The many problems with the novel and why we need more novellas (Part 1)

(Full disclosure: As I write this, I’m listening to Elton John, specifically “Tiny Dancer,” but the songs will change as I continue)

I’ve written fiction since I was in second grade. As I got older, I worried about the length of my works (men always worry about the length of one thing or another). I’d think to myself how can something this short get published?

I resolved not to worry about it then, figuring the length of my works would increase as I got older, as I became a more experienced writer.

Now at 23, I find that little has changed in regard to the length of my works (the lengths of other things has certainly improved): While I have written two definite novel-length books (90,000 words or more), the overwhelming majority are novellas ranging in word count from 30,000 to 80,000.

I used to panic about this, again: How can books of those lengths get published? How can I expand them?

But over time (and with the help of 200mgs of sertraline a day), my insecurity has largely gone away. I’m perfectly all right with being a novella writer, although I will call my novels ‘novels’ because the thought put into them (I think) is more than what other ‘true’ novelists put into theirs.

But I won’t charge the price of a novel–typically between $8.99 to $15.99 on Kindle. (And if I ever publish a physical book, I CERTAINLY wouldn’t have the testicular fortitude to charge $29.99 to $39.99, even for my novel-length books.)

Prior to the 20th century, writing long books was the way to make money as a writer. For as good a writer as Charles Dickens was, most of his books are so damn long because he got paid more per word.

Even so, that didn’t stop novellas from being produced and published: Dickens’ own A Christmas Carol, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the near entireties of Arthur Machen’s and Algernon Blackwood’s oeuvres, various works by H.G. Wells. True, that–with the exception of Machen, Blackwood, and Wells–the others primarily wrote novels, but these latter three were able to sustain themselves on their novellas, their short story collections, and various other means, no doubt.

And even into the 20th century, notable novellas were published: Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Orwell’s Animal Farm, Fahrenheit 451, and 1984, Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Camus’ The Stranger.

Understandably, the big publishers, which came to prominence in the mid-2oth century, do not like novellas: Consumers don’t want to and shouldn’t pay the price of a novel for a novella nor should they even pay half the price of the typical novel.

But that brings up the question how did the novel get to be the price of a novel?

The answer is obvious: the big publishers. They wanted more money for their efforts, plus they had to pay their editors, designers, and marketers for the work they did in promoting the publishers’ books, getting them noticed in the flooding market of flashier books. (The aesthetics–the covers–of books has changed incredibly over the years. Consider the original cover of Stoker’s Dracula:

If you saw something like this on the bookshelf of your local bookstore, Barnes & Noble, or on Amazon next to the latest Michael Connelly book, you wouldn’t give this first book a second glance.)

I don’t agree with the overemphasis placed on the cover quality of a book. If I cared about visual art, I’d be a painter, I’d look at books of photography. The fact is I’m a writer and I’m more interested in literary art, the art of the written word (cliché mais vraiment la phrase juste).

But that’s the way the industry is. Maybe it’ll change.

Among the regrettable consequences of the rise of the big publishers is the marginalization of novellas.

Novellas are significant because they hone the important skill of being briefly profound.

It’s a paradox, especially in this day and age with society’s collective shortened attention span, that while most other things get shorter, books remain gargantuan. We’ve become used to immediate delivery, it’s amazing to me that many of us will still put our lives on hold to read the latest J.K. Rowling or Ken Follett work.

But brevity is still essential, despite thesis and dissertation word requirements ranging from 80,000 to 100,000; despite your teacher or professor requiring a certain number of pages, 12-font, Times New Roman, double spaced.

Brevity is essential in writing because it’s essential in life, even publishing. Odd that publishers want novel-length books but flash-fiction-length descriptions of those novels. Look up ‘the elevator pitch’ and you’ll see what I mean.

So the idea is we as writers are supposed to write to extreme lengths but then boil that story down to a few key points.

In journalism, the stuff surrounding your key points is called ‘fluff.’ In the world of comedians, it’s called ‘fat.’ No matter what you call it, the sentiment is the same: That shit can be cut out and your work will be just as good, more likely better, for it.

(Full disclosure: As I write these closing words, Elton is singing “Levon.”)

Next: More on novellas vs. novels

Comment with your favorite novellas, Elton John song, or anything else!

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