Tuesday, October 14, 2014

"novella" or "short story"?

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.

Dictionary.com says:

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.



Charles said...

Is it possible that you might be seeing Dr. Doom's comment in a way in which it was not intended? That is, perhaps it was not a "correction" so much as it was a simple statement of the author's preferred nomenclature?

I can't speak for the good doctor, of course, and I am not blind to why you might have seen this as a correction. It boils down, I think, to the inclusion of a specific fact: namely, that 20,000 words is the lower limit for a novella. But another way to look at the inclusion of said fact would be to see it as a strategy for explaining the preference in terminology.

Now, the veracity of that fact is another story. I agree with what you have written regarding the definition of a novella. I have never heard of a novella as defined primarily by its length; instead what distinguishes a short story from a novel or novella is the complexity of the plot, with the novella being a short novel as opposed to a long short story. As such, the real question for me would be: Did the story have a single-threaded plot, and does our experience of the story come primarily through a single main character (whether in the first or third person)? If yes, I would call it a "long short story" (or just a "short story," to be honest). If no, then I would say it's a somewhat short novella. That being said, genres are constantly being challenged and shattered, and not everything fits into neat little boxes.

But this is not really my point. My point is that perhaps Jeff was not attempting to correct you on a matter of fact; perhaps he was instead expressing his opinion on the terminology used to describe his work. Seeing that he is the author, I suppose he has the right to call his work whatever he wants--as do you, of course. Jeff might be happier to see the work called a short novella, but such is life. I would be happier if I had my gall bladder back, and if it actually worked instead of throwing hissy fits all the time, but we can't always get what we want.

Bottom line: I'm just wondering if this is not really about the concerned parties being right or wrong (or not being wrong, as the case may be), but just a simple expression of opinion. I'd like to hear Dr. Doom's response.

Kevin Kim said...

"Is it possible that you might be seeing Dr. Doom's comment in a way in which it was not intended? That is, perhaps it was not a "correction" so much as it was a simple statement of the author's preferred nomenclature?"

To answer most directly: yes, it's possible I'm misreading Jeff's intention. But I've also known him long enough to know he just can't help himself sometimes when it comes to picking those damnable nits. I don't say this in a spirit of condescension or scorn, because he and I are made of similar academic stuff: to indict Jeff is to indict myself as well. We're naturally critical people, and it could easily be my revenant complaining about a mis-worded headstone.

But also yes: the notion that "20,000 words is the lower limit for a novella" is indeed debatable, and I'd argue, based on cursory online research, that it's not factual at all, if by "factual" we mean something like "universally accepted as fact." My only point, as is often the case when people attempt their "corrections" of my English—thus prompting me to defend myself—was merely to indicate that what I had written was perfectly legitimate and not in need of rephrasing.

For me, to be perfect honest, I'll admit the grumble-grumble subtext is that I'm a bit put out since a simple "thank you" would have sufficed. But academics, as you know, can't—leave—well—enough—alone. If they perceive a scab, they pick at it until it bleeds, and then they keep right on picking. They don't respond to the spirit of what's said so much as to the letter. And yeah, I stand guilty of this charge, too, so I'll say no more.

Charles said...

Words we could all learn something from, I imagine.

Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Kevin, I didn't intend to be picky, and I'm sorry to have sounded so. I've been calling the story a novella ever since I finished it.

I found several sites that identified 20,000 words as the cutoff, and my story was about 22,000, which is why I called it a novella from the time I finished the final draft.

Also, its division into 'chapters' (or "parts") indicates that I think of the story as more than a short story.

My apologies if I sounded like an ingrate - I certainly didn't intend that.

Jeffery Hodges

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Kevin Kim said...

Pay me no mind, Jeff. I'm just grumbling inconsequentially.

Charles said...

By the way, "Horus Geoffrey Hotchkiss" is an awesome name.

Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

But I just noticed - and this is not to pick nits - you (Kevin) wrote:

"Here lies Horus Geoffrey Hotchkiss," the headstone will say.

Lies? Lies? You now calling me a liar? Just 'cause I tell stories doesn't make me a liar!

Ontological status of my characters, indeed!

Jeffery Hodges

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