Preface: After failing to find a definitive definition of novella, I gave up and compiled a list based on my own opinion. So, if you don’t agree with some of my selections as novellas, scram.
1. Notes From Underground, by Fyodor Dostoevsky (translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky)
“In every man’s memories there are such things as he will reveal not to everyone, but perhaps only to friends. There are also such as he will reveal not even to friends, but only to himself, and that in secret. Then, finally, there are such as a man is afraid to reveal even to himself, and every decent man will have accumulated quite a few things of this sort. That is, one might even say: the more decent a man is, the more of them he will have.”
Dostoevsky’s mini-masterpiece—a classic tale of rebellion versus redemption. Notes is a delicious character study of a man torn apart by society. Also, the inspiration for Paul Schrader’s brilliant screenplay Taxi Driver. Although not traditionally seen as a novella, next to the bulk of Dostoevsky’s work, Notes is a freakin’ novella.
2. The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros
“I like to tell stories. I tell them inside my head. I tell them after the mailman says, Here’s your mail. Here’s your mail, he said.”
Only one thing to say about Mango Street: this book will break your little precious heart.
3. The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway
“Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.”
There is nothing new to be said about Old Man: epitome of style, precise dialogue—a phenomenal feat. Get over your high school baggage and pick up a copy from your local independent bookseller.
4. The Optimist’s Daughter, by Eudora Welty
“The procession passed between ironwork gates whose kneeling angels and looping vines shone black as licorice.”
In her Pulitzer Prize-winning work, Eudora Welty writes in sparse, compact prose. First published in The New Yorker as a short story, Daughter slays. And watch out for the breadboard at the end. Only object in fiction to ever make me cry. Read this book for its lush history, condensed scope, and raw vision of a family history.
5. In the Penal Colony, by Frank Kafka
“The Condemned Man had an expression of such dog-like resignation that it looked as if one could set him free to roam around the slopes and would only have to whistle at the start of the execution for him to return.”
After conferring with writer/poet/chef Joe Stracci, we both agreed—In the Penal Colony is far superior and more interesting than Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. In this horrifying story about torture and execution, Kafka’s prose is succinct, yet meandering and cloudlike, creating a lovely detached narrative. So, really, at the end of the day, I have to ask: got Kafka?
6. The Name of the World, by Denis Johnson
“I held imaginary conversations with a man named Bill, in which I went over the same ground I’d been going over since the deaths of my wife and daughter. While I went around looking paralyzed or detached, my thoughts ripped perpetually around a track like dogs after a mechanized rabbit.”
Johnson crafts a bold and heavy-hearted tale of a grief—a college professor dealing with the death of his wife and daughter. Oh, and then he meets Flower Cannon: a cellist, stripper, Protestant, performance artist, painter, healer. In a word: amazing. Johnson’s novella reads like a re-imagined Alice in Wonderland—each character in flux, shedding and growing new layers of reality.
7. The Secret Sharer, by Joseph Conrad
“It was very much like being mad, only it was worse because one was aware of it.”
Although not as deep and intense as Heart of Darkness, Secret holds a simplicity that makes it unique and fresh. You can see Conrad’s progression as a writer and thinker, moving towards the issues at play in Heart. The Secret Sharer is a tight little novella—lean and empty of frilly plot lines—the dissection of a soul. Scary stuff.
8. Tumble Home, by Amy Hempel
“The tide this time of year washes hundreds of tiny starfish up onto the beach. It leaves them stranded in salty constellations, a sandy galaxy within reach.”
Amy Hempel is a sentence pugilist. Her words are emotional wrecking balls. Tumble Home is written in the classic epistolary form and, really, you don’t even need to know that. I could tell you what the book is about, but it, too, wouldn’t matter. These last two sentences—how can you not read every word that comes before them?
9. Zooey (of Franny & Zooey), by J.D. Salinger,
“A more general and surely less parochial view was that his face had been just barely saved from too-handsomeness, not to say gorgeousness, by virtue of one ear’s protruding slightly more than the other.”
Salinger is king, layering his fiction with juxtaposing narratives and counterpoint structural form, brimming with emotional heft like none other. Again, with the high-school baggage, donate it to Good Will. If a writer, go back and read all Salinger. You’ll be a better hack for it.
10. The Enchanter, by Vladimir Nabokov
“Coarse carnality is omnivorous; the subtle kind presupposes eventual satiation.”
Nabokov’s novella, although well-written, alone, is wholly unsatisfying. However, when explored in the shadow of her older and more mature cousin Lolita, The Enchanter becomes a completely different work—compelling as a gorgeous failure that, ultimately, fueled the creation of one of the world’s greatest novels. Read it to see raw inspiration and trial-and-error at its most splendid.
J.R. Angelella was born in Baltimore and lives in Brooklyn. He graduated with an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and has published fiction in the Boston Literary Magazine, Twelve Stories, Word Riot, Flash Magazine, and The Literary Review. He is currently at work on his first novel. Find him HERE.