You can bet that whenever a critic reviews a new collection of short stories that includes a long story, or what the reviewer sometimes terms a “novella,” he or she will usually argue that the long story is the best, most complex, story in the collection. This is often a result of the unexamined assumption that a novel, by its very length, is more complex than a short story and that since the word “novella” has the word “novel” embedded in it, it must be that a novella, by its very length, and thus its similarity to a novel, must also be more complex than a short story.
However, the word “novella” did not originate as a generic term for a long fiction, but rather for a short one. The word "novella" comes from the Latin word novellus, a diminutive of the word novus, which means "new." It first became associated with the telling of stories in the thirteenth century with collections of "new" versions of old saint's tales, exempla, chivalric tales, and ribald stories. Eventually, the term became associated with tales that were fresh, strange, unusual--stories, in short, that were worth the telling. The most decisive historical event to establish the term "novella" as a designation for a "new" kind of fiction was Boccaccio's decision to give the name "novella" to the tales included in the Decameron in the fourteenth century.
What made Boccaccio's stories "new" was the fact that they marked a shift from the sacred world of Dante's "divine" comedy to the profane world of Boccaccio's "human" comedy. However, the resulting realism of the Decameron should not be confused with the realism developed by the eighteen-century novel. The focus in Boccaccio's tales is not on a character presented in a similitude of everyday life, but on the traditional world of story, in which characters serve primarily as "functions" of the tale.
With Cervantes, in the sixteenth century, as with Boccaccio before him, something "new" also characterizes the novella. First, Cervantes in his Exemplary Novels (which are of the length we usually associate nowadays with the “novella,” i.e. a long story) does not present himself as a collector of traditional tales but as an inventor of original stories. As a result, he becomes an observer and recorder of concrete details in the external world and a student of the psychology of individual characters. Although plot is still important, character becomes more developed than it was in the Decameron, and thus psychological motivation rather than story motivation is emphasized. Characters do not exist solely for the roles they play in the stories, but also for their own sake as if they were real.
In Germany, in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the novella began to detach itself from the notion of the form inspired by Boccaccio and Cervantes and to be supported by a theory of its own and also to be associated with a long story and termed novelle. It is this form that Henry James refers to in his preface to Lesson of the Master, calling the “beautiful and blest nouvelle” his “ideal,” adding that the “main merit” of which is “the effort to do the complicated thing with a strong brevity and lucidity—to arrive, on behalf of the multiplicity, at a certain science of control.” James’s conviction is that the novella may be more complex than the short story, but that it has the brevity and control of the short story—that it is not “complicated” in the same way the novel is.
One of the best suggestions I have read about the difference between the “complications” of the novel and the “complications” of the novella was made by John Gardner and Lennis Dunlap in the textbook collection of short stories they edited in 1962, The Form of Fiction. They refer to the long story as a short novel.
“Because the short novel writer tends to follow a single character, the rhythm of the short novel is usually like that of the story, not like that of many novels, in which points of tension arise first in an episode concerned with one character, then in an episode concerned with another. Also, action in the short novel—almost necessarily—tends toward symbolic meaning. Whereas the short story writer characteristically explores meaning in some basic situation, the short novel writer concerns himself with a protracted action; and since the short novelist usually cannot enrich the protracted action he is presenting by juxtaposing it against another protracted action within the work, as would the novelist, he tends to enrich and the same time unify the total action by exploring it in symbolic terms. That is, in addition to imagistic symbolism, the short novel writer is likely to use symbolic juxtapositions of action, either within the total action or between actions in the work and actions lying outside it.
“Since the use of action as symbol is often apparent only in retrospect, that is, only after the pattern is established, symbolism borne by action, unlike imagistic symbolism, is not likely to leap out at the reader each time it appears.
“The point here is not that the short novel must be symbolic on the level of action or that the short story and novel may never use symbolism in this way. But such symbolism is far more common in good short novels than in good short stories and novels and may therefore be considered a common, though not an essential, feature of the form.”
Irving Howe, in his introduction to Classics of Modern Fiction: Eight Short Novels, (1968), has also suggested this notion of symbolic action in the short novel or novella:
“Whereas the short-story writer tries to strike off a flash of insight and the novelist tries to create an illusion of a self-sufficient world, the author of the short novel is frequently concerned with showing an arc of human conduct that has a certain symbolic significance. The short novel is a form that encourages the writer to struggle with profound philosophic or moral problems through a compact yet extended narrative. In fact, it seems to be the one literary genre in modern times capable of performing the functions that in earlier ages was the privilege of allegory. The material in a short novel is full enough to allow its symbolic significance to emerge with greater complexity than could be expected from a short story; it is brief enough to ensure the work’s being self-contained, compressed, and disciplined.”
Judith Leibowitz, in her book Narrative Purpose in the Novella (1974) says that the generically distinct nature of the novella is its double effect of “intensity and expansion.” She notes that all the thematic motifs in the novella are interrelated, which creates an intensity of focus: “This outward expansion from a limited focus is the effect of the typical plot construction of the novella. The action in a novella does not give the effect of continuous progression, of a large area being covered as in the novel, but of a limited area being explored intensively. The action is generally compressed by means of a repetitive structure.”
Anyone familiar with the classics of the novella form in the nineteenth and twentieth century will sense the rightness of these suggestions about symbolic action, intensity of focus, and compression. Consider the following, for example:
Conrad, Heart of Darkness
James, Beast in the Jungle
Lawrence, The Fox
Mann, Death in Venice
McCullers, Ballad of the Sad Café
Porter, Noon Wine
Melville, Billy Budd
Roth, Goodbye, Columbus
Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood
Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
Joyce, The Dead
Steinbeck, The Pearl
Andrea Barrett, Ship Fever
Lan Samantha Chang, Hunger
Alice Munro, Love of a Good Woman
Andre Dubus, Dancing After Hours
I have already commented in early blog posts on Yiyun Li’s “Kindness,” Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, and Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending—contemporary novellas/short novels/long stories (what you will) that have bee critically well received. All three have some of the aspects we often associate with novels; for example, all three deal with the whole life of a central character—well, not the whole life, but rather significant chunks of the whole life of the character, and all three seem firmly contextualized within an historical epoch or era. They also exhibit some of the aspects we associate with the short story; for example, all three, in addition to being organized historically, are also organized thematically, with episodes selected to symbolically echo the central theme; and all three are relatively tightly organized, with few of the extraneous asides and subplots that we often associate with novels.
Much the same can be said of Anthony Doerr’s novella-length title story from his prize-winning collection, Memory Wall. Doerr’s story covers the whole life of its central character, seventy-four-year-old Alma Konachek, by using a futuristic concept of storing her memories (rapidly fading from her mind by dementia) on recorded cartridges. Thus, the concept of a whole life, which is embodied somewhat chronologically in the other three novellas under consideration here, is concretely embodied.
At one point, Alma’s doctor tells her: “Memory builds itself without any clean or objective logic: a dot here, another dot here, and plenty of dark spaces in between. What we know is always evolving, always subdividing. Remember often enough and you can create a new memory, the memory of remembering.” Doerr echoes this notion of memory with Alma’s husband Harold’s obsession with a rare fossil, and with the general notion of time being compressed/preserved in a spatial way. When one character stares at a photo of Harold, he thinks he is “doomed to repeat the same project over and over, hunting among a thousand things for a pattern, searching a convoluted landscape for the remains of one thing that has come before.”
The question of whether these four works are long stories, short novels, or novellas is first of all a marketing issue. If the work is marketed in a single volume, as it is for The Sense of an Ending and Train Dreams, the publisher, appealing to the public preference will label it on the cover as a novel. If it is in a collection or short stories, it may be labeled as a novella, e.g. subtitled something like “Selected Stories and a Novella.” The phrase “short novel” has no real marketing value.
In my opinion, there is a critical difference between a novel that is short and a story that is long. Both in its tradition and in its way of meaning, the novella is closer to the short story than to the novel. Indeed, any time the novella begins to veer away from short story technique and closer to novel technique, it is perhaps better to use the term “short novel” to refer to it. In other words, in my opinion, a short novel is just a novella badly done, or a novel that just happens to be short.
Which of the four cited works would I call short novels and which would I call novellas? I think Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending is a short novel, for Barnes too often indulges in the novelistic temptation to ruminate, pontificate, and wander about in seemingly interesting, but not really thematically essential sidebars. I also think Yiyun Li’s “Kindness” is more like a short novel than a long story, for it mostly just charts the lonely life of a single character within the context of her social life in the Chinese army.
However, I see Denis Johnson’s “Train Dreams” as being more like a novella or long story in its use of myth, legend, symbolism, and in its thematic organization around repeated motifs. I also see Anthony Doerr’s “Memory Wall” as more like a novella or long story in its single-minded focus on the theme of memory, although I find it much more self-consciously constructed and less magical than “Train Dreams.”
Why are these generic terms important? Well, as I have suggested before, you cannot really read a work in any meaningful way unless you have some orientation as to “how” it means and thus what to expect from it. Of course, generic expectations can be exploded by a good writer, who always manages to create a new thing out of an old thing. But, the reader still has to have some familiar starting point in order to understand the new thing. Jean Piaget and Jerome Bruner talk about this dual process of assimilation and accommodation in a child’s development. And E. H. Gombrich discuses it in relationship to art in Art and Illusion, 1960.