The Novel Versus the Novella

There has been an argument floating around that is beginning to annoy me, primarily because it doesn’t take into account the history of storytelling.  Just look at the comments posted here:

The argument basically goes like this: “Due to the sales of electronic books (insert whatever marketing argument you want to in here, it really doesn’t matter), more authors are shifting to writing novellas and short stories, rather than full-length novels.  Also, more publishers are making a transition toward publishing shorter works.  Therefore, the transition from traditional print format to electronic format is going to harm the integrity of the literature world.”

First of all, let’s just get the preliminary issue of the “integrity” of short fiction out of the way.  A short story, a novella, and a novel contain separate elements that, when viewed as separate categories of works, could also be viewed as equally valuable to the literary world.  Having written all three, I can tell you that some stories work out better in one format versus another, and that each type has its own feel; not every story that winds up a novella is a hyphenated novel, and also the inverse of that is true: not every novel is a drawn-out, pulp-filled short story.

Outside of that, I feel that almost nobody who engages in the argument over preference of novels or novellas takes into account the fact that novels have really only been popular for about 150 years.  Swallow that for a second, and let’s remember one of our great horror writers of old: Edgar Allan Poe.

How many novels did he write?

The history lesson in this line of thought is this: people haven’t always written long, drawn out works.  In fact, the short story used to be the staple crop of all storytelling.  Just look at the Bible (not that I favor books filled with fairy tales that some believe to actually be true).  The Bible is a long book, made up of what?  That’s right: sixty-six teeny, tiny other books.  “Short stories,” if you will.

When did novels become popular?  I think it had something to do with a sort of Red Queen arms race that took place in order to keep people engaged in reading, when the price of a longer book was the same as a shorter one, and people felt the need to gauge the price of a book based on the number of pages it contained.  Also, if you compare the length of a movie with the activities of characters in a full-length novel, I think a theory could easily turn up that involves traditional publishers competing with cinema for an audience–or, at least, publishers were just keeping up with the times.

All that being said, think about the psychology behind storytelling.  When was the last time you heard a good story?  A funny bar tale?  Someone telling you about some otherwise mundane life incident?  How many words did that story contain?

Probably 500-1000: the length of a decent-sized flash fiction piece.

My point is that we’ve always, as a species, preferred shorter stories, and that novels are relatively new, and that our short attention span as an audience shouldn’t be blamed on the digitization of the media that we consume.  While I love novels, I’m not brainwashed into thinking that they’re what make the literary world go round.


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