I Say Novel, You Say Novella

by Chris Simmons

When I read the blurb for Minette Walters’ hotly anticipated novel, The Cellar, I noticed something that slightly jarred with me. I guessed it wasn’t your usual Walters psychological thriller as this new offering is to be published under the Hammer Horror imprint. That was fair enough, but what struck me was despite coming in at two hundred and forty-five pages – approx. 50,000 words – The Cellar was described as a ‘novella’.

I have always believed a novella to be roughly about eighty to one hundred pages long, but upon researching via the Internet, a novella can be approx. between 17,500 to 40,000 words max. So, of course I had to check out a few novellas.

Ruth Rendell’s last collection, Piranha to Scurfy, states on the flyleaf that the ‘…collection of short stories also includes two unpublished novellas’. The first novella is the title of the collection and is sixty-three pages. The second, High Mysterious Union comes in at ninety-five pages long.

Another example is Mary Higgins-Clark’s The Anastasia Syndrome. Again, on the flyleaf it states that this tale is one hundred and one pages long, classing it as a novella.

Then we had the whole debacle about the 2011 Man Booker Prize winner. Julian Barnes’ winning novel, The Sense of an Ending, is slightly longer at one hundred and fifty pages. Barnes’ Man Booker win divided people as some argued about whether it was a novel or novella and if it should have won at all.

So now I wonder if a story works out with less than two hundred and fifty pages it has to be classed as a novella. I am so glad my literary idol Dame Beryl Bainbridge isn’t around to hear such sacrilege. My copy of her novel The Dressmaker comes in at one hundred and sixty pages – sorry, I don’t know the actual word count and have other things to do besides counting them all! Would anyone be brave enough to class this woman’s books, which were shortlisted five times for the Booker, as novellas? I think not. Another candidate would be the Queen of Crime herself, who wrote several short novels (particularly those featuring Miss Marple) which are much shorter than Walters’ The Cellar.

In a way I am pleased that the novella has had a renaissance recently. For some years the novella was shunned, it had no place in the publishing market. Nobody knew what to do with it. It wasn’t until ebooks came along that the novella came into its own. For less than a quid folks can now download a novella to enjoy. It has become a huge medium for readers to try out new talent, to see if they want to invest in a book by an emerging author. With a novella, and for very little money, the reader can see if the writer can sustain suspense and has the capability of delivering a satisfying plotline. Writing novellas online has been the springboard for many new writers who are now getting their novels published.

Meanwhile, there is a huge push for thick books these days. As a reviewer, I love it when a slim book hits my doormat as, if good and enthralling, I can finish it in a few hours. But many readers want more from their books. During my time as a bookseller I heard several times, ‘isn’t very big, is it?’ when recommending a book that wasn’t as big as a breeze block. Why people want more pages for their money when it comes to books, I don’t know. Have people forgotten the old adage that less can often mean more?

A story is a good story despite being told in two hundred pages or a thousand. Would we expect to go and sit in a cinema for twelve hours to see one feature film to get our money’s worth? Do we feel having had less of an experience if the film is only ninety minutes long rather than three hours? No. So we shouldn’t, in fairness, expect that from our literature.

I also get upset when people say they wouldn’t pay full price for a book when it can cost more to see a film that lasts about two hours. If people wanted a more filmic feel to their reading experience such as performing a duel while they read The Three Musketeers then if it gets people reading I’d be all for it.

I can’t explain why Walters’ book is classed as a novella, but I will accept the publisher’s take that it is such. However, if someone starts trying to tell me that War and Peace is a novella, then I will be having words!

Chris Simmons is the Online Editor for the crime review website, Crimesquad.com.

Join the discussion

Your email address will not be published.

Please note: Moderation is enabled and may delay your comment being posted. There is no need to resubmit your comment. By posting a comment you are agreeing to the website Terms of Use.