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In Praise of the Novella

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After just finishing Edith Wharton's great Ethan Frome book from 1911 (100th-anniversary alert!), I thought I'd write an appreciation of the short novel.

And what's not to appreciate? A novella can be read in only a few hours, yet the best ones pack almost the same punch as much longer works of fiction. Keeping track of a smaller cast is very manageable, and there's little delayed gratification in waiting for the book's conclusion.

Also, a novella is easy to carry on a bus or train, and easy to hold when riding an exercise bike without a reading rack. Last but not least, a novella is an excellent way to try an author you've never read before to see if you like her or him. If you do, then it's on to the longer books!

I'll be doing that with Wharton now that I've read Ethan Frome. Her novella (181 pages in the edition I read) is an intense story of a reserved, partly crippled New England man who had one remote chance at happiness more than 20 years earlier. The tale is told in the present, then the past, then the present again -- and this framing device makes the conclusion extraordinarily powerful.

Just before trying Wharton for the first time, I reread The Time Machine -- which clocks in at a modest 30,000 or so words. But it's amazing how much H.G. Wells crams into that space. He tells the sci-fi story of a man's harrowing trip to 802,701 A.D. and subsequent haunting sojourn to the very end of time. Plus Wells makes the story an allegory about the awful gap between the rich and poor (something that was a big problem in 1895 -- when the 29-year-old author came out with his book -- and obviously remains a big problem today).

Another short work of fiction I recently enjoyed looks toward the past rather than the future. That book was Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad, which humorously and soberly imagines what happened with Odysseus' wife Penelope while her hubby was away for much longer than it takes to read a novella.

Among the many other excellent novellas I've read are A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, Billy Budd by Herman Melville, Reflections in a Golden Eye by Carson McCullers, and The Moon Is Down by John Steinbeck.

What's the word for a short blog piece? A "blogella"? This "blogella" is about to end, but I'd be interested to hear about some of your favorite novellas.