A novella approach to an undervalued literary form

The Penny Dreadful Novella Prize aims to reward excellent new writing but also to shed light on an art form compared to both a sonata and a banana repuiblic

Here is a proposition for you: choose any author you love, find out where they live, break into their house when they are away on holidays, and loot through the drawers of their writing desk. There, you will find, among the pencil shavings and signed selfies, likely hidden in a shoe-box, that most seductive and taboo of literary forms – the novella.

The novella is their guilty little secret. The project they work on when nobody is looking, when a short story pulled them into directions they hadn’t imagined, or when their novel came to perfection suddenly and abruptly, the pressure of composition forming a single, flawless unity. And yet, this writer must have smiled wistfully, maybe dabbed their face with a handkerchief, and locked it away for good.

Surveying the history of the novella, one thing becomes clear: writers may love the form, but publishers would rather pretend it didn’t exist. Novellas have been lumped in the back of short story collections or inflated with white space and packaged as novels. The prevailing consensus has been that novellas just don’t sell. At a time when literary magazines reigned supreme, the novella was often seen as too long, too indulgent. With the rise of the novel, it was seen as too short: why would customers buy Benito Cereno when they could have Moby-Dick?

In recent years, however, there has been something of a sea-change. Melville House began publishing classic novellas by writers such as Woolf, Austen, Cervantes and Chekov in 2004, handsomely priced and elegantly packaged. This was followed up by their Contemporary Art of the Novella series, one of which, Shoplifting from American Apparel, Tao Lin’s story of drinking in Starbucks, instant messaging and getting arrested, was one of the more divisive works of the noughties. E-reading has played its part too: with price divorced from page count, readers are looking for something long enough to engage with over a week’s commute and short enough to integrate with competing media, a market-based articulation of Edgar Allen Poe’s more artistic demand on literary works: that they can be consumed whole in one engaged sitting.


Writers are writing novellas, just like they have always done, but now they are finding readers and publishers who value the form as much as they do. Film-makers have also embraced the novella, from Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis or the numerous adaptations of Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. The relationship is reciprocal: with the primacy of film and television as the media of narrative art, the novella is an ideal form with which to adapt the pacing and scale of cinema. Graham Greene wrote The Third Man novella in preparation for the screenplay. For him, the novella was the natural literary equivalent of the cinematic form.

With the Penny Dreadful Novella Prize we are challenging authors to look at the rich history of a vibrant, elastic and living literary form and attempt to remake it in their own image. The prize is aimed not just at awarding excellent new writing but at shedding light on an undervalued and often overlooked literature.

Stephen King called the novella a “banana republic”, an anarchy-filled, anything-goes, literary wilderness between the short story and novel. Paul McVeigh, one of our judges, says that the novella should have both the depth of the short story and the breadth of the novel. The novella has been called the sonata to the novel’s symphony. It has been called the first-born child of the fledgling writer and the confident roar of the literary veteran. It has been called the “beautiful daughter, of a rambling, bloated, ill-shaven giant”.

These metaphors tell us more about the form than any definition could: writers love the novella form because it can be whatever they want it to be. It can have a plot as complex and twisting as Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 or as condensed as Kafka’s Metamorphosis. It can be as mimetic as Conrad or as fantastic as Marquez, as verbose as Joyce or as distilled as Beckett. Like metaphor itself, it takes elements from the domain of the novel and elements from the domain of the short story, and constructs something utterly new, a new perspective, a new way to tell a story.

The difficulty in defining a novella is its greatest strength. There is no Greatest Novella Ever Written to hang like a millstone around an author’s neck; there are only the endless possibilities of a largely uncharted area of literature. Forget your definitions: take your stories out from the drawers and wrestle them in all their shapes and forms. Then send them to The Penny Dreadful Novella Prize, where it will be published, not as a short story or as a novel, but that strange and wonderful anomaly of literature – the novella.