No good deed goes unpunished. I tried to write a nice, complimentary, literate, five-star Amazon review for my friend Dr. Jeff Hodges, author of "The Bottomless Bottle of Beer."* Alas, Jeff, the eternal quibbler, couldn't simply accept the compliment gracefully: he had to offer what he thought was a correction:
One thing, though, I'd reword a phrase you used - from "this charming short story" to "this charming short novella" - since it's actually rather long for a 'short' story, and clocking in at more than 20,000 words, it's above the minimum for a novella.
I swear to God, that man is going to rise from the dead to quibble with the wording of his headstone. And you know what? I hope I'm there to engrave the wrong thing on it, just to annoy him in the afterlife!** Compulsive quibbling is its own form of hell. I think JK Rowling had Jeff in mind when she titled the brainchild of Xenophilius Lovegood.
I don't normally have a problem with quibbling or pedantry if the correction is a deserved one (I'm a quibbler and a pedant myself), but I do reject unnecessary "corrections." Unnecessary "corrections" normally occur when a given matter hasn't truly been settled, i.e., it is objectively the case that the matter is unsettled, which makes any attempt to deem something incorrect as itself incorrect.
So! Are the definitions of short story and novella settled? Perhaps the first thing to establish is whether these expressions are defined in terms of their respective lengths.
Short story: a piece of prose fiction, usually under 10,000 words.
Fair enough. Score one for Jeff. Now, is novella defined similarly?
Novella: (1) a tale or short story of the type contained in the Decameron of Boccaccio. (2) a fictional prose narrative that is longer and more complex than a short story; a short novel.
Note the lack of a page length in the above definition. I'd say this means we're not on solid definitional ground.
Looking elsewhere, then...
I type "short story vs. novella" into Google, and the very top result is a site called Writer's Relief (est. 1994, it says). The site has this to say:
How do you know if your short prose is a short story or a novella? How long is a short story? A novella? What’s the difference? If you want to get your short story or novella published, you’ll need to know who is publishing your type of fiction—and you’ll need to know the best way to target your writing to literary agents and editors of literary magazines.
How long is a novella?
A novella is a “short book.” As such, a novella is considerably longer than a short story but shorter than a novel. A novella must be able to stand on its own as a book, but the exact word count is not set in stone: 30,000 to 60,000 words may be an appropriate length for a novella in most markets.
How authoritative the above source is, I have no idea, but it certainly seems to think of itself as authoritative. So let's trust that assumption, and further trust that the writer of the above Q&A has experience in the publishing world. What the above establishes—and this is all that I'm trying to establish—is that it's far from settled as to what the length of a novella is. By the above reckoning, it seems there's nothing wrong with using the term "short story" to describe Jeff's wonderful work, which is indeed short, and which can be read in under an hour.
As with the grilled-cheese debate, I'm once again pulling a Plantinga, i.e., not trying to establish the rightness of my own claim as much as I'm trying to establish that my own claim isn't wrong.
And I hope that's enough pedantry of my own for one day!
*Whether to italicize the title or place it in quotation marks is the very issue in question in this blog post. One normally puts the titles of short stories in quotes; a novella's title, by contrast, would be italicized, as the general rule is that you italicize the titles of complete, stand-alone works. A short story is normally assumed to be part of a compendium; the compendium's title would be italicized, while the short stories' titles would be surrounded by quotation marks. You could argue that Jeff's story qualifies as a stand-alone work and, be it a short story or a novella, for that reason alone the title should be italicized. To which I say "Bollocks!" A short story can stand alone, and as long as there's the possibility that it can become part of a larger compendium, it seems safer to use quotation marks.
Of course, "clocking in at more than 20,000 words" puts the length of Jeff's story in an annoyingly liminal space that makes it hard to classify clearly as one thing or another. If a student of mine writes a two-page story, that's clearly a short story. If Stephen King writes "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption," that's clearly a novella... although I should note that King has used the term "short story" to describe some of his works of short fiction that might, according to some, qualify as novellas, e.g., "The Mist," which is a story in King's compendium Skeleton Crew—a compendium in whose introduction King writes, "Here's some more short stories, if you want them." [emphasis added]
**"Here lies Horus Geoffrey Hotchkiss," the headstone will say.