The long and short of it is that I discussed long novels last week and will discuss short novels this week.
Literature’s best short novels pack a lot of plot, nuance, emotion, character development, and prose/dialogue mastery into a limited length. Then, you can quickly move on to the next title on your too-long reading list. 🙂
How short is a short novel? Part of that is in the eye of the beholder, but I think under 200 pages (or maybe a bit over) fits the bill — with page size and type size a factor. A short novel is often called a novella, of course, and a web search indicates that a novella is at least 10,000-20,000 words and less than 40,000. But I feel a short novel can extend to 60,000 words or so.
Obviously, there’s a blurring between a long short story and what’s on the short end of the novella spectrum. For instance, James Joyce’s very poignant “The Dead” is considered a story, but its nearly 16,000 words are on the lesser end of novella territory.
When one thinks of top-tier short novels, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is often the first title that comes to mind. So much packed into a small package, with some of the most beautiful writing…this side of paradise.
Another excellent short novel is Ethan Frome, in which Edith Wharton stepped outside the upper-class New York City milieu her books frequently frequented to tell the sad story of a rural Massachusetts man.
Other short 20th-century novels I’ve found compelling include Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Albert Camus’ The Stranger, Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, Carson McCullers’ Reflections in a Golden Eye, Toni Morrison’s Sula, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, John Steinbeck’s The Moon Is Down, and Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, to name just a few.
The best short novels written in the 19th century? Among them are Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Herman Melville’s Billy Budd (posthumously published in 1924), Leo Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata, and H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine.
The 18th century was known for fairly long fictional works, but Voltaire’s scintillating Candide is rather concise.
Your favorite short novels?
My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.
In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about a League of Women VOTERS branch being against VOTING for Board of Education members, and about a visit to my town by Vice President Kamala Harris — is here.