Novellas, works of between 20,000 and 40,000 words, are awesome and wildly underrated. Ian McEwan recently called the novella “… the perfect form of prose fiction. It is the beautiful daughter of a rambling, bloated ill-shaven giant.”
Stephen King refers to the form as “an ill-defined and disreputable literary banana republic.” while Robert Silverberg goes as far as to call it “… one of the richest and most rewarding of literary forms“.
With the rise in ereaders, Kindle and Kobos and whatnot, it is my theory that the time of the novella is upon us, since reading a novella is a more rewarding experience than long books.
So what are the best of this best form of fiction? Here is the definitive list, the best of the best of novellas.
1. I Am Legend, Richard Matheson
An awesome story that takes place in a vampire apocalypse scenario and the only survivor is a surly human with a drinking problem. He drives around in the daylight and kills blood-suckers, and spends his nights inside his house, listening to them outside, calling to him. This is a book that grabs you and does not let go, putting most recent vampire fiction in its place. The ending is awesome, in the truest sense of that word. There were rumors of a movie starring Will Smith, but nothing ever came of it. Nothing, I say!
2. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
This novel has darkness and a thorough indictment of the old colonial ways. It centers around the narrator, Marlow, and his journey into the jungles of Africa to find a missing man, Kurtz, who has abandoned his post and, we later learn, all morals. It is deep and rich and so thoroughly rewards re-reading that I challenge those of you have have read it to do so again. Conrad’s prose is not the easiest to read and is at times downright uncomfortable, but that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you know you are reading greatness.
3. Animal Farm, George Orwell
Yes, I know you read it in school. But now that you are a grown-up (or at least smart enough to be reading this site) it is time to read it again and discover the true depth or Orwell’s genius. It is a book about humans and their politics, told through animals on a farm. It, along with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, perfectly demonstrates that anyone actually seeking political office should by no means be allowed to attain it.
Dickens is a master of the novel, and long ones at that. But this is an absolute gem, with characters that have entered the shared consciousness of readers everwhere… Ebenezer Scrooge, Tiny Tim and the ghosts of Christmases past present and future. If this book does not get you into the Christmas spirit and, indeed, give you a brighter outlook on life, I will eat my hat.
5. The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
This book, about a old man who goes fishing off the coast of Cuba and catches a rather large fish, is so good that it won the Pulitzer and then Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I’m not sure anything else has to be said about it.
6. Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka
The novella is a much better form for Mr. Kafka than the novel. It forces him to restrain himself, which is something he should have done in the overly long and confusing The Trial. Here, a man named Gregor Samsa wakes up as an insect, and worries deeply that he will be late for work. It is funny and serious at the same time but above all it is very, very good.
7. Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck
Perhaps my personal favorite on this list, Of Mice and Men is a perfect showcase of Mr. Steinbeck’s intimidating (yes, that’s the right word) writing skill. Easy to read and truly tragic, it tells the story of migrant workers George and Lenny who are looking for work in the dust-bowl era. Lenny is mentally retarded but very strong and George is his father-figure of a friend. One of only a few books that have brought me to tears.
8. At The Mountains of Madness, H. P. Lovecraft
Lovecraft wrote a lot of short stories of, shall we say… uneven quality. He was an eccentric and bigoted recluse with whom I would very definitely not liked to have spent an evening. However, some of the stuff he wrote is canonical when it comes to the horror genre, and at the top of the heap is At the Mountains of Madness.
9. The Turn of the Screw, Henry James
A ghost story before they were cool. Ok, I’ll admit it, this is the single thing on this list that I haven’t read. However, I see it mentioned so many times as one of the great novellas out there, from people who’s opinion I trust, that I felt obliged to include it. Am I wrong?
10. A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
Rather an odd book, A Clockwork Orange is nontheless very good. It is told from the point of view of Alex, a member of a gang of misfits in the future, and it is all written in his peculiar style of speaking, a slang invented by Burgess for this book. It is violent and full of odd language but the surest sign of its quality is the fact that it is on the list of most challenged books in the United States (meaning that it is often requested to be removed from libraries). You may remember seeing the Stanley Kubrick movie which sticks, more or less, to the book and should be watched once you are done with it.
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