Books / World's shortest novel

What is the shortest novel ever written?

If you set out to find the world’s shortest novel, as I recently did, you’ll run into a crazy pile of misinformation, unsourced Quora and Yahoo Answers pages, ethnic slurs disguised as jokes, and general confusion about the difference between a novel, a novella, and a short story.

I wanted to identify the shortest novel ever written in order to solve a mystery that’s been plaguing me about my latest book, The Drowned Town. Just what is it? Is The Drowned Town one of the shortest novels of all time? A very long short story? Or that elusive hybrid of the two, the ill-defined thing known as the novella?

Drowned Town_Katherine LuckIn order to figure it out, I googled “shortest novels ever written.” The top candidates that were served up included:

  1. “Baby Shoes” by Hemingway
  2. The Dinosaur by Augusto Monterroso
  3. An imaginary novel written by a fictional dog
  4. Many, many, many listicles

Let’s consider them in order.

1. “Baby Shoes” by Hemingway

This is 20th-century American author Ernest Hemingway’s famous six-word story. You’ve probably heard of it. On a bet, at some point in his career, Hemingway is said to have written the words:

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

No one is really sure he actually wrote it, however. As Snopes reported, “Two curious elements of the ‘baby shoes’ tale are that no one seems to have been able to locate an original source or publication that establishes Hemingway’s authorship of the story, and that the tale itself (i.e., the claim that Hemingway wrote such a story) apparently doesn’t go back much further than the 1990s.”

Regardless, a bunch of notable 21st-century writers gave the six-word story form a shot back in 2006, lending it literary credibility. You can read them (very quickly) here.

Even if they’re more, artistically speaking, than just terse sentences, these six-word tales, including “Baby Shoes,” are short stories. Only the machinations of the Google search algorithm caused them to be classified as novels; even the websites they’re listed on refer to them short stories.

Strike one!

2. The Dinosaur by Augusto Monterroso

This is a strange little text, similar to the Hemingway piece. In the original Spanish, the entire tale is as follows:

El Dinosaurio

Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba allí.

Google The Dinosaur and you’ll be informed that no less an authority than novelist and literary critic Umberto Eco crowned it the world’s shortest novel.

I had a very, very hard time tracking down the source of this rumor. The original claimant seems to be this blog, in which Eco’s declaration regarding The Dinosaur is cited without any back-up in a forum post from more than a decade ago.

Other than the innumerable cut-and-paste Quora and Yahoo Answers posts that this questionable assertion spawned, the only place I found a reference to a text that might contain a quote from Eco about The Dinosaur was on another blog, in which the author was reviewing the book Letters to a Young Novelist by Mario Vargas Llosa.

Puzzlingly, about Llosa’s book, she writes, “Umberto Eco talks about the craft of writing novels in this short book. Written in the form of letters to an un-named disciple, he explains the nuances of writing the novel. … What impressed me most was the take on the famous one line story called ‘The Dinosaur’ by Guatemalan writer Augusto Monterroso.”

I think this blogger conflated Letters to a Young Novelist by Mario Vargas Llosa with Umberto Eco’s book, Confessions of a Young Novelist, which only includes a brief mention of the word “dinosaur” as it relates to the dictionary definition of the term, not as a story by Monterroso.

In any event, in Letters to a Young Novelist, author Llosa does indeed discuss Augusto Monterroso’s The Dinosaur. Llosa refers to it as “not a novel but a story, perhaps the shortest (and one of the best) in the world.”

And in 2003, upon the death of Monterroso, Edgar O’Hara, Professor of Spanish and Portuguese Studies at the University of Seattle, told NPR that it’s short story — a “really, really short story.”

Incidentally, if you’d like to read a translation of The Dinosaur, you’re in for a bit of a mind-bending trick played by the Spanish language. There’s some debate whether the story, in English, would be:

When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.

Or:

When it awoke, the dinosaur was still there.

Was it a man who woke up, or the dinosaur itself? Puts a whole different spin on this tiny story! In any case …

Strike two!

3. A fictional dog’s imaginary book

In 2010, Ronald B. Richardson posed the following provocative question: “Is a novel defined by its length or by a certain approach? Can we consider a story that is not long a novel if it is epic in scope, representing a range of experiences and emotions? If so, isn’t Snoopy’s It Was a Dark and Stormy Night a novel?”

The book in question, a fictional trope of the “Peanuts” comic strip by Charles M. Schulz, was a long-running joke (imagine, a dog writing a novel!) that was eventually published as a genuine book by Schulz (with Snoopy the dog credited as the author) in 1971.

At just 65 pages and filled with elements of metafiction (my favorite fiction of all), it’s not a bad candidate for shortest novel ever written … much to my surprise.

I guess … ball?

4. Listicles of the shortest novels of all time

These tempting literary menus look promising at first glance, but they tend not to pan out. Why? Because the novels listed by Buzzfeed and HuffPost and Electric Literature and Literary Hub invariably are either well over 100 pages long, or are generally accepted to be short stories.

They’ve got a few solid hits mixed in, like Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but on the whole they don’t answer the question they claim to be tackling; namely, what is the shortest novel of all time?

Strike 3!

In the interest of classifying The Drowned Town correctly and helping all of us find out, once and for all, the difference between a short story, a novella, and a novel, I’ve put together my own list of extremely short books that claim to be novels. I’m going to read ‘em and report back to you. Here are the top ten contenders for shortest novel of all time:

  1. The Comedian by Joseph O’Connor
  2. Scars on the Soul by Françoise Sagan
  3. Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion by V.S. Naipaul
  4. The Circling Song by Nawal El Saadawi
  5. A Theft by Saul Bellow
  6. I Lock my Door Upon Myself by Joyce Carol Oates
  7. The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick
  8. Wenjack by Joseph Boyden
  9. A Small Place by Jamaica Kinkaid
  10. Snoopy and “It was a Dark and Stormy Night” by Charles M. Schulz

The world's shortest novel

These ten contestants are by authors both famous and obscure from a wide range of literary traditions that span the globe. Egypt, Canada, Antigua, France, Trinidad, Ireland, the U.S.A. — we’re searching everywhere in our quest to find the world’s shortest novel.

First up: Wenjack by Joseph Boyden. Is length the best way to separate novels from short stories? Find out here.

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