Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Novel, Novella: What's the Difference?

What’s the difference between a novel and a novella? This question has stirred up quite a bit of controversy over the years, particularly in the context of the Man Booker Prize (only novels are eligible for the Prize, but certain long and short-listers have looked a lot like novellas). I’ve become interested in the distinction recently because I just finished reading a short book (176 pages) I would classify as a novella (Xiaolu Guo's Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth) and am currently reading a similarly short book (180 pages) I would classify as a novel (Paul Auster’s Man in the Dark). What’s the difference?

For me, novels have more characters, more themes, a longer timeline, and a kind of ‘grand scope’ not found in novellas. Novellas, on the other hand, often have just a few characters, a limited number of themes, and a shorter timeline. Generally, novels are longer than 200 pages and novellas are shorter than 200 pages, but this is not always the case. Wikipedia suggests this “usable set of parameters”: 1-99 pages is a short story; 100-199 pages (or approximately 20,000-40,000 words) is a novella; and 200 or more pages is a novel.

To me, Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach is a perfect example of a novella. There are two characters, the action takes place over just one day, the book explores a single theme (sexuality and its repression), and it’s only 208 (quite small) pages. But On Chesil Beach was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize last year, which means, at the very least, the prize committee considers it a novel. Unlike On Chesil Beach, Man in the Dark is filled with fully-developed characters, includes two intertwined stories (one real, one imaginative), and explores several weighty themes. In every way, this book feels like a novel even though it’s only 180 pages.


rjnagle said...

A novel has 5 acts; a novella has 1 or 2. Often a novella feels like a story that just grew and grew but still seems to be just a long short story. Novels depend on chapters and intermissions.

I remain infuriated at how publishers try to stretch a novella to make it look longer than it is (with blank pages and wide margins).

Matt said...

Novellas usually have a linear narrative and fewer characters. They might explore a single or at most a couple of themes. I consider Irene Nemirovsky's Fire in the Blood a novella but Suite Francaise a novel. I couldn't make head and tail why On Chesil beach is a novel. It's absurd that publisher re-publishes Brokeback Mountain and Lust, Caution as individual books and market them as novels.

Novel might have more than one narratives. When I was in high school, my English teacher required a dialectical journal. A novel is by far the most difficult to keep such a journal because it has a plot that unfolds by actions, dialogue and thoughts of the varied characters. Sometimes a novel might contain more than one literary form. Cross references throughout the book is needed to thorough understand the work.

Alea said...

Great post! In college I did a bit of research on the subject of novellas for a project. There are definitely books I hadn't realized were novellas!

Chris said...

Note that Hemingways' The Old Man and the Sea was given a special recognition when he won the Nobel. It's a novella!

Another Nobel-winning author, Pär Lagerkvist, wrote many novellas, though most are out-of-print.

And I shouldn't forget to mention Nobel-winning Steinbeck, who wrote several novellas, most notably Of Mice And Men.

btw, I just added a blog that is devoted to the novella!

An Anonymous Child said...

It's interesting how gray this area is. First of all, a short story seems to me to end around the 30-35 pages. More than that, depending on the story and the development, it already starts to seem like something else. But is a 50 paged story a novella? Not quite, just like a 150 paged book can, quite easily, be a novel, depending on the feel of it.

I feel like this should mean something. Like, perhaps that there shouldn't be so many distinctions between the two. Very interesting post - I'll have to think about this one some more.