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Fiction Classification: Literary or Genre? Short Story, Novella, or Novel?

by Marie Valentine, Book Editor and Proofreader

Fiction is a narrative told in prose form about events not true to life. Many books include disclaimers that the work is made up solely by the author's imagination, and any similarities the tale bears to real events are coincidences. Forms of fiction range in style, length, and depth; all these factors influence how editors and readers characterize the final piece.

Genre or Literary?

Popular fiction comes in many genres. Historical fiction, romance, and science fiction are a few examples of subtypes of fiction. Literary fiction does not encompass these terms, but stretches to included genres in certain cases, such as the classic Sherlock Holmes story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of Baskervilles, literature that many would consider part of the detective or crime genres. The line between literary and genre can blur, and often it's a matter of who you ask. Some other genres include action-adventure, fantasy, horror, mystery, Western and inspirational.

Some readers say literary fiction defies most genre classifications. Other readers say they just know it when they see it: a mark of quality that distinguishes popular fiction from literary fiction. The one thing all literary fiction has in common is good writing that exhibits a mastery of craft. Literary writers use devices, such as tone, foreshadowing, metaphor, and poetics of language, to tell their stories in an artful way.

Generally, literary fiction’s based on a canon of English language works considered notable for their mastery of craft. The authors included in this canon could be debated ad infinitum, but if I say Shakespeare, that might give you an idea of where a canonical discussion might begin. Literary fiction today allows for infusion from diverse cultures and literary traditions and styles. Most fiction we read is mimetic -- it represents some human experience told for the story’s inherent interest. Other works are didactic -- stories with a point or moral, intended to change the world view of a writer."

Classifying fiction becomes important when selling or attempting to sell a work. How will it be consumed? Once your genre is identified, where to publish it becomes issue. Will the work stand on its own as a book, or be a part of a collection of works? If we think of fiction in a commodity sense, like clothing or beverages, we can classify tales by size -- small, medium, and large: short stories, novellas, and novels.

What is a short story?

A small serving of literature is easily recognized in the short story, which deals with an episode of brief related scenes and a single character.

A short story has no minimum word count. There are short stories told in paragraph "flash fiction" forms, some even as short as the 140-character limit of a single Tweet.

The maximum length of a short story varies from publisher to publisher. Some might consider the max to be 7,500 words and anything beyond being in the novelette or novella category, while others will allow their short stories to wax longer, up to 15,000 words.

A short story's classification often depends on place of publication. Writers often publish short stories in magazines in their entirety. Some authors write short stories and create compilations or collections of their stories.

Between a short story and novella is the longer short story, the novelette, ranges from 7,500 - 20,000 words, while a novella is longer. It's often seen as too long for most publishers to insert into a magazine yet too short for a book of it's own. This is a challenging length but lends itself to small chapbook publications. Novelettes can be compiled into collections, like short stories.

What is a novella?

Novellas are in the medium range of works of fiction that, although brief, often include as much variety and scope as full-length novels. Length can be anywhere from 17,500 to 60,000 words, but as David H. Richter notes in Forms of the Novella, numerical boundaries are arbitrary and "like middle age, the middle size in fiction is more a matter of character than of numbers." In today's market, a novella is a great length for electronic publishing, because a Web audience doesn't always have time or patience to read a longer novel onscreen.

Novellas may include a range of forms, including drama, tragedy, satire, fable, and more within the order of fiction. As mentioned, stories can be mimetic, told for their own sake, or didactic, showing a moral. Didactic stories are often more effective when they are kept short -- think of Jesus' sermons or Aesop's fables -- thus the short story or novella are popular forms for telling such tales.

Character development in a novella is allowed to be simplified or less complex than those characterizations of a full-length novel. Other times, a novella may focus simply on character development and less on plot or moral event.

What is a novel?

The largest item on the fiction menu is easily recognizable by most. Novels are book-length fictional prose narratives, usually having a plot that unfolds by actions, dialogue and thoughts of varied characters. Most publishers consider novel length to be a minimum of 40,000 words, but again, it's relative to taste. Some might consider a book like Kate Chopin's The Awakening to be a novella in length but a novel by other standards, such as due to the involved plot, which shows a major change in the consciousness of the protagonist.

Classification should not matter to an author until he or she comes to sell the book. My advice to authors is to try not to worry about it too much while doing the actual writing. The publishers, marketers, booksellers, and libraries will work on classifying it for you. You need only concentrate on your craft to make it the best it can be, no matter the final word count.