions (as the lists below demonstrate), but most of the novellas in question probably correspond to at least one of these characteristics. Once again, concentration, distillation, and essence are the novella’s prime directives.

In his introduction to Different Seasons, Stephen King also called the novella “an ill-defined and disreputable literary banana republic.” In an effort to expand the dialogue, clarify, and even muddy the waters further regarding this renegade, this outlaw called the “novella,” I contacted over sixty writers and editors and asked them to list and comment on their favorite novellas. Below you’ll find J.R. Angelella’s heartbreakers, soul dissectors, and sentence pugilists, Nick Antosca’s border-crossing list, Ken Baumann’s fractured dioramas, Matt Bell’s beautiful strange selections, Crispin Best’s lots of things happening in little places lot, Daniel Borzutzky’s “only works translated into English” list, K. Kvashay-Boyle’s heartstruck aweswellings, Blake Butler’s expectedly unexpected, Tobias Carroll’s Moody mood piece, Jimmy Chen’s trinity, Jackie Corley’s knife’s edge list, Matt DeBenedictis’s five is alive list, Nicolle Elizabeth’s fire ants, Scott Esposito’s primarily Latin-American tour, Brian Evenson’s obsessive confessionals, Brandon Scott Gorrell’s favorite novella, Amelia Gray’s time machine, Jim Hanas’s trip West, John Haskell’s “random and scattershot” list, Jamie Iredell’s reverse-chronological personal survey, Jac Jemc’s soul-crushers and mindbenders, Shane Jones’s “lucky eight,” Sean Kilpatrick’s unhinged list, Lee Klein’s humans being human more or less list, Catherine Lacey’s meditation involving “the bottled embodiment of an economy at its most opulent,” Reb Livingston’s list to reread, Sean Lovelace’s screw-ups, Lorette C. Luzajic’s bridge and tumble crowd, Josh Maday’s unbearable heaviness of being list, Carole Maso’s fractured sprawl, Ben Myers’s mad bastards and quiet recluses, Ben Pester’s curatives, Cooper Renner’s perfections, Adam Robinson’s brainy bramble, Bradley Sands’s bizarro fiction-heavy list, Tim Russell’s grisly and sexy list, Christine Schutt’s one, Matthew Simmons’s pretty accretions and misdirections, Joe Stracci’s pillars, Justin Taylor’s eros erosions, William Walsh’s top twenty!, Kevin Wilson’s list that, if you took out the references, could be read as a recombinant short story, John Dermot Woods’s books that live inside him, and Leni Zumas’s weird and worried wonders. Paul Kincaid and Clayton Moore redress two genre gaps by offering, respectively, science fiction and mystery lists. And you’ll also find lists from Steve Almond, Timothy Gager, Molly Gaudry, Renee Gladman (her introductory paragraph is an incisive mini-primer of the contemporary novella), Christopher Higgs, Lily Hoang, Michael Joyce, Michael Kimball, Gary Lutz, Micheline Aharonian Marcom, Michael Martone, Kimberly King Parsons, Kathryn Regina, Peter Selgin, and David Shields. You can also find mine HERE.

8 responses to “Call Me Fish-Owl: Reflecting on the Novella’s neither Fish nor Fowl Status

  1. What an excellent post. I especially like this:

    "Ascribing absolutes to an artform may simply render it a dead thing, a skeleton, a fossil. Fluidity is certainly preferable to that."

    Very well said. I have an essay on novellas that will be coming out in Poets&Writers this summer (as will my own collection of three novellas, THE NEW VALLEY, from Grove/Atlantic in June) and, for all the research I did, this post was as interesting, enlightening, and thought-provoking as most of what I found.

    Thanks for putting it together.

  2. Thanks Josh! I'm glad you enjoyed it. I look forward to your essay at P&W. And if you feel like sending me a list with comments of your own, I'd be happy to post them in a forthcoming addendum here.

  3. Pingback: Little Monsters: Recommended Novellas (An Addendum) « john madera’s hitherandthithering waters

  4. John,

    Nice essay. I scout out such essays for reprint in Flatmancrooked’s Industry section. I’d like to recommend this one. What do you say?

    FWIW – Flatmancrooked was also a Forecast 42 host (as was I on my personal site).



  5. Pingback: The Rebirth of the Novella | Bookish Us

  6. Pingback: Respecting Renegades: Madras Press and the Venerable Novella | Publishing

  7. Pingback: Thus Spake EWN: June is Novella Month « ph.d. in creative writing

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