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Some of the Smallest Novels are the Best

October 16, 2013

small novels

A novel doesn’t have to clock in at Tolstoy or Pynchon proportions to be good. In fact, some of the very best are the shortest. The novella is not dead, it’s just a dead term of classification. Not everybody uses it, so there may be a few excellent novels out there lurking in the bushes of popular culture, hardly weighing more than 50, 000 words when wet, and calling themselves something titular followed by A NOVEL.

These shorties (or shawties if Justin Bieber read books) are not interested in terms. They’re out for a good time. A storied good time. And you’d like them too, if you’d only give those small fries a fighting chance. Some don’t even require ketchup. They’re ketchup flavored already. So step away from the condiments….That’s right and step on over to the novella buffet counter. We’ve cooked up all your favorites in tapas sized plates.

There’s classic dishes I’m sure you’ve tasted before like Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451, hardly 45,000 words long. Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, a favorite of mine, is only 35,043 words. 47,180 for The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane and 47,094 for The Great Gatsby by that guy who keeps going to the bathroom with Hemingway in A Moveable Feast. Of Mice and Men is 29,572 words and Steinbeck has a suite of others just as terse. Cannery Row, Red Pony, The Pearl — all champion feather weights.

But you don’t have to drift back in time or smoke cigarettes with pompous holders attached or call anyone “Sport” to enjoy a good short novel. There’s plenty of slim contemporaries to knock your socks off.

Try Viola Canales’ The Tequila Worm. It’s the kind of story that rivals the patience of Marquez’s long-range storytelling, while trimming its years of solitude down to a svelte 42,000 words.

There’s also Pamela Erens’ The Understory (2007, Winner of the Ironweed Press Fiction Prize). It’s about twins, obsession, bonsai gardening, architecture, and nothing at all. The real drama that unfolds in these 143 pages is more about the scalpel sharp, award winning prose style, slicing life lessons sashimi thin with every taut sentence.

But my personal favorite is Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine. This book does with footnotes what Eddie Van Halen does with hammer fingers on an electric guitar. It’s a sleek, melancholic stroll through a lonely office after hours by a middle-aged man contemplating the edge of his own fragile existence as well as the proper way to load a stapler and the appropriate distance to stand from the urinal in the men’s room. And unlike many of these other world-class half pints, Nicholson’s brilliant novella makes its own compression an intricate and essential part of the story.

Novellas or really really short novels, whatever they’re called, are among the very best reading and writing around.

12 Comments
  1. Mmmm, me hopes my current project will be one someday soon…the very best of course (:

  2. Always good to see Nicholson Baker mentioned, but his novel to recommend is THE ANTHOLOGIST. I’ve read it three times and am looking forward to a fourth. But yes, short novels are best. Avoid anything that sprawls.

  3. I LOVE FAHRENHEIT 451!!!! Some of my favorite quotes ever are from this book =D

    • I know what you mean:
      “Stuff your eyes with wonder, he said, live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.”

  4. As someone who writes in short spurts, I found this a great post. 😉 I must reread Ethan Frome…I read it so long ago I don’t remember much. I suppose my ole memory is short too.

    • Because it’s not too long, I don’t mind recommending a re-read. If you remember that you didn’t like, it won’t be too much precious time subtracted from other more pleasant activities.

  5. Michael Andreoni permalink

    In addition to his very long works, Tolstoy wrote a gem of a short story. At 114 pages, “The Death of Ivan Ilych” could be considered a novella. I’m not sure who classified it as a short story, or why, but it’s dynamite however you want to label it. Amusingly, the story is sometimes cited as an example of why some people don’t read literary fiction: a long meditation on death.

    • A lovely book–and still my favorite by him. Of all the 19th Century Russians, though, my overall favorite is Gogol. “The Overcoat” is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever read. Next would be Los Hermanos Karamazov. That Ivan is one loco diablo.

  6. Reblogged this on heatherzhutchinswrites and commented:
    Hey Fictioneers (and Gail):

    Let’s hear it for the novella. Short novels are fabulous. You want to argue with Michael Alexander Chaney?

    I didn’t think so.

    –Heather

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