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Wither the Novella?

Robert Silverberg once said that the novella is the best length for a science fiction story:

I have said the novella is the perfect form for science fiction in the introduction to practically every collection of my novellas, and I do believe it. The novella allows the detailed working out of a complex science-fictional idea, the portrayal of a culture, the complexities of the character who is enmeshed within that culture. The exploration that I think is at the heart of a good science-fiction story can be done in great detail. At the same time, you don’t have the exhausting and sometimes stultifying process of spinning the thing out to book length. In modern science-fiction publishing, very big novels are expected — for that matter, whole trilogies are expected. In the novella, you can move around within the 80 or 90 manuscript pages and achieve quite a lot. I believe Edgar Allan Poe’s old dictum: one thing happens in a short story. Everything that happens in a short story should depend on that one thing. In a novella, two or three things can happen (or five or six sometimes).

Around 18 months ago, I ranted briefly on the bloat of science fiction. Now, a new discussion talking about the same thing has a brutally honest, by-the-numbers analysis by Charles Stross, who summarizes:

Until the book publishers figure out how to package collections of novellas and pay the authors pro-rata sums competitive with what they’d get for a novel, novellas are going to remain the dumping-ground for failed short novel ideas and special exhibition projects. And they’re going to be in short supply compared to the (much more lucrative) novels.

Sad, but true, I fear.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

1 Comment on Wither the Novella?

  1. OK just as an intellectual exercise, let’s say my response is:

    So? Who cares if the 20,000-word format isn’t viable in published book form? If an author wants to write and be read, publish these novellas to the web. If you prove your worth, I suppose you can eventually charge for them (DRM issues aside.)

    60,000 word novels make good physical publishing material, and short stories seem to have their place as well if you can get into a collection (although not that many make it into book form I suspect.) If some particular format you want to publish in – from 7-line limerick poem to 50,000 word super-novella – isn’t viable then you can’t be in the traditional bookstore, but I don’t see that as a limitation.

    As a consumer, how would you want to buy novellas? Three or four collected into a single book format? Would you buy a ‘novella book’ from an unknown author – or would they have to establish themselves first?

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