When I was a young man first in love with writing, a disproportionate number of the works I had fallen in love with were novellas. What exactly is a novella? I don’t really know. They’re shorter than novels: I do know that. They often take as their subject the arc of a single life. But on the other hand, some take place in a few hours. Whereas a short story might hold a well-placed punch, a novella might feature a war. Or at least a battle. But of course that’s not always true either. I teach a course in novellas at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and every year on the first day of class a student will announce that a novella is a piece of fiction between 60 and 150 pages; another will then say, "well, then what’s between 30 and 60 pages?" And the first student will answer "a long story." All of which is about as useful as asking how many slices are in a medium pizza.
We read thirteen novellas in that course. Here are five that I particularly love:
"Legends of the Fall," by Jim Harrison.
This 80-page tale sweeps magnificently through time, starting in early 20th century Montana and moving through the First World War, Prohibition, a lunatic asylum, birth, death, marriage, betrayal, madness, politics, and revenge—to name a few of its subjects. It contains almost no dialogue and hardly more commas than this paragraph, yet on every page Harrison’s prose is sublime and on more than a few of them heartbreaking. The whole swashbuckling tale zooms past like a rocket: an epic you can read in an hour.
"Tell Me a Riddle," by Tillie Olsen.
Despite the fact that I re-read this novella almost every year, I cannot help weeping each time I approach its final pages. It’s the story of a long marriage broken, near the end of life, by discord and difference. Olsen, raised in Nebraska by Russian immigrant parents, worked many kinds of jobs throughout her life, raised children, and was a union organizer and activist; this may explain why she published so few books. But in my opinion "Tell Me A Riddle," with the groundbreaking depth of its point of view, is as seminal an influence on the contemporary short story as the work of any other writer of the past century.
"The Old Forest," by Peter Taylor.
Taylor, who won the Pulitzer Prize for A Summons to Memphis, is a stately, intelligent writer, and this novella is a serious piece of art and a broad-ranging contemplation of southern society, structured around a small but salacious-enough plot. A privileged young man in Depression-era Memphis, soon to be married, is in a minor car accident; but it’s not his fiancÈe in the car with him. Taylor has a peculiar ability to make his fiction seem like non-fiction, and his work teaches me, every time, that a writer should not write about what he knows but rather investigate what he hopes to understand.
"Seize the Day," by Saul Bellow.
This is not Bellow’s greatest book but it is a short introduction to him for a generation that, sadly, seems in danger of missing out on his Nobel-prize-winning work. Bellow was a genius, both comic and serious. His vaulting, manically rich language was a street marriage of the vulgar and the sublime, of the neighborhood tough and the graduate-department philosopher. So it is with this novella, as well. It traces a day in the life of Tommy Willhelm, hapless but ardent son of the formidable Dr. Adler, as he is hoodwinked by the curiously contemporary Wall Street fraud, Dr. Tamkin. It’s about money and love and success, and though published in 1956 it couldn’t be more apt to today’s financial culture run onto the rocks.
"The Age of Grief," by Jane Smiley.
This under-appreciated domestic novella is a masterpiece of human drama. Smiley, as though taking aim at the swashbuckling hero story—see "Legends of the Fall," above—writes about two suburban dentists, married to each other since dental school, mildly burdened with children, practice, and house, their lives quietly fractured and then nearly destroyed by a discovery one makes about the other. One can almost hear Smiley laughing in the background: the more domestic and ordinary she makes these characters, the more piercingly her intelligence shines, and the more violently she break our hearts.