A Case for Short Books

I must begin by saying this isn’t a finger-pointing post meant to put down certain readers and their reading preferences. This is something I’ve been thinking about for years, and if you’ve ever been around my blog site, you may’ve seen me mention something about this before.

First, let’s consider, oh, short people.

Just because someone shorter may not have the height of someone taller doesn’t mean the shorter person is missing something. A short person isn’t incomplete, or “less complete” than a tall person. No, complete, quality human beings come in all different shapes and sizes, and they’re meant to be that way.

Author Suzanne D. Williams heads a group on Facebook called Novella Faith Writers and Readers. One of her posts in the group says, “Removing the stigma, one short story at a time.” I myself wasn’t aware of the stigma short fiction carries until pretty recently. I didn’t realize how strongly some readers dislike novellas, or that some readers purposely stay away from them, until I “listened in” on a chat in a group of readers. Some said they couldn’t stand novellas, and others said things like, “There isn’t enough time in a novella for good plot and character development, like in a novel.”

I guess I should mention here that novellas have been around for a long time, with or without the “novella” label. They aren’t something new (i.e. just a new or lazy shortcut for authors who want to publish fast or just a new sales gimmick from publishers), nor are novellas something substantively different from or lesser than novels. A novella, by definition, is a short novel. The terms “novel” and “novella” are meant to indicate differences in word count or structural elements, but not in substance or significance. The same goes for novelettes.

Writing FictionAnyhow. There’s plenty of time for the plot and characters in short fiction to be well-developed. An author of short fiction has to use that time wisely—as the author of any length of book has to, if he or she wants the book to be good. Yes, there are some novellas where the plot and character development may be lacking, but the same thing often happens in longer books.

Poorly developed fiction isn’t what all fiction should be judged by.

“More pages” aren’t the necessary element to develop a story well; the necessary element is writing skill. There’s an art to writing short fiction, just as there’s an art to writing long fiction, and not all writers are masters of both. Writers of well-developed short fiction know how to stay on topic, to get to the point, to include events and details that matter (so as not to rush or water-down the story) while knowing how to leave out unnecessary or redundant information that doesn’t move the plot forward.

I’d venture to say that many (not all, but many) novels with weak subplots, rambling exposition, extra characters who add little to no meaning, unhelpful or repetitive content, and chunks of dialogue that don’t take the story anywhere new would be better, stronger books if they were revised, edited down, and republished as novellas instead. Keeping the meat of their stories while omitting the fat.

Much of the assumption that a work of fiction has to be a particular length to reach a certain level of quality comes from readers’ conditioning. If a reader is used to reading fiction of a particular length most of the time, that very well may feel like the length that fiction “should be” to that reader, and anything longer or shorter may seem too long or too short.

But consider classic works of fiction like Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Orwell’s Animal Farm, and Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. These books are short. Novellas. They tell the stories they’re meant to tell, they tell them well, and the books aren’t missing something simply because they don’t have more pages. And by no means are they the only short novels like that.

   

Then there’s Edson’s Wit, Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, and any number of other plays that aren’t an average novel length, and yet they further exemplify superb, powerful storytelling in a relatively small number of pages.

 

Of course, all readers are entitled to their preferences, their likes and dislikes and what they choose to read or not to read. I simply want to emphasize that not all fictional stories, even excellent ones, are meant to be long.

It doesn’t always take a lot of words, a lot of pages, for an author to say something meaningful, memorable, and effective—for a story to be enough, in all of its distinctive shortness.