The Novella: A short history
‘There’s no room for digression. No room for passenger writing. Every word is doing a job. So pay attention. A short novel is an event, not a trip.’
Cynan Jones, Peirene Newspaper 2016
‘You may think I’m small, but I have a universe inside me.’
Shorter than a novel, longer than a short story, the novella sits in the sweet spot of literary length. You can read it in a single sitting, yet gain the satisfaction of something far heavier. A good novella will say exactly the right amount, without wasting breath or paper.
Reading is a creative act. Literature presents a wonderful tool to analyse and understand ourselves better. A text should serve as a springboard to engage our mind, our intellect, our imagination.
The novella is the perfect form to sharpen and make use of our creative reading skills.
The novella is an ancestor of the modern novel. One Thousand and One Nights, written in the 10th century, is one of the earliest examples of serialised novellas. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1386-1400) followed suit.
During the Renaissance it developed into a literary genre in France and Italy. The Decameron (1353) by Giovanni Boccaccio and Heptaméron (1559) by the French Princess Marguerite de Navarre, are two outstanding examples.
By the 19th century, novellas had become a much-used form, gaining particular popularity in Germany. Ever since, virtually every major author has written one. They are often crystallised examples of an author’s talents. Below is a list of novellas by authors mainly known for their bigger books:
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (1843)
The Lifted Veil by George Eliot (1859)
Daisy Miller by Henry James (1879)
The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy (1889)
Billy Budd by Herman Melville (1891)
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1899)
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (1911)
The Dead by James Joyce (1914)
Siddartha by Herman Hesse (1922)
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927)
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (1937)
Chess by Stefan Zweig (1942)
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (1956)
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (1961)
The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon (1965)
The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing (1988)
Home by Toni Morrison (2012)
Thoughts on the Novella
'How often one reads a contemporary full-length novel and thinks quietly, mutinously, that it would have worked out better at half or a third the length. I suspect that many novelists clock up sixty thousand words after a year’s work and believe (wearily, perhaps) that they are only half way there. They are slaves to the giant, instead of masters of the form.'
Ian McEwan, Some Notes on the Novella
'In an increasingly time-poor society – where reading is squished between long working hours, masses of “must-see” but sprawling American TV series, and a good deal of faffing about on social media – there’s also enormous satisfaction in actually getting to the end of a book. There’s a genuine thrill to something that can be read straight through on a rainy Sunday afternoon or over the course of a couple of commutes, whether that’s a pulpy thriller or a modern classic.'
Holly Williams, The Independent