Novels versus Novellas (What’s in a word count anyway?)

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I once asked a literary agent why some books have “A Novel” after their title. The fact that it was a novel seemed self-evident. You find it in the fiction section. You’re holding it in your hand, it’s a novel. She replied “I don’t know”. That’s sat with me for a while now.

I guess that one possibility is that the author/publisher doesn’t want the story to be confused for a novella. What’s a novella? A short novel. To be clear on definitions, I’m using 50,000 words as the demarcation point between novellas (less than) and novels (more than). A lot of great works of fiction, dare I say ‘books’ fall below that mark: The Great Gatsby, Fahrenheit 451, Slaughterhouse Five, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe among them

A lot of great works of fiction are under 50,000 words.

I started this exploration with my own assumptions about the literature I have read or been exposed to over my life. I’ve been surprised at just how verbose many classic writers actually are. Wuthering Heights is 107,000 words, as is Gulliver’s Travels. Jules Vernes’ 20,000 Leagues under the Sea clocks in at almost 140,000 words.

I always assumed that Charles Dickens and Jane Austin wrote novellas more than novels. Certainly A Christmas Carol fits that, running less than 30,000 words, but A Tale of Two Cities clocks in at over 135,000 words, Oliver Twist 155,000 and Great Expectations 183,000. Austin’s Sense and Sensibility almost reaches 120,000 words, Emma almost 156,000 words. Not to be outdone, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is over 183,000 words.

Catch-22 is longer than the first two Harry Potter books combined!

You expect books by Ayn Rand, Leo Tolstoy, James Joyce, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky to be long-winded, and they are, but Huckleberry Finn was 110,000 words? Really? Joyce’s Ulysses is just under 265,000 words, which meets expectations, but The Dubliners is a pithy 67,000 words. Had an off week, James?

I remember reading Catch-22 decades ago. I don’t remember finding it a long book, yet at just under 175,000 words, it's longer than the first two Harry Potter books combined (77,000 and 85,000 words respectively). I absolutely remember JK Rowlings’ books as being sturdy and wordy. So much for memory.

Do self-publishers tend to go shorter? Some self-publishers are pushing stories that are only 5,000-8,000 words long. These aren’t even novellas, they are technically ‘short stories.’ Hugh Howey, one of the champions of self-publishing has a five story cycle called Wool. The first book is only 11,000 words. The last, Stranded, is the longest, and at 56,000 words the only one that crosses the novella/novel threshold. The Omnibus version of the five stories clocks in at 158,000 - respectable for one novel, but not very long for five.

On that five note, if you ever look at the structure of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, you’ll discover that it was written as five books, but has only ever been published as three or one.

Do word counts matter? What’s the word count of your favourite book, and idd you notice it’s length at the time?