The World’s Best Novellas

The novella is the bastard child of the book world.

Novellas the hushed-up offspring of novelist’s one-night stands with typewriters. They are the awkward middle-child.

Novellas are not long enough to be allowed into the novel club, and yet too long to be read in a single sitting. In paperback, they look flimsy and short and really not worth buying (“Look at that big hardcover over there, for half the price!”)

Stephen King calls the novella “an ill-defined and disreputable literary banana republic.”, but it is the form that suits him best.

I tend to agree with Robert Silverberg though.

“[The novella] is one of the richest and most rewarding of literary forms…it allows for more extended development of theme and character than does the short story, without making the elaborate structural demands of the full-length book. Thus it provides an intense, detailed exploration of its subject, providing to some degree both the concentrated focus of the short story and the broad scope of the novel.”

Now, as promised, I present:

The World’s Best Novellas

1. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

Written by Charles Dickens way back in 1843, A Christmas Carol is one of his better-known works. Lets get one thing straight: when you write a book that influences and changes the way a culture celebrates a holiday, you did something right.

“It has been credited with restoring the holiday to one of merriment and festivity in Britain and America after a period of sobriety and sombreness. A Christmas Carol remains popular, has never been out of print, and has been adapted to film, stage, opera, and other media.”

The phrase “Merry Christmas” is used world-over and the name “Scrooge” and exclamation “Bah! Humbug!” have entered the English language, all thanks to Dickens’s novella.

One of the best parts of the book are right at the start, when Dickens describes Scrooge, and may very well be my favorite of all character descriptions:

“Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind-stone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin.”

2. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness

This is one of my favorite pieces of writing, if merely for the tone and the description. There is an introduction in the version I have (a snobbish Everyman’s Edition) that says what I feel about the book better than I could.

“In Heart of Darkness, the impression Conrad creates seems to have slipped the mold of his sentences and to have grown more enveloping, more ominous than perhaps even he imagined. It is a book of extraordinary intensity, so much so that, returning to it after a time, you’re surprised to discover that what it most resembles is a nightmare – a momentary nocturnal vision that transforms the ordinary light of day.

From the book itself, a description of the Thames unlike any other.

Forthwith a change came over the waters, and the serenity became less brilliant but more profound. The old river in its broad reach rested unruffled at the decline of the day, after ages of good service to the race that peopled its banks, spread out in the tranquil dignity of a waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth.

3. The Old Man and The Sea, Ernest Hemingway

Old-Man-and-the-SeaWhen you write a novella that wins a Pulitzer, and the following year you win the Nobel Prize for literature, you know you are doing something right.

The Old Man and the Sea tells of an old fisherman who has not caught a single fish in a long time. He then goes out and catches a fish so big he has trouble with it. That is basically the story (except told beautifully) and it is a pleasure to read. The success of The Old Man and the Sea made Hemingway an international celebrity, and shut up the critics that said his writing career was over.

Hemingway’s style is so unique (though much copied, myself included), that if I was handed a Hemingway passage I could identify it in three sentences. Example:

He could not see the green of the shore now but only the tops of the blue hills that showed white as though they were snow-capped and the clouds that looked like high snow mountains above them. The sea was very dark and the light made prisms in the water. The myriad flecks of the plankton were annulled now by the high sun and it was only the great deep prisms in the blue water that the old man saw now with his lines going straight down into water that was a mile deep.

Though, in the example above, the Hemingway-ness shines through in every sentence so I could have guessed it in one.

Some critics claim to see the book as religious allegory. I choose to see it as a fuckin’ fine piece of writing.

4. Metamorphosis, Franz KafkaMetamorphosis

I’m not a real fan of Kafka. I found the Trial to be confusing, and after a while the satire got really old. I know, it’s really angsty and “bureaucracy sucks man!” and everything, but still. Nothing about the prose got me and the protagonist was uninteresting. It’s a boring book, and overrated.

Not so with Metamorphosis. It is an excellent little insect of a book, that starts off strong and keeps the reader turning those pages. Unlike the Trial, the protagonist, Gregor Samsa, somehow earned my sympathy. He finds himself in a situation that has somehow been thrust upon him but his main concern is getting to work.

When Gregor Samsa woke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself changed into a monstrous cockroach in his bed. He lay on his tough, armoured back, and, raising his head a little, managed to see – sectioned off by little crescent-shaped ridges into segments – the expanse of his arched, brown belly, atop which the coverlet perched, forever on the point of slipping off entirely. His numerous legs, pathetically frail by contrast to the rest of him, waved feebly before his eyes.

5. Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck

This is an excellent introduction to Steinbeck’s writing, and I recommend it before you pick up a copy of his epic, Grapes of Wrath (which is so good, by the way, that I plan to actually eat the copy I am reading now). It is one of the finest things I have ever read and an excellent showcase of how to write characters and dialogue that the reader remembers. Of Mice and Men is perhaps the perfect example of the strength of the novella. It would not work as a short story, it is far too long for that, but it’s narrative would become overly complicated if Steinbeck had tried to stretch it into a novel.

It’s appearance on the American Library Association’s list of the Most Challenged Books of 21st Century only serves to act as further recommendation.

6. Animal Farm, George Orwell

George Orwell’s 1984 is my favorite book of all time, of all books. Animal Farm is just Orwell showing off his great talent to the rest of us. It appeals to everyone, children and older readers alike, and while The Old Man and The Sea and Heart of Darkness feel three times as long as they really are, Animal Farm feels three times shorter. We now turn to Wikipedia for enlightenment:

The novel (sic) addresses not only the corruption of the revolution by its leaders but also how wickedness, indifference, ignorance, greed and myopia corrupt the revolution. It portrays corrupt leadership as the flaw in revolution, rather than the act of revolution itself. It also shows how potential ignorance and indifference to problems within a revolution could allow horrors to happen if a smooth transition to a people’s government is not achieved.

Never, in polite company at least, admit that you have not read Animal Farm. Never.

7. I am Legend, Richard MathesonI am Legend

Yeah! I am Legend is an awesome story of the vampire apocalypse, and the only survivor is a surly human with a drinking problem. He drives around in the daylight and kills blood-suckers, and spends his nights inside his house, listening to them outside, calling to him.

I often use the books first paragraph as an example of how to hook readers:

“On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.

If he had been more analytical, he might have calculated the approximate time of their arrival; but he still used the lifetime habit of judging nightfall by the sky, and on the cloudy days that method didn’t work. That was why he chose to stay near the house on those days.”

It also has an ending that makes other endings seem anemic (pun intended), but showing it here would ruin it. Just buy the book.

Ignore the movie.

8. Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, Stephen King

On this account however, you really should watch the movie. The Shawshank Redemption is by many considered to be one of the best films of all time. The novella is one of King’s finest works, along with The Shining and Misery. It is easy to read and the best thing about King novellas is that they don’t contain that tiresome rambling that King tends to include in his longer works. Has anyone ever managed to read The Tommyknockers, by the way? Didn’t think so.

What you should do, however, is go for a King four-in-one novella extravaganza called Different Seasons. It includes Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, The Body (made into the classic movie Stand By Me), Apt Pupil (also made into a movie) and Breathing Lessons. Novellas as a form somehow force the overly word-happy King into a box where he is at his best.

Now. What did I miss?

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23 thoughts on “The World’s Best Novellas

  1. I completely agree with your list. But if I had to add one, I would add The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James. Though, since its true impact really hits the reader on the second reading, that might make it closer to novel-sized (though still short by Jamesian standards).

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    1. I have yet to read The Turn of the Screw. I also hear that I need to add The Stranger and A Clockwork Orange to the list. But you see…. I haven’t read them yet. (Don’t tell anyone).

      I hear good things about Henry James all the time, though, so I’ll read it soon.

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      1. Good question! In fact, now that I think about it, he took Metamorphosis off my to-read list, since it wasn’t a “typical” short-story.
        But shorter type stories are very ill-defined and ill-definable (by definition), for example, the french seem to use the word “nouvelle” for most non-novels (or “romans”). The Spanish word for short-story/novella (“cuento”) is so wide it encompasses children’s stories and fairy-tales as well, so it’s by no means a clear concept in all languages.
        In my personal opinion, the creative mind should have the fewest possible limits, since word-count and number of pages do by no means define the quality of the story itself.

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  2. I Am Legend, Animal Farm, and the rest that you’ve mentioned are all seminal pieces in their genres, with lasting impacts. I’ve always wondered why novellas are looked at so disfavorably. They are shorter than novels, they are quicker reads, and in today’s low cost/low attention span world they should be selling better than any other form. Must be brilliant marketing.

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    1. We were actually discussing this over on Google Plus today, the way that the novella makes for a better reading experience on the Kindle due to the visible progress made while reading (as reported by the progress bar).

      Reading long novels on the Kindle starts feeling like a chore.

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    1. I’m surprised to see my native Laxness mentioned here, though perhaps it does belong. I am not an outright Laxness fan but appreciate his impact on Icelandic literature. I’ve never read any of his stuff in English.

      Where did you come in contact with his writing?

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    1. From the novellas mentioned to me after writing this post I think The Outsider / The Stranger is the one I should really have included. Problem is… I haven’t read it it. I will fix this soon, though.

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  3. Nothing in German here? I second Zweig’s ‘Schachnovelle’ (‘Chess’), and I’d also recommend Theodor Storm (‘Immensee’/’Der Schimmelreiter’ – ‘Rider on a White Horse’). And how about Goethe’s ‘Die Leiden des jungen Werthers’ (‘The Sufferings of Young Werther’)?

    I’m also partial to Japanese literature, so I’d suggest Yasunari Kawabata’s ‘Yukiguni’ (‘Snow Country’) and Natsume Soseki’s ‘Kusamakura’ (‘The Grass Pillow’) :)

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  4. I would definitely second including the Outsider. Furthermore, I believe my favourite novella should be on the list: Gabriel García Márquez’ Crónica de una muerte anunciada / Chronicle of a Death Foretold.

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  5. The Little Prince & Anthem are both very good. The Little Prince at first glance comes off as a childrens book but if you read it critically and more in depth it is completely philosophical and life inspiring.

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  6. Chess, as others have already mentioned, is very good.

    Dan Simmons collection of four novellas, Lovedeath, is well worth a read too – in is introduction he talks about the artistic attraction of novellas, but how publishers don’t like them.

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  7. Fun reading your list, Johann. Metamorphosis and Shawshank are both something else. I’d put Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle up there. Fantastic range of voice, untouchable knowledge of dialogue, darkest humor, and takes it to conclusion no one else has had the guts to try.

    I wish I liked I Am Legend more, but too much of it was devoted to “scientific” explanations that were no more believable than magic for me. If it was supposed to be his coping mechanism, putting everything in boxes, it needed to tie it together more tightly for me.

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  8. An excellent list! The Robert Silverberg quote immediately put me to mind of Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton – has all the essential elements of the short-story, expanded slightly, rich in emotional inducement but so well constrained that nothing could be omitted.

    I also like One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and The Pursuit of Love, by Nancy Mitford. There are many I haven’t read yet.

    If we expanded our definition of the novella slightly to include books that are usually considered to be for children, we might add a few more classics – The Wizard of Oz, Charlotte’s Webb, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?

    There are also some novellas that I found so bad I struggled to finish – A Pale View of Hills, by Kazuo Ishiguro (may be too long to be considered a novella) and The White Castle by Orhan Pamuk

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  9. No such list is complete without a story by my favorite writer Stanislaw Lem . ‘The futurological congress’ for instance.

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  10. Surely “Carmilla” by JS Lefanu deserves a mention? Seminal vampire story, influential on works from Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” to Stephen King’s “Dr Sleep”, still a bit creepy today, etc.

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