Not all great novels are big. Some of the world’s best works of fiction are less than two hundred pages.
Novels are often associated with thoughts of bulk. We think “novel” and ideas come to mind like “long,” “involved” and “thick.”
Some of the world’s most renowned works of fiction do indeed fit this description. War and Peace, Ulysses, Moby Dickand The Brothers Karamazov each clock in at over five hundred pages and they are widely hailed as the “greatest novels ever written”.
The overwhelming respect for these big masterpieces has skewed our collective sense of the novel a bit. There is a popular tendency to deem an author’s longest work as his best work. This dubious habit has led to a confusion of ambition in many writers and to some regrettable reading lists.
As true as this longer-is-better notion may be for some writers, it is not true for all of them. On the one hand, Ernest Hemingway’s best book did turn out to be his longest. For Whom the Bell Tolls is his best novel. However, Hemingway was also a master of the short-form novel. The Sun Also Rises and Garden of Eden are both exceptional novels.
The longer-is-better theory falls apart when we look at other writers, such as John Steinbeck. The Nobel Prize winning writer did his best work in novels that were less than 150 pages. Of Mice and Men is clearly the greatest achievement in Steinbeck’s prolific literary career and it totals a crisp 112 pages.
The argument here is simply that there are some great long novels and some great short novels.
How do we define a short novel (versus a novel of average length)? Well, let us say that an average novel length is around three hundred pages. To qualify as a short novel let’s say that a book has to be less than two hundred pages.
Here is a brief list of short novels followed by a bit of information on each book: The Old Man and the Sea; Heart of Darkness; Waiting for the Barbarians; As I Lay Dying; The Great Gatsby; Miss Lonely Hearts; Day of the Locust.
This list of great small novels should help us to disabuse ourselves of the erroneous tendency to believe that longer-is-better when it comes to fiction. It is also likely that you have already read many of the books on this list of short novels without realizing that they are so brief, perhaps because the artistic achievement they represent is anything but “small”.
The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway’s Pulitzer Prize winning short novel published in 1952, is only 127 pages. In its brevity The Old Man and the Sea presents a metaphysical tale of man’s relationship to destiny, reputation, and death in the guise of a campfire story.
In 1899 Joseph Conrad published Heart of Darkness, an 80-page enduring classic short novel that has generated respect, disrespect, controversy, and numberless conversations on topics ranging from the imperialistic tendencies of industry, racial and ethnic representation (or misrepresentation) of native peoples in fiction, and man’s urge to conquer death. Conrad’s brief novel is a dense body of ideas that proves that short fiction is not necessarily breezy and that “big books” are defined by their impact and the size of their ideas, not necessarily their page count.
South African writer and Nobel Prize winner,J. M. Coetzee has written a many novels. His 1980 short novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, has been hailed as one of his master works. It is 156 pages of penetrating analysis of corruption in small government and the difficulty of self-concept in the face of radical change.
Among William Faulkner’s masterworks is his short novel, As I Lay Dying, which explores the use of a stream-of-consciousness narration as well as his perennial themes of the interdependency of personal and local history, the mingling of personal and communal destiny, fatalism and religion, and the interplay between family and geographical culture. Published in 1930, this short novel marked the beginning of Faulkner’s most productive and successful period of writing. (This particular novel is often printed at more than 200 pages, but this page count is due to the typesetting and not the short novel’s word-count.)
The Great Gatsby is one of America’s greatest novels. F. Scott Fitzgerald published this 180-page short novel in 1925. As with each short novel on this list, The Great Gatsby manages to engage a number of themes and subjects with an economy of style and word count.
Miss Lonelyheartsand TheDay of the Locustare both short novels by Nathanael West, a California writer who published mainly in the 1930’s. At 88 and 165 pages, both of these novels are short and both of them render a vision of a Los Angeles that is half tawdry dream and half disappointing reality, yet there is an undercurrent of courage and good humor in each.