What’s the shortest novel ever written? What makes a work of fiction a novel and not a short story? And how do novellas fit in?
We’re examining ten extremely short novels from around the globe to find the world’s shortest novel and, while we’re at it, figure out what really makes a story a novel.
Today, we’re looking at length. Is it the best way to separate novels from short stories?
When you try to pinpoint the exact difference between a novel and a short story, one of things all the literary wonks cite is length. A novel is longer than a short story, period. And by longer, we mean a novel has more words.
The problem is, nobody seems to agree how many words a novel should have.
Ask around and you’ll hear, “Novels range from 55,000 to 300,000 words.”
And “anything above 70k but less than 115k.”
And “a novel is usually defined as anything over 40,000 words.”
And “anything more than 50,000 words is probably a full novel.”
It’s even harder to determine how many words a narrative should have if it’s to be called a “short story.”
Some say, “a short story is 1,500 to 30,000 words.”
Or maybe, “anywhere from 1,000 to 4,000 for short stories, however some have 20,000 words.”
But don’t forget about novellas! “Novellas generally run 20,000-50,000 words.” Maybe?
With this uncertainty in mind, let’s consider Wenjack by Joseph Boyden.
Set in Northern Ontario, Canada, during the mid-twentieth century, Wenjack is a short work of fiction structured in the manner of a traditional novel, with a plot that offers a classic presentation of the stages of a hero’s journey. The call to adventure, departure, ordeals, and even a literal journey are all there.
The title comes from the surname of the protagonist, a young Ojibwe boy named Chanie but called “Charlie” by the white folks who forcibly removed him from his family home and imprisoned him in a residential school for the “education” (assimilation) of Native and First Nations children.
In structure, Wenjack indeed seems to be a novel. It’s broken up into chapters, it has a protagonist and antagonist, a linear structure, a clear conflict and a definitive resolution. And the book calls itself a novel — it’s right there on the copyright page:
While incidents in the novel are based on real people, events and locations, they have been recreated fictitiously.
At first glance, even though it looks like a novel, it doesn’t seem like a good candidate for the shortest novel ever written. It’s 97 pages long (not counting the author’s note at the end), making it longer than any number of short novels including Ethan Frome, Animal Farm, and A Christmas Carol.
However, these 97 pages are tiny, printed in a large font with huge margins. The book is just four-and-a-half inches by six-and-a-quarter inches. It’s not much bigger than a U.S. passport.
Is Wenjack actually shorter than it seems?
The true length of a book depends on its word count per page. And word count per page, in turn, varies based on the “trim size” (the physical dimensions of the book), font, and layout the publisher chooses. So it’s hard to pin down a universal page-count-per-word-count for novels as a group.
However, using a formula for calculating word count in print books from The Pen & The Pad on a randomly chosen paperback novel from my book hoard (a well-thumbed copy of The Silence of the Lambs, in case you’re wondering), we get an estimated count of 360 words per page. We can round this down to 350 words per page to accommodate book design elements like partial lines of text and half-pages at the end of chapters.
Using the same formula, I estimated that Wenjack clocks in at an average of 140 words per page, giving the entire text a word count of approximately 10,220. That means, if printed as a conventional paperback, Wenjack would be just 28 pages long. On page 28 of The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling had just returned from her first visit with Hannibal Lecter. The novel had barely gotten started.
So, is Wenjack the shortest novel in the world?
In the final analysis, Wenjack is a short story. Here’s why.
It’s not the extremely low word count (we’re looking for the world’s shortest novel, after all). It’s the filler.
Wenjack felt like a 5,000-word short story, written from the first-person point of view of Chanie, that was padded out with an additional 5,000 words in alternating chapters that either previewed or reviewed Chanie’s chapters. These extra chapters were narrated in the unusual first-person plural (“we” instead of “I”) from the point of view of what seemed to be various species of Canadian wildlife (we learn very, very late in the story that they are actually manitou spirits).
As is typical of short stories, the narrative centers on a single plotline: Chanie’s journey. The hockey-game-style commentary by the manitous did not add to this plotline, however. It merely repeated it.
For example, on page 22 the manitou spirits inform us:
They shake in half sleep despite holding on to a friend or a brother. When they awake, though, they will feel the shame of having touched one another, if even just for warmth.”
And then two pages later, via Chanie’s narration, we learn that, yep, that’s what happens, alright:
My arms are wrapped around his brother with his back to me and we are curled like dogs. I watch as the older brother shakes his head in a big no.”
Chanie’s story was based on real events that Boyden read about in a magazine article written in 1967. As Boyden told The Globe and Mail just after the book was published in 2016, “Chanie’s voice came to me very quickly. And I was like, ‘he doesn’t know the bigger picture, how am I going to paint the bigger picture? This book has to open up in ways.’ That’s when the voices of the manitous started emerging. At first it was just a crow and then that crow transformed into an owl. These different voices of the different spirits following him and watching him on his journey allowed me as the writer to explain the bigger picture going on.”
This impulse — “How am I going to paint the bigger picture?”— was valid. Painting the bigger picture would have transformed the tale of Chanie’s ill-fated walk home from short story to novel. The author’s note explaining the context of the real-life incident that inspired Boyden added the outlines of the “bigger picture” he was seeking. However, the constant play-by-play from what I inelegantly called “some magic animals” in an email to a friend (in my defense, this was before their status as supernatural guardian spirits was made clear) merely painted the same picture, itself a poorer copy of the original.
And on the subject of pictures, though the animal (manitou) illustrations by Cree artist Kent Monkman that are included in the book are superb, they only added to the page count and weren’t relevant to Chanie’s story. An image of the map that Chanie uses in his attempt to find his way home would have been an appropriate addition to the text; I’m still confused about just how far north the poor kid was wandering alone in the snow, and how far he still had to go when the story ended.
Be sure to check out my extremely short novel, The Drowned Town. Right now, it’s free to download and read. What do you think? Is it really a novella, a short story, or something else?
Next up: It Was a Dark and Stormy Night, Snoopy by Charles M. Schulz.