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 audience. Before deciding if a book is a novel, should we make allowances for the literacy level of the reader?
Does each word count for more when each word is harder for the reader to read? Are children’s chapter books and YA fiction books real novels?
According to the National Adult Literacy Agency in Ireland, one in six Irish adults has difficulty understanding basic written text, falling at or below the lowest level on a five-level literacy scale. An estimated 50,000 adults attend literacy programs around the country. For those who are unable, unwilling or too embarrassed to enroll in classes, a new way to bring skill-building reading material to those who need it was proposed in the 1990s by Irish author and former librarian Patricia Scanlan.
Working with independent Irish publisher New Island, Scanlan developed the Open Door series to encourage reading and improve literacy skills in adults. The books in the series are written by popular Irish authors, are around just 10,000 words each, and use short sentences and simple words. The books aren’t your typical learn-to-read texts, however: they all include well-developed characters, clear storylines and genuine narratives. In short, they’re good books, no matter your reading level.
Why are we talking about Irish literacy rates? Because The Comedian by Joseph O’Connor, an extremely short book and the latest candidate for the shortest novel ever written, is part of this series.
As Open Door intended, The Comedian is a short, engaging, highly readable book. O’Connor’s style is reminiscent of Hemingway’s: grammatically simple but intellectually sophisticated. In fact, it wasn’t until after reading it, when I went looking for the copyright page, that I learned the book wasn’t a “regular” novel.
Set in Glasthule, a suburb of Dublin, The Comedian is a coming of age story disguised as an end-of-a-relationship drama … possibly further disguised as a friendship tale.
In 1975, the protagonist’s father, a blue-collar delivery driver, fancies himself a comedian. But his life with the narrator’s mother is anything but funny. Allusions to the prohibition on divorce in Ireland (not lifted until 1995), sexual abuse by priests, and mental illness are planted just beneath the surface of the plot with extreme subtlety throughout the narrative. It’s a complicated little story packed into less than 100 pages. Even so, because of its juvenile protagonist and child’s-eye view of knotty adult issues, it’s reminiscent of a book from the Young Adult, or YA, genre. And the question of whether YA fiction and children’s chapter books are real novels is a thorny one.
In recent years, YA books have become increasingly popular with not-so-young adult readers, particularly in the U.S. The reason may tie into the issue that motivated the creation of the Open Door series. According to findings from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, literacy rates in the U.S. aren’t much better than those in Ireland, with one in seven adults having literacy skills ranked as “low.”
Should the target audience of a book matter? Is a novel “longer” if it takes longer to read? And does a simple short story become a complex novel if it seems complex to the intended reader?
The Comedian is 86 pages long, but as we’ve seen in previous short books, the font is enormous and the margins are beyond generous. It’s got an estimated word count of about 12,900, which would be about 37 pages in a standard paperback.
For contrast, let’s take a quick look at the shortest (and oldest) YA book I’ve got on my shelves: The New Jessica, a Sweet Valley High book by Francine Pascal.
It’s 136 pages long but would be just 80 pages if printed as a standard paperback. This is a book that has chapters, multiple characters, a main plot, a subplot, a unifying theme and a clear resolution. It’s as complex, overall, as adult genre books by the likes of Ian Fleming or Raymond Chandler.
Is this 1980s YA “chapter book” a novel? I’d say yes, and the same goes for The Comedian. Here’s why.
Both books demonstrate an unchildlike sophistication in their plot and characters. Though the language in both books is simple, the concepts conveyed are not. In the case of The New Jessica, the overall theme of the story is personal identity — is it inherent and unconscious, or can it be constructed consciously? And The Comedian is an even more multifaceted piece of literature.
As we’ve seen in a previous post, the accepted definition of the literary form known as the novel is: “an invented prose narrative that is usually long and complex and deals with human experience through a connected sequence of events.”
Though it’s not long, O’Connor’s book covers a span of years, with glimpses of the protagonist’s 1970s childhood through adulthood, the backstory of his parents’ first meeting, and his father’s frustrated ambition to be a performer. It includes a subplot about the father’s relationship with a reclusive, fearsomely religious old woman. It even touches on numerous Irish trends of the 1970s, including the popularity of the Bay City Rollers, the ubiquity of the TV show “Starsky and Hutch,” and the ever-looming menace of IRA bombings during the “Troubles.” And it’s divided into chapters.
The turning point when The Comedian became, without question, a novel, comes when the protagonist observes on page 75:
“That was the night my childhood ended.”
This is the moment the book demonstrates that it has greater scope than a short story. It’s not the tale of a single incident, it’s the culmination of a series of incidents, some connected and others not, that together lead to a turning point for the protagonist that effects a permanent change in his life.
Conclusion: The Comedian is a novel and, at less than 13,000 words, is currently our top contender for shortest novel ever written.
But there’s a hitch! This is how the Open Door series describes itself:
A series of novellas by bestselling Irish authors, curated by Patricia Scanlan for emerging adult readers.
This book is a novella, not a novel.
What’s the difference between a novel and a novella? Is it simply word count? Or something more? The next book in our search for the world’s shortest novel may give us the answer.
Be sure to check out my extremely short novel (or extremely long short story?) 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: Master of Miniatures by Jim Shepard.