A Word Count Doesn’t Have to Mount

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.

102 thoughts on “A Word Count Doesn’t Have to Mount

  1. Doesn’t appear that anyone has mentioned Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying,” one of the great novels of any length. Even shorter is “Ray” by Barry Hannah, another brilliant Mississippi writer. (Having just bailed on a string of long novels, I’m about to reread “Angels” by Denis Johnson, which is short and definitely worth checking out at least once.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Barry!

      Great mention! “As I Lay Dying” is indeed relatively short, with relatively short chapters. And reading or rereading a short book, as you’re about to do, after a string of long novels is a nice “break.” Mixing things up is a good thing. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. As i wrote last week, i tend to read books no thicker than might be useful for the purpose of propping up a short table leg, this week’s topic is right up my alley.

    My list:

    “A Cool Million”, “The Day of the Locusts”, “Miss Lonelyhearts”– each a searching glance at the 1930’s American psychic underbelly by darkly humorous and short-lived Nathaniel West.

    “Flight Without End”, “The Radetsky March”, “The Tale of the 10002nd Night” by formerly Austro-Hungarian, eventually stateless journalist and novelist Joseph Roth, a knowing nostalgist for the return of the impossible.

    “The Golden Key” by George MacDonald, the writer credited by JR Tolkien and CS Lewis as chief among their inspirations. Here is a journey tale into a spiritual and fantastic world and beyond, undertaken by 2 children, which as a friend pointed out, is nearly unique in that there are no antagonists or conflicts throughout.

    “A Portrait of Jenny” by Robert Nathan, a sort of ghost story and highly idealized romance, describing the episodic relationship between a model moving in and out of time and an impoverished painter in 1930’s NYC– a romance so highly idealized and heartfelt it could only have been written by a man who in real life married seven times.

    “The Return of Munchausen”, by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky and
    “Heart of a Dog” by Mikhail Bulgakov– each of these books qualify as dissident literature from the early Soviet period.
    In the first, an old spinner of impossible yarns finds himself pressed into contemporary service by the clamor of the times, but in the end retreats literally between the pages of his “Adventures”, defeated by his discovery that the USSR is somehow “a nation about which one cannot lie” when his entirely confected report on his imaginary tour of the USSR was proved, by Soviet readers, to have contained only descriptions of fact. In the second, a street cur freezing in a Moscow doorway is rescued by a visionary surgeon, who after a series of daring operations, is transformed into a sort of man. When he gets up on his hind legs to assert his rights, the doctor sees the error of his ways, and returns him to canine status.

    “Red Harvest”, The Glass Key”, “The Maltese Falcon” by Dashiell Hammett, classics by the first master of hard-boiled detective fiction.

    Contemporary crime writers, Italian division: any Inspector Montalbano novel by Andrea Camilleri; any Commisario Brunetti novel by Donna Leone.

    Of course, this is a list to which I could always add…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY! That’s a great, long, diverse, vividly described list! (I’ve read a few; haven’t read many others; put a couple on my to-read list. 🙂 ) As you might remember, I read “The Golden Key” on your recommendation earlier this year — finding it online. Quite interesting, and, as you note, quite influential.


  3. Oooooh a good theme this week, and one I might struggle with since I don’t typically read many short novels! Although I have read a few that you mentioned such as “the Moon is Down,” “Call of the Wild” (and “White Fang”), and of course, “the Great Gatsby.” Other than a few other classic works, I’m “coming up short” on quick reads that I’ve made it through 🙂 🙂 Although Colson Whitehead’s “the Nickel Boys” almost fits into this category at 224 pages. And speaking of Whitehead, I just read his new one too, “Harlem Shuffle,” and it’s fantastic.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, M.B.!

      You are indeed someone who has read and recommended a number of excellent long novels. 🙂 But not surprised you have also read the shorter “The Moon Is Down,” given its World War II theme. 🙂

      I read “The Call of the Wild” and “White Fang” back-to-back, which worked because those two novels are similar in opposite ways, if that makes sense.

      Ha — “coming up short.” 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Mary Jo!

      One doesn’t usually associate Dostoevsky with shorter novels, but he did indeed not always write in a “Brothers Karamazov”-like length. 🙂 I definitely have “The Double” on my list.

      My Don DeLillo experience is reading his lengthy “Underworld,” which has a number of brilliant moments.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. OMG! I adore “Call of the Wild”. Cried for days after.
    “A Christmas Carol” was fab, but has been worn to death in movies, parodies, cartoons and more.
    Fahrenheit 451 & Great Gatsby A+.
    I love it when I’ve read anything you mention.
    I’d like to add “Heart Of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad.
    Does “Naked Lunch” fit the bill? (235 pages in the copy I own)

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thank you, Resa!

      “The Call of the Wild” IS a great and intensely emotional novel. What that dog went through… 😦

      Not sure if you’ve read Jack London’s “White Fang,” but it’s almost as good. Sort of a mirror image of “The Call of the Wild” (I don’t want to be more specific than that).

      Yes, “A Christmas Carol” has been over-adapted until what is a very good novella just seems like a big cliché.

      Excellent mention of “Heart of Darkness”! I’ve never read “Naked Lunch”; didn’t realize it was relatively short!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oof. ‘Naked Lunch’. I read this many years ago – probably at the age when these publications seemed more risqué. I think I understood precisely one chapter. Mr Burroughs and I have never reconnected 😀

        Liked by 1 person

        • There is at least one chapter therein, ‘Hassan’s Rumpus Room’, where understanding only leads to revulsion, and sense, such as might be had by conventional and consecutive chapter order was upended before publication by the author himself, by means of throwing his manuscript in to the air and piling each chapter in the order he picked them up from the floor.

          Much of the book’s power derives from the accuracy of the author’s ear for the American idiom in the service of relentless and strategically shocking perversity — a power which, so many decades after its publication, “Naked Lunch” retains.

          Liked by 2 people

  5. I love reading those “older books” like The Bridge of San Luis Rey” where my most favourite and repeatable quote is taken: “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.” And Animal Farm “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” is another favourite quote. Or Fahrenheit 451’s “See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. Ask for no guarantees, ask for no security.” But how do we recognize a classic when it first comes out? The question then becomes – when does a book become a classic? Or this question – Is it required that a classic have a momentous teachable moment or have angst and sadness? I have been reading the books by Alexander McCall Smith, “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” which are set in Botswana. There are a 21 books out and I believe that there is a 22 book coming out soon. The books have many themes – feminism, mental health issues, traditions, AIDS and emotional intelligence to name a few. They are a pure joy to read. When do we leave the “old classics” to embrace “new classics”?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Rebecca!

      That IS a profound/memorable quote from a profound/memorable novel (“The Bridge of San Luis Rey”).

      Great quotes from “Animal Farm” and “Fahrenheit 451” as well!

      Terrific question about when (and why) a novel becomes a classic. I think some books are just so wonderful and readable that they become “instant classics,” while some more challenging/ahead-of-their-time novels might take decades to be fully appreciated. “Moby-Dick” is certainly an example of the latter. And of course what is or isn’t a classic can be very subjective; in the eye of the beholder.

      I love reading newer novels that I feel have a good chance of being considered or still being considered classics a century from now. Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch,” A.S. Byatt’s “Possession,” etc.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Well said, Dave! Some books become instant classics. It seems that some books lose their classic status going forward. Not because they aren’t classics, but because they are forgotten. Think of all those books in public domain that a remarkable. I especially appreciated your thought on subjectivity and the eye of the beholder, which is a thought that will keep me focused in the week ahead. Another brilliant post and brilliant discussion.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thank you, Rebecca, for the kind follow-up comment and for helping to make the discussion so interesting! 🙂

          And, yes, there is indeed that trajectory of classics losing their classic status — either because they haven’t aged well or are unfairly forgotten.

          Liked by 1 person

        • Hi Rebecca, maybe I have a slightly different concept of a classic than you do, but I was under the impression that a book has to be first published more than fifty years ago to be considered a classic. Even recent books that have won top literary awards may have to wait before they are considered classics. Other readers of this blog are more knowledgeable about this subject than I am.

          Liked by 2 people

          • Will be interested in seeing Rebecca’s response, Tony. There’s some merit to waiting 50 years to deem a novel a classic, but some books seem worthy of being considered classics well before being out for that length of time. For instance, Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” got the classic designation not long after its 1987 publication, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy entered classic-dom less than 20 years after its mid-1950s publication(s).


          • Hi Tony – I had the same idea, and still do. A classic is a classic because of age. Then I began to read that a classic has many definitions. The trickiest part is subjectivity and individual preference. Is a book a classic because I have been told its a classic? If a classic is amazing why are so few people reading them? Does a classic because less of a classic if it includes values that are not considered appropriate for our current value system? Anyway, I found an interesting article on that I think you will find interesting: Italian writer Italo Calvino defines “classic” https://www.brainpickings.org/2012/07/06/italo-calvinos-14-definitions-of-a-classic/. An interesting read that has given me something to think about in the week ahead. Enjoying this conversation.

            Liked by 1 person

  6. I recently re-read Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ while vacationing at Carmel/Monterey. I learned much more about his writing this time, following my own attempts at the trade, noticing how much he likes adverbs and his lapses into telling. Nevertheless, he deserves all the accolades he’s received.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, James!

      I agree that John Steinbeck wasn’t quite the prose stylist of many other famous writers, yet he still managed to write powerful novels. I guess he did it with very good albeit not great writing, memorable characters, a keen sense of spotlighting injustice, and more.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Hi Dave, short novels is much easier for me than ultra long novels. I can think of a great many excellent ones over and above the ones already mentioned here. The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham (I also loved The Chrysalids and Trouble with Lichen), Catch 22 by Joseph Heller, The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis [I just loved The Great Divorce – brilliant!), Anthem by Ayn Rand (I loved this!), War of the Worlds by H.G Wells, and Stephen King’s novella collection, Different Seasons (The Breathing Method is my favourite). Thanks for another great post.

    Liked by 4 people

      • It is an incredible book. The scene at the end with the young man who died of the wound Yossarian missed is so vividly painted in my mind. It keeps catching me at odd moments. If you haven’t already, you must read Regeneration by Pat Barker. It also has the defining and vivid scenes that you won’t ever forget. The image of the man who parachutes face first into a corpse and ruptures its belly will never leave me.

        Liked by 1 person

        • The Mike Nichols-directed film of “Catch-22” managed to capture a lot of the atmosphere of the book, I thought– but it was evidently incomprehensible to most viewers who hadn’t read it. I came to the theater forearmed.
          If you, a veteran of the book proper, haven’t seen it, I recommend the movie!

          Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Robbie, for the excellent naming of all those titles!

      Interesting that all of H.G. Wells’ classic science-fiction novels weren’t that long but had such an impact. The one I read most recently — “The First Men in the Moon” — is one example of that.

      As for Stephen King, one of my favorite novels of his is the not-too-long “From a Buick 8.”

      I can imagine how short novels would have appeal for you given your ultra-busy schedule!

      Liked by 2 people

      • HI Dave, shortness is not really a criteria for me, to be honest. I am drawn by content and ideas. I like King’s books written as Bachman best as they are the ones that really make you think. The dystopian The Running Man and The Long Walk are very revealing about human nature and how easily we could slip backwards with regards to our humanity. I love H.G. Wells thoughts about intellect and how our needs could define us. The Eloi become childlike because they have no challenges [other than their fear of the Morlocks who ate them]. The Martians had huge brains and their bodies had all but degenerated due to their reliance on their machines. They had no need of a big physic. Fascinating stuff that that movie ignored completely. I don’t like the movie because, for me, it misses the entire point of the book. Thanks for this club, DAve, I really appreciate it.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Thanks for the follow-up comment, Robbie!

          I totally get that the shorter novels you read are read because of how good/interesting/thought-provoking they are, not their length. I suppose their shortness is kind of a bonus in terms of time management. I’m aware that you read plenty of long novels, too. Sorry if part of my earlier comment conveyed otherwise.

          Yes, some movies leave out VERY important things from their source novels.

          Liked by 1 person

  8. ‘The Aspern Papers’ was the first novella I learned to identify as novella. As much as I’ve loved some of Henry James’ novels, some of my favorites of his have been novellas: ‘The Beast in the Jungle’, ‘The Altar of the Dead’, ‘Daisy MIller’, ‘The Turn of the Screw’. I read ‘Aspern Papers’ my first term in college, Freshman Composition. It was also the same quarter (they had a quarterly system in those days) that they assigned ‘The Great Gatsby’, which introduced me to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Other great novellas I read within the next few years were ‘The Dead’, as you mentioned, Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’, Gogol’s ‘The Overcoat’ and ‘Viy’, Dostoevsky’s ‘Notes from the Underground’ about four or five by Tolstoy, and the collection of short novels by Chekhov that I just read at the beginning of this year.

    Liked by 6 people

    • Thank you, Brian!

      Very glad you mentioned “The Aspern Papers.” A really compelling novella that I think you were the one to recommend to me. Henry James was indeed skilled at both novellas and longer novels.

      And thanks for the mentions of those other novellas, a couple of which might be also considered long short stories? I’ve read most of the ones you named (including four or five of Tolstoy’s novellas) and they were all WELL worth the time.

      Liked by 2 people

  9. This was a topic i had to Google just today–where is line between a short story and a novella? Stories like to continue well beyond the bounds we artificially set for them, which may account for so many abrupt endings in both fiction and film.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, 4963andypop!

      Yes, the line between a novella and long short story is kind of hard to pin down. I wonder if sometimes the definition is what the author or the publisher wants to call it.

      Abrupt endings? I’ve read a few. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  10. You have mentioned several short novrld I very much loved to read, such as “The methamorphosis” or “The Stranger”, despite the fact that they were not easy to digest!
    I have just seen that there are several important short novels on my shelves, such as “The Old Man and the Sea” by Hemingway, which speaks about a fisherman’s tragic fishing trip and his deep understanding of the simple men. I think with this novel the writer succeeded to provoke much compassion! The book has 109 pages.
    Many thanks, Dave, for your excellent idea to make us think about short stories.:)

    Liked by 6 people

  11. What a great post. And I love Gatsby and Frome. Sarah has mentioned of Mice and men. I always thought there’s so much in that book. I like a lot of the pot boilers for that reason. Tight prose, short chapters. I’ve mentioned McCoy’s They Shoot Horses Don’t They?’ before. It is roughly like 70 odd pages, many of which only have like four or five words on them, and many more have a chapter that is only 20 lines long. But the whole story of early Hollywood is laid out there, the allure, the failures and pursuing of another way to fulfil your dreams as through a dance contest which were popular at the time of the Depression. the Depression itself. Quite unbelievable all that is packed onto these pages with an economy but grace of words. yeah I am very fond of fiction from that era.

    Liked by 6 people

    • Thank you, Shehanne!

      Yes, “The Great Gatsby,” “Ethan Frome,” and “Of Mice and Men” are so memorable.

      And you’re right that quite a few potboiler novels are short — which works for the genre. Impressive that books such as “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” can pack so much into that few pages. Definitely an art on the author’s part. You described that novel VERY well.

      Liked by 3 people

      • It’s a good story. I also noticed you mentioned Sherlock Holmes in a comment and yep they are not that long…even the supposed novels. What I liked about them is that for the time they were written they were quite modern in their use of prose and dialogue as opposed to dedicating chapters to describing the antimacassar.

        Liked by 4 people

        • Interesting take on the Sherlock Holmes stories and novels, Shehanne! It has been so long since I read them that I forget the details of how they were written, but good to hear that Arthur Conan Doyle was modern in his approach. An added reason for why those works were so riveting.

          Liked by 2 people

          • I reread the Baskervilles cos initially I had wanted to use a quote from it about the devils agents being flesh and blood, on one of my books, cos it did sum the book up. And the publisher hit all kinds of stuff with the Conan Doyle estate ( well they said they did..) so I thought.. let it go. But I then reread others and, not having read them for years, I honestly felt that for the time they were written, there was a lot of moving the story forward on the dialogue, a lot of short but atmospheric description. It was interesting in that there’s no doubt he created beasts with the Holmes and Watson characters but less attention is given to his actual prose, in terms of tests and time.

            Liked by 1 person

            • A shame you were given a hard time by the publisher and/or the Arthur Conan Doyle estate but great that rereading some of the works gave you an appreciation of Conan Doyle’s ahead-of-his-time writing! I really should reread some of the Sherlock Holmes stories myself!

              Liked by 1 person

              • Lol..well the publisher blamed the Conan Doyle estate and it prob was them BUT as things went on with this publisher and the things they did to various authors became more and more appalling, I began to wonder if they had a touch of the Pinocchios since truth was something they were misers about. .But I did like the Sherlock Holmes books. The genuine short stories were good but the books, although short had more depth. And I didn’t appreciate the tightness of the writing till that later reread.

                Liked by 1 person

                • “…a touch of the Pinocchios” — fantastic phrase! 🙂 But an unfortunate situation. 😦

                  A shame the way some publishers act. My first book was published by a small press that did a crummy job in almost every way.

                  Liked by 1 person

                  • Well the sad thing was this publisher had the capacity to be great. they had many wonderful supportive authors, editors and assistants some of whom did great publicity. They had some fab cover artists too. But they did things like deciding to get rid of their imprints that weren’t romance ones. Instead of being honest they entered into this entire charade we had to endure on their authors ‘ loop of making out this other company had approached them and done a deal to take over various contracts. Like that you were seeing authors you’d come to know sad to go but deciding to sign etc. There was no other house. it was just this publisher pretending there was, with a web page and everything. That was but one thing. They also declare annual turnover that is not possible so you really wonder what is going on there actually, cos a lot of their authors appear NOT to exist when you go raking for them. And their actual accounting address is in a place I believe is known as the little house of secrets which has been under investigation. Just all beyond belief.

                    Liked by 1 person

    • Of Mice and Men stands out for me because when I taught eighth grade, the curriculum called for Of Mice and Men and Paul Zindel’s YA novel The Pigman. The kids’ reaction to the YA novel was, “Yeah, I can relate. Yep, I can relate, all right.” Their reaction to of Mice and Men was in-depth discussion, questions, and excitement.

      Liked by 4 people

  12. I first read Turgenev’s “Fathers and Sons” for high school English class decades ago. It is a short novel rather than a novella and is probably the best literary work I have ever read on the subject of generational conflict. It just proves that the so called generation gap did not start in the 1960s.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thank you, Tony!

      I’m also a fan of “Fathers and Sons,” and it is indeed fairly short. The paperback edition I have at home is 293 pages, but they are very small-sized pages. 🙂

      And, yes, the generation gap goes back many millennia!

      Liked by 4 people

  13. Two that immediately spring to mind are South American writers – Jorge Amado’s The Double Death of Quincas Water-Bray has just 70 pages, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Chronicle of a Death Foretold is very short too. From memory, how’s about Le Grand Mealnes by Alan Fournier? Or any of the Sherlock Holmes stories?

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Ralph!

      A great mention of the absorbing “Chronicle of a Death Foretold”! Definitely short, especially compared to Marquez’s masterpiece “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”

      I think Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels — such as “The Hound of the Baskervilles” — were indeed relatively short.

      Liked by 3 people

  14. Funnily enough my husband and I had this conversation last night. We were reminiscing about our trip that took in Salinas Ca. For me one of the best novellas is ‘Of Mice and Men’ by John Steinbeck. It really packs quite a punch into its 6 chapters.
    Another Fitzgerald mention here as well. I thought ‘The Last Tycoon’ was rather captivating. I know it’s not technically a novella, or even finished, but Fitzgerald was aiming for leas than 60k words.
    I shall be taking notes of the suggestions this week! I’d like to get in a few more books this year 😆

    Liked by 6 people

    • Thank you, Sarah!

      A coincidence that Steinbeck territory was the subject of your conversation last night. 🙂 I was thinking of mentioning the excellent “Of Mice and Men” in the post but decided to limit things to one novel per author and went with Steinbeck’s lesser-known “The Moon Is Down,” a compelling World War II story.

      You’re right that “The Last Tycoon” is short — and really good. A shame Fitzgerald didn’t live long enough to finish it. I definitely wanted more.

      Liked by 5 people

      • Hi Robbie, it’s quite heartwarming when your children have a favourite classic book. My son read ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ many years ago on a holiday where there were a dearth of other books to read. I think he surprised himself by how much he enjoyed it!
        And so glad you’re enjoying ‘Regeneration’. There’s a wealth of background reading around Dr Rivers and Craiglockhart Hospital that awaits you! I seem to recall there being some art work that depicts the terrible trauma the men endured. From what I can remember the images capture the physical manifestations the men exhibit. It makes for uncomfortable viewing of course but I suppose it has to be considered this work paved the way for neuroscience and psychiatry.

        Liked by 2 people

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