The literary novel is in decline and every year it grows harder for emerging writers to find a market. The novel does not suit our time-poor age and the short story does not attract the interest it once did. So where does the future lie for the emerging writer? To answer that we need to go back to a genre that is older, and purer, than the novel. The genre best suited to conceptualizing the digital age is the novella. As the word suggests, novellas originally were news of town and country life worth repeating for amusement and edification. The novella’s origin lies in the early Renaissance literary work of the Italians, principally Giovanni di Boccaccio, author of The Decameron (1353), one hundred tales told by ten young people – seven women and three men – fleeing the Black Death.
The Decameron inspired a range of imitations across Europe including Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Since Boccaccio, the novella has developed into a psychologically subtle short narrative with writers frequently using a frame story to fashion a tight story around an event.
Many regard the novella as an undersized novel, but the distinction between the two forms is not simply a matter of length. These are discrete narrative genres. They are as different from each other as the short story is from the novel. In theory a short story may be anything up to 30,000 words and a novel at least 70,000 words, with a novella occupying the middle ground of between 30,000 and 50,000.
The finest examples of the novella form, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness are arguably the best work of these major writers. All of these novellas have been adapted successfully into film. The form of the novella lends itself far more easily to adaptation because of its focus on a single character, its concentration and shorter length. For the digital generation accustomed to the ninety-minute narrative, the novella fits neatly into the limits of the two-hour cinematic time frame.
The novella strips narrative back to its essentials, cuts away the excess baggage. Its shorter length provides unique advantages for the emerging writer. If you have a story, a piece of news or an event worth telling, if you have a character you want to put to the test, or you simply want to try to write something longer and more important than a short story, if you have an interest in trying to write tightly and make every word count, then the novella is the form for you.
John Dale is the author of six books including the best-selling Huckstepp and Dark Angel which won a Ned Kelly Award. His other books are The Dogs are Barking, a novel about police corruption in Sydney, and a memoir, Wild Life. http://www.john-dale.net/