On Definitions of Short Stories
I just finished reading Henry James’ Daisy Miller (1878) and once I’d finished the story itself I flicked on to read the appended essay that was included in my Penguin English Library edition. The first thing that caught my eye was the description, or should I say classification, of the story as a ‘nouvelle’.
This was a new term to me and had I been asked to described the short story myself I probably would have named it a novella. My interest was immediately piqued by this new word and I thought I should research it further and share what I found out about the many and various classifications of short stories with the readers of my blog, so here goes:
In English this is a variety of short story which rather than concerning the supernatural or fantastic involves a realistic narrative or anecdote. It is, in effect, like news (hence the naming of it nouvelle). In the French tradition of short stories there has been no direct translation for ‘short story’ as an all-encompassing term, instead they use nouvelle to mean realistic short stories, and conte to mean a fantastical short story (although there is some debate about the exact classifications, see here for more).
This word comes from the French tradition of oral story-telling (deriving from the French verb conter, meaning ‘to recount’). Most commonly it relates to fairy-tales and adventure stories which are shorter in length than a novel. Examples include Charles Perrault’s Contes de ma mère l’oye or Tales of Mother Goose.
Flash fiction is a relatively modern phenomena and now numerous competitions in the genre abound. The idea is to write a very short story in less than 1,000 words, keeping it short and punchy.
A short story which is shorter than a novella (therefore less than 17,500 words) and is generally of a romantic or sentimental subject matter. Naturally due to the inherent snobbery of the literary world this unfortunately means it is often used in a patronising or derogatory fashion.
This can rather unhelpfully be characterised as longer than a short story but shorter than a novel. The word novella derives from the Italian word for new. Novellas are generally thought to be more realistic in style and might concern just one incident or be confined to just a couple of main characters. In general novellas do not include chapters nor complicated side-plots. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Nebula Awards for science fiction define the novella as having a word count of 17,500 to 40,000 words. Examples of novella include The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote and A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
As with any discussion on the definition or classification of something as nebulous as writing disagreements abound. This is just my take on what I have read on the subject but I’d love to hear your thoughts on these classifications and if you have any to add please do leave a comment.
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