Standard novel lengths vary depending on whether the story is sci-fi, fantasy, horror, mystery, YA, or romance. Why is this the case? And who gets to decide how short is too short for a novel?
When I started reading Koula, a 1978 book by Greek author Menis Koumandareas, I was sure I finally had an extremely short “genre fiction” novel on my hands. This pleased me greatly, since every book I’ve considered so far for the title of world’s shortest novel has been an example of what’s known as literary fiction.
Genre fiction is a subset of the extremely broad “popular” or “commercial” fiction category — highbrow literary fiction’s reader-friendly twin.
“Commercial fiction is fiction that’s high-concept, meaning easy to explain. It’s the kind of fiction that makes summer reading lists. Commercial fiction includes chick lit, a lot of women’s fiction, and most books that hit the bestseller list,” explains author and publisher Brooke Warner. “Genre fiction includes but is not limited to science fiction, fantasy, romance, urban fiction, crime, thriller, horror, and erotica. The reason this is a [category] on its own, separate from fiction, is again because the rules for genre fiction are different from commercial and literary fiction.”
So, what is “genre” exactly?
The word itself refers to an artistic — or in this case, literary — category or style that has a particular set of characteristics, themes or content in common. Genre fiction, also known as popular or category fiction, denotes narratives that fit into one of these genres.
If Koula is genre fiction, it falls squarely in the romance genre. That being the case, we’re going to consider the romance genre as representative of all literary genres.
Before you roll your eyes, rejecting the idea of an investigation of all genres based on the most frivolous of literary categories, consider this: In the U.S., the romance genre has more readers than any other fiction genre.
Let’s repeat that: Romance is the most popular genre of all.
Maybe you thought it was sci-fi or fantasy? Nope. Horror? No way. YA? Not even close. Forget Stephen King, J.K. Rowling and George R.R. Martin; romance author Danielle Steel is the best-selling author alive and the fourth best-selling fiction author of all time.
And the romance genre hasn’t even been around for all that long.
As the authority on all things related to narrative tropes notes, “While romantic subplots have existed in fiction since fairly close to the beginning, romance as a focal point and driving force hadn’t really been explored in depth until the last few centuries. Romance novels as an industry started in the ‘30s with the company of Mills and Boon releasing hardcover romance novels.”
It didn’t take long for romance to rise to the top of the publishing industry. By the 21st century, romance had become the most popular genre in the U.S. According to a recent study commissioned by Romance Writers of America, a nonprofit trade association for writers of romance genre fiction, “In 2016, romance made up 23% of the overall U.S. fiction market, second only to General Fiction,” with “General Fiction” being a broad classification for books that don’t fit into any particular genre, including literary fiction. All of the so-called “Big Five” book publishing companies publish romance novels. And the readership is growing: a study found that half of hardcore fans of romance novels are age 34 and under. They buy romance novels online, listen to them on audiobooks, read them on smartphones, borrow them from libraries, and trade them with friends.
This most ubiquitous of genres skews heavily, heavily female in its readership. This may account for why it’s commonly hand-waved as trivial and its impact on the publishing marketplace dismissed. But the needle is slowly shifting. In 2008, 90.5 percent of romance genre readers were women and less than 10 percent were men, according to a survey by InfoTrends, Inc. Less than a decade later, in 2017, a new survey found that 18 percent of romance readers were male and 82 percent female.
So, if romance is the most pervasive, prevalent genre of all, the dictates of this genre regarding novel length are worth considering as normative for all of genre fiction.
As we saw in a previous post, “How Long Should a Novel Be?” there’s a wide discrepancy between what literary experts (and self-appointed experts) claim are the “correct” upper and lower limits for word count in novels. These word count ranges vary widely from literary to commercial fiction, and even more widely from one genre to the next — from a paltry 40,000 to a whopping 125,000 words.
But since we’re only looking at word counts for novels in the romance genre, we’ll limit ourselves to just four authorities:
Romance Writers of America accepts manuscripts for their RITA Award that are no less than 40,000 words long, with no upper limit.
Major romance novel publisher Harlequin, a division of Big Five publisher HarperCollins, accepts manuscripts with word counts of 50,000 to 75,000.
Author services company and self-publishing promoter Reedsy proposes that romance novels should fall squarely between 80,000 and 100,000 words.
The Self-Appointed Expert
And then there’s reading glasses manufacturer Foster Grant, with the only honest statement you’ll find online about romance novel length: “Figures differ depending on which publisher you ask, so the following figures are merely approximations derived from various sources.” They put the range at 40,000 to 100,000 words.
Beyond these figures, you’ll find a whole host of unsourced, unauthoritative, “sounds right to me” numbers on various authors’ blogs and dubious literary agent/“writing coach” websites scattered throughout the internet. In short, there is no definitive length available.
The truth is, when it comes to genre fiction, novel length is not an artistic choice. It’s a marketing and sales decision. “Correct” novel length is determined by what sells the best. These word count ranges could radically shift up or down in a matter of months if the reading public suddenly decides it prefers shorter or longer books.
Even so, we’ll take 40,000 words as the current lower limit for conventional novels in the romance genre. Given an estimated word count of just 16,000, Koula could very well be the shortest romance novel ever written.
But is it really a romance novel?
In order to answer that, we need to figure out exactly what a romance novel is.
Initially an exclusively heterosexual, gender normative, occasionally racist and often rapey genre, the romance genre has proven to be very flexible, regularly evolving in terms of content, characters and themes to suit the times. Today there are feminist, LGBTQ and multicultural romance novels. There are romance novels about time travelers, paranormal entities, law enforcement, spies, outer space explorers, royalty, the Amish, blue-collar workers, Christian couples, and mythical beasts. There are even interspecies romance stories (Blitzen’s Fated Mate, a regular-woman-and-reindeer love story. Merry Christmas?)
Though the offerings are highly diverse nowadays, there must be a few common traits that all books in the genre share. But finding sources that agree on these traits is as rare as encountering authorities who agree about novel word count.
Publisher Harlequin has reduced romance-writing to a science, posting explicit guidelines on tone, voice, narrative stakes, acceptable settings, economic status of the main characters, level of sexual content, and plot points like “blackmail, secret babies and long-hidden skeletons in the closet” on their rather snidely titled website, So You Think You Can Write.
Some want realism with their romance. Others say a romance novel must offer its readers pure escapism — a fantasy world in which, as Avon Books Publisher Walter Meade once told the New York Times, “The phone never rings, the baby never cries and the rent’s never overdue.”
But Romance Writers of America boils it all down to a much simpler formula: “Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.”
With that in mind, a quick overview of the plot of Koula.
Riding home from work every night on the subway in 20th-century Greece, a middle-aged wife and mother named Koula always seems to find herself seated near a young man.
A very young man.
A very young, very good-looking man.
“In the beginning they did not exchange a single word; not even a conventional phrase like ‘excuse me’ as he rose to get off at the New Ionia stop. All they did was glance furtively at each other: the woman’s legs; the young man’s face; her eyes; his mouth.”
You see where this is going, right?
Before long, Koula and the young stud, Dimitri, have embarked upon a torrid affair. Koula is unhappy in her marriage; Dimitri prefers older women. What could go wrong?
Is Koula a romance novel? There’s a central love story. Or maybe not.
As the plot progresses, the love story turns out to be nothing more than a cheap, unfulfilling bit of adultery. The ending, too, is most definitely pessimistic. After breaking it off with Dimitri, Koula rides the subway home from work, as at the beginning of the story. But this time, she’s all alone.
“The ride home seemed interminable; a long, arduous odyssey. Would this be what it would be like every evening from now on?”
It’s a major downer that Koula winds up resigned to suffer for the rest of her life in a bleak, loveless marriage because the romantic alternative — a physically satisfying but emotionally frustrating relationship with an immature (but damned sexy) whippersnapper — was the more miserable option. Definitely not what the cool kids in the romance-writing community call an HEA (happily ever after) ending.
“Critics will say that romance is too formulaic,” writes Sarah Nicolas at Bookriot. “Sorry, but no. What are the requirements of this genre? A romantic relationship between two (or more) people that ends hopefully, if not blindingly happily. That’s all there is to it. … No one asks for mysteries to not have a crime, or historicals to take place in the future, or fantasies to ditch all magical/mystical elements, or horrors to be bright and happy. Why is it okay to ask romance to remove the one thing expected of the genre, an HEA?”
Well. Then I guess that settles it.
Koula is not a romance novel.
But the absence of the romance genre’s key trope ultimately doesn’t matter, because the narrative itself isn’t complex enough to be a romance novel — or any novel, genre notwithstanding.
Final judgement: Koula is a great short story, but it’s not the shortest novel ever written. And it’s not genre fiction.
But maybe the rules are different when the novel isn’t genre fiction. Maybe literary fiction is where we’ll finally discover the shortest novel ever written. We’ll explore this idea in the next contender for world’s shortest novel, I Lock My Door Upon Myself by Joyce Carol Oates.
Don’t forget 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?