The joy of the short novel


I finished reading Annihilation, a great novel written by Jeff VanderMeer. When I completed it it occurred to me it was a short novel – 205 pages. That’s about 51,000 words if you use the 250-word-per-page standard.

It was a great book. I found it eerie and mysterious and loved the brevity, which allowed me to read the book in a single sitting – a pleasure that is hard to experience if you stick with Steven King, J.K. Rowling, and other great authors.

Of course, there are few pleasures greater than getting lost in a long novel. I still remember how much fun it was to get lost in the 929 pages of Swan Song by Robert McCammon or the 1010 pages of Shogun by James Clavell.

Is the short novel too short?

While digging around, I found a blog post – from 2006. Admittedly an old post.

In it, an agent is complaining that she and her colleagues were receiving too many submissions that were too short.

The challenge listed focused more on marketability than anything else.

The 50,000 word mark, which this agent lamented was too short, is the goal for NaNoWriMo each year, so I suspect there’s a lot of novels being written in that range.

But is it truly unmarketable?

In a day of Tweets, posts, and never-ending competition, is a short novel such a bad thing?

It reminds me a little bit of a newspaper executive who told me he’s not competing against other news outlets, but rather is competing for people’s time.

And then the greats

Then there are great short novels. They pack a punch in a few short words.

Short Novels

There’s a short list here¬†of novels that come in at roughly 50,000 words. But there’s more. Many great books that aren’t considered classics – pulps, and the like – are short. And millions of readers have enjoyed them.

And don’t forget:

  • Earnest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea: 26,601 words.
  • John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men: 29,160 words
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell: 29,966

These are technically novellas (I keep reading 40,000 as the line that transitions from novella to novel), but published as novels and have gone down in history as classics. That designation “classic” did not apply to the novels at the time of their publication. It was earned.

In the end

What matters is story, right?

Annihilation works as a shorter novel because it is one heck of a story. It is also why I liked Shogun, Swan Song, countless Steven King books, and other longer works.

Length was not the deciding factor me – I didn’t even know the length when I downloaded Annihilation onto my Kindle from the library. Rather, I just enjoyed the story.

Editor, publisher, or agent. I’m sure they’ll find a good home for just about any novel that tells a heck of a story. And length will be the secondary concern.

About EC Morgan 37 Articles
I am a teacher, writer, publisher, and media professional. A stamp collector, judo fighter, and wish I spent more time fencing. Hopefully I'm a good father and a good friend, and I do my best to serve Christ.

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