What is a Novel, Anyway?

Just to switch things up, this will be the first post on this blog that is not a book review or an update on what I’m reading, but I decided it was time for a change (I’m mad with power…. muhaha!).  So here goes…

Lately I’ve been rediscovering my love for short stories, and this combined with the fact that I recently ran into the term ‘novelette’, I decided to do some digging about what makes a novel a novel, rather than a novella or novelette. While searching various corners of the internet, I found some information that I thought I would share.

For my first source of information, I turned to the dictionary. Here’s what I found there:

nov·el: (noun)

  1. a fictitious prose narrative of book length, typically representing character and action with some degree of realism.
  2. the literary genre represented or exemplified by novels.

no·vel·la: (noun)

  1. a short novel or long short story.

nov·el·ette: (noun, derogatory)

  1. a short novel, typically one that is light and romantic or sentimental in character.

The first thing that stuck out to me from this is that the novelette is considered a derogatory term, and that a novella is still indistinguishable from a novel or short story except by length.

Further investigation into the matter returned similar results, and over and over again the novelette is characterized as a piece that’s fiction, shorter than a novel, and usually of trivial or sentimental themes. Some sources added in that a novelette is longer than a short story and shorter than a novella, which brings us back to the question: how long is a novella?

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America defines novels, novelettes, and novellas by word count as follows:

Classification Word count
Novel 40,000 words or over
Novella 17,500 to 39,999 words
Novelette 7,500 to 17,499 words
Short story under 7,500 words

There are obviously no firm rules, but it’s interesting to me that they only require a novel to 40,000 in length, since many other sources require a work to be 50,000+ words to be a novel (such as National Novel Writing Month). Then there’s the fact that the average novel is between 70,000 and 100,000 words in length (according to a few publishers’ websites), and thrillers tend to be even longer, usually over 100,000 words.

Some people have tried to define the boundaries based on page number, but in my mind this is even more subjective than word count, since font size, margins, as well as any number of other details can inflate (or deflate) the number of pages.

Then there are those that have tried to make distinctions based on subject matter, like a novel being characterized by encompassment of the “totality of life,” (György Lukács), or a return to the idea that the novelette contains a more trivial subject. This, to me, is the most ridiculous way to try to classify writing, since it relies so much on one’s opinion about the ‘seriousness’ of the subject. It feels snobby to say only the most serious and sophisticated writing earns a novel classification.

So back to my original question: what is a novel? If it’s fiction, and you can’t call it a short-story, and you don’t think it’s a novella/novelette, you’re probably safe to say that it’s a novel.

Let me know in the comments if you have any thoughts on the matter, and stay tuned for short story week! Happy Reading!

 

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