Great Works of Literature Betwixt Short Story and Novella
by Ted Morrissey

(Originally published in Eureka Studies in Teaching Short Fiction 2:1 (Fall 2001) Ed. Loren Logsdon)

The majority of literature courses at the high-school level (and college, for that matter) are one semester in length, which makes it difficult to teach a novel. When curricula calls for the instructor to cover a certain number of authors and/or literary movements in a given course, devoting several weeks to one book is often impractical, if not impossible. Furthermore, the reluctancy of young readers to tackle a whole novel makes including one even more of a challenge. Yet the occasional longer work, something in between the short story and short novel, can be worthwhile for both teacher and student. Often, these in-between texts offer the concentrated plot line of the story coupled with increased character development and use of imagery/symbolism. These length fictions frequently have what novelist and scholar John Gardner called “an almost oriental purity. . . [an] elegant tracing of an emotional line” (183). There are several excellent pieces of writing which fall into this literary no-man’s land -- some well-known, others not -- but finding them is often made difficult by book publishers who masquerade these briefer works as full-blown novels.

Obviously, there is no finite point at which a piece of literature stops being a short story and becomes a novel -- but for the purposes of this paper, I’m going to establish some benchmarks. According to A Handbook to Literature, a short story runs from 500 to 15,000 words -- with a long short story being between 12,000 and 15,000 (480-1). The terms novella, novelette, nouvelle and short novel are virtually interchangeable. The Handbook suggests that a novelette is “longer than a short story and shorter than a novel” (360). It further describes a short novel as being between 15,000 and 50,000 words (479). This gap strikes me as too broad, so I prefer Gardner’s finer definition, that a novella is between 30,000 and 50,000 words (179). And novels are beyond 50,000 words, according to a variety of sources, including the Handbook and E.M. Forster, who said in 1927, “Any fictitious prose work over 50,000 words will be [considered] a novel. . .” (6).

Therefore, using the Handbook’s limit for a short story of 15,000 words and Gardner’s suggestion that a novella doesn’t begin until the 30,000 word mark, I’m going to concern myself with these odd-duck works which fall in between 15,000 and 30,000 words -- according to my own painstaking calculations. I know these word counts mean very little to the typical reader, who will sense that a work is short or long or medium or very long or very short, but who won’t think in terms of the actual number of words. So here are some commonly taught novels and a couple of frequently anthologized short stories: To Kill a Mockingbird (104,250 words), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (108,575), The Great Gatsby (47,104), Jane Eyre (191,500), “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (13,692), and “The Fall of the House of Usher” (6,710). In Gardner’s novella range are books like Heart of Darkness (37,746) and Wide Sargasso Sea (45,499).

Incidentally, when you get into these gray-area titles, there seems to be no consensus on whether they should be in quotation marks or italics. I’m using italics. Partly because they are longer than short stories, but mostly because book publishers generally italicize them so that they appear to be full-fledged novels.

This masquerading that book publishers partake of is aggravating for a few reasons. It assumes that size matters and readers won’t buy books that are not novels. This assumption leads to all sorts of smoke-and-mirrors tactics with font, point size, leading, and white space -- as publishers strive for that seemingly all-important 200-page length. They will also include unwanted introductory material and criticism; or they will publish several shorter pieces together. Meanwhile, publishers will compress long novels (especially classic novels) into as little paper as possible. Therefore, at a glance it will appear that Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and its 1966 prequel Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys are more or less the same length. I understand that publishers are not capricious in their marketing strategies and that these practices are based on researching market trends, but it is still an aggravation for book lovers and would-be book buyers.

Because the word novel is thrown about loosely by publishers and because of their printing subterfuge, teachers often don’t realize that a particular work is so manageable in terms of length. Here then are my recommendations, in alphabetical order, of excellent works of fiction that fall between short story and novella:

Truman Capote’s 1958 Breakfast at Tiffany’s (26,433 words) is often thought of as longer, probably because of the well-known 1961 film version with George Peppard and Audrey Hepburn: The masses tend to believe that if it’s a movie, it must’ve been a novel. While the film does follow the basic plot of Capote’s original, there are significant differences, especially in terms of the endings; the original is much darker, much more realistic than George and Audrey (a.k.a. “Fred” and Holly) kissing in the rain. It is among Capote’s best prose work, and more characters are developed than is possible in a typical short story. Teachers who expose their students to Capote often use his 1966 nonfiction novel In Cold Blood. If an American literature teacher would like to include Capote in the repertoire but there isn’t enough time for In Cold Blood, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a great alternative.

The teacher of world literature might want to work in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (28,770). The protagonist’s denial of his illness and his infatuation with a young boy can lead to all kinds of thought-provoking discussion. Symbolism is also very important in the story, which was first published in 1912. One of Germany’s premiere stylists, Mann is perhaps better known for his novels The Magic Mountain and Dr. Faustus, published in 1924 and 1947, respectively. There are various translations of Death in Venice available; for what it is worth, I like the Clayton Koelb version.

Also from the world literature stage, Vladimir Nabokov’s The Enchanter (17,575) can give students a feel for the author whose best known -- and most controversial -- book is Lolita. In fact, The Enchanter, written in 1939, is considered by some an early draft of his 1955 Lolita; however, Nabokov felt that the piece stood on its own and represented some of his best writing in Russian (he wrote Lolita in English). Dmitri, Nabokov’s son, has translated The Enchanter into English. Like Lolita, only the subject matter of The Enchanter is racy; the text itself is quite tame.

Returning to American literature, perhaps the best example of publishing smoke-and- mirrors, Ernest Hemingway’s renowned The Old Man and the Sea (24,191) is generally referred to as a novel. However, it was first published in its entirety in the Sept. 1, 1952 issue of Life magazine, and in many ways fits the definition of a story better than that of a novel. It is clearly focused on one main character, Santiago, the old fisherman who is unable to catch a fish, and one main conflict, that being Santiago’s need to land a big one. No matter the label -- short story or novel -- The Old Man and the Sea is truly an American gem worth studying.

For a taste of the Beats, Jack Kerouac’s 1966 Satori in Paris (19,980) is a possibility. Satori is clearly labeled a novel by its publisher, Grove Press, but nearly 20,000 words may be a bit generous on my part; it was difficult to calculate because of all the white space. There are several one- and two-paragraph chapters. Satori was published not long before Kerouac died in 1969, but it definitely has the flavor of the author’s 1957 classic On the Road. Like the classic, Satori is glaringly autobiographical. The main character, Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac (no less), travels to France to track down the origins of his family name. Also like Kerouac’s classic, Satori in Paris is at times a bit risque; therefore, not all teachers would be comfortable using it in class.

Last but not least is the Victorian classic Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (27,622). Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 tale is very readable and probably not what most people anticipate thanks to Hollywood’s various offerings. By the way, Stevenson intended for the character’s name to be pronounced JEEKel, thus rhyming with seek -- and so it was until Americans got hold of the story in the early 1900s, at which point we instantly began mispronouncing the old Scottish name. Jekyll and Hyde can give students a sense of the Gothic period, and it also lends itself to interesting discussions on the nature of Man and the role of the subconscious.

The short story will continue to be the staple of the one-semester literature course, and rightfully so, but for those instructors who would like to add a longer piece or two without committing to a full-scale novel, the in-between stories I’ve suggested are worth consideration. Of course, my list is far from exhaustive and there are many more fine works whose lengths fall in that gray area betwixt story and novella. Teachers have to beware of publishing tricks and traditional perceptions. They have to look between the covers of the book to decide if it is a length their students can manage. They very well may discover what Forster described as a “beautifully shaped” work whose “final effect is pre-arranged. . .and is completely successful when it comes” (153). A gift well worth sharing with students of literature.

Works Cited

Forster, E.M. Aspects of the Novel. 1927. San Diego: HBJ, 1955.

Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. New York: Vintage, 1991.

Harmon, William, and C. Hugh Holman, eds. A Handbook to Literature. 7th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1996.