How long is long enough? A very short inquiry into the lengths of works of literature

July 30, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
July 30, 2019

Author’s note: This post briefly refers to concepts of a sexual nature; it also includes a hyperlink to a rather dry 25-page law journal article related to this. Consequently, the post may not be appropriate for all readers. MEM

How does one distinguish among the short story, the novelette, the novella and the novel? In contemplating this question, I was tempted to paraphrase Supreme Court Associate Justice Potter Stewart’s famously nebulous 1964 definition of obscenity: “I know it when I see it.


The open-source educational website Owlcation features a helpful short article that categorically divides these narratives by word count. According to Syed Hunbbel Meer, a Pakistani writer who’s contributed more than 100 articles to the site, a short story ranges from 3,500 to 7,500 words; a novelette, from 7,501 to 17,000 words; a novella, from 17,001 to 40,000 words; and a novel is any piece of fiction that exceeds a novella in length.

These classifications largely comport with those used by two of the most prestigious literary awards in science fiction and fantasy, the Nebulas and the Hugos. (The key difference is that Owlcation cites a minimum length for short stories, while the prizes have no lower bound.)

In the past, I’ve generally referred to narratives that strike me as being longer than short stories but shorter than novels as novellas; the lone exception was a reference to a work by China Miéville.


I… don’t know if my references have been accurate. In the case of my review of Connie Willis’s Terra Incognita, the collected narratives are labeled novellas on the cover. Otherwise — and perhaps in that case, too — my classifications have been shots in the dark, based on nothing more than subjective sense. Unlike Justice Stewart, who claimed to know it when he saw it, I have hard-and-fast guidelines but no practical way to apply them.

That’s because word counts are almost impossible to obtain without digital aid. The easiest approach would probably be to count the words on a seemingly representative page and then multiply by the number of pages. An even simpler, though perhaps less accurate, would be to count the number of words in a seemingly representative line of text on a seemingly representative page, count the number of lines on that page, and then do those calculations.

Suffice to say that I haven’t done the work on any of these books.

I’ve been on a big reading kick since December of last year, when I checked out Edgar Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and John Sandford and Ctein’s Saturn Run from the Durham County Library using a digital service known as Libby. The app and its associated web-based service have many virtues, but — perhaps understandably, given copyright concerns — they do not allow users to cut and paste text into an independent document. So even though most of my reading these days is done via an electronic service, it doesn’t offer word counts, and there’s no way to obtain them without doing the labor described two paragraphs previously.

I close where I began: How does one distinguish among the short story, the novelette, the novella and the novel? Reader, I know them when I see them… kind of, sort of, maybe.

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