The Length of Things

Why do we have to define things by length?

I’m talking specifically short stories, micro fiction, flash fiction, short short stories, novellas, novels and now it seems novelettes.

What is it about our desire to define every aspect of what we write and place it within the confines of a specific term?

I first heard the term ‘novelette’ about two weeks ago online when a genre publisher blogged about their upcoming titles. They described one of the books they were releasing as a novelette without any clear indication as to what on earth that meant. I had no idea. I know what a novella is, roughly (up to 50,000 words), and that a novel follows on from that. There are, as Robin Thicke would gladly yell at my naked body, blurred lines, lines which allow more famous people (hi, Ian McEwan) to win awards meant for novels. I had, no idea what a novelette could be. I asked around and a science-fiction author gladly explained to me that it is a story of between 7,500 and 17,500 words. Where does that definition come from? Why the Hugo Award website, who have a category specifically for Best Novelette. They also have a Best Short Story, Best Novel, Best Novella and all the other categories you might imagine.

This place, and genre fiction is the only place I can find reference to novelettes, so I’m inclined to believe that whilst a novelette is basically just a longish short story (and trust me when I say that Alice Munro saw your novelette, laughed and wrote another 15,000 piece, called it a short story and won the fucking Nobel Prize), it has been given a classification to justify another award being added to the Hugo’s rather large (and increasingly redundant) list of prizes.

But it does raise a bigger concern. When you start writing, the worst thing to do is to begin planning the length of a work. The worst thing is to say to yourself, before you have a story or a character, “Oh this is going to be my 17,500 long story.” That kind of thinking won’t get you anywhere good. Neither will editing a piece down so that it fits a set of stringent guidelines imposed by publishers or awards bodies. Novels, fine, they have to be a certain length, but they’ll get to that length if you have the story planned out, if you understand what you’re doing with the book.

All the rest, they’re short stories really, aren’t they?

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Novellas have a remarkably different history than you think. The German definition is a story of indeterminate length which focusses on a single conflict (they can range from only a couple of pages, to a couple of hundred). There is no word count imposed. Stephen King, in his collection Different Seasons, says that the novella is “an ill-defined and disreputable literary banana republic.” Furthermore, the awards bodies that seem so hell bent on defining everything a writer does, can’t even agree on the length of these things. The Hugo awards say that a novella is between 17,500 and 40,000 words, yet Nebula go for 17,500 to 39,9999, whilst British Fantasy Awards reckon it’s more like 15,000 to 40,000. It’s entirely possible for the same book to win Best Novelette, Best Novella and potentially Best Novel.

So what is the point? Why do we have an urge to classify and define? Perhaps in part, it’s a way of emulating our heroes. The awards bodies I’ve mentioned are very much genre focussed, and genre writers tend to be big fans of the genre they write in (obviously). The writers they look up to, Ramsey Campbell, Stephen King, have all written things that have been classed as novellas, so why shouldn’t they?

Perhaps also, it’s an easier target to aim for. If you’re struggling to write a novel, but find it easy to get to that 20/30,000 word mark, then hey, it’s alright, because you’ve written a novella instead and it’s okay because that’s a real thing that can still be seen by an audience.

Don’t take the last 600 odd words the wrong way, I’m not against reading shorter works, or longer works, or one word stories (“Ghost!” yeah?). I’m happy to pick up a novella and read it, and in fact one of my favourite publishers, Peirene Press, go out of their way to publish only novellas in translation, a wonderful thing to do. But, and here’s the thing, in the end it’s just a story, and a story is a story.

Should it matter what we define something as? Does it change our perception of the work? Are there loftier expectations placed upon the novel?

Let me know in the comments, place word debates in my blogmouth, brew an argument below!

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