The Greatest Novellas, Or The Best Two Hours of Your Weekend


Last week we were glad to hear that the novella is making a comeback. It’s also nice to know that people other than Ian McEwan are still writing them (On Chesil Beach is a heartbreaking and beautiful example of what he himself continues to do). But while Daily Beast fiction critic Taylor Antrim focused his lens on more recent examples of the form, we’ve decided to take a look at some classics. This is a short list about short books, so don’t get upset if your favorite isn’t here. Just add a mention in the comments.

Bartleby, the Scrivener by Herman Melville

One of the most vexing novellas ever written, Bartleby swirls with the odd tension of inaction. It’s like an epic staring contest between the young, eponymous protagonist and the gloominess he sees in life ahead. Find a well lit booth at a quiet bar for this reading… and bring money for several drinks.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

Facing the questions of the future long before it was fashionable, Philip K. Dick circled around “What does it mean to be human?” in this 1968 sci-fi thriller. It’s also the basis for that weird cousin’s favorite movie — “The best. Ever.” Blade Runner.

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Sparse and white, with bubbling emotion beneath a calm exterior — Ethan Frome illustrates the passion that is so frequently hidden in America’s pastoral history. Ethan is ready to ditch his wife Zeena for her cousin Mattie. Nothing like a romantic sleigh ride through the snow right?

The Dying Animal by Philip Roth

Roth seals his fate among the Great Male Narcissists (+Mailer, +Updike) with The Dying Animal. When you join Roth in the psyche of Professor David Kepesh though, all is forgiven. This is truly a haunting tale of what it’s like to be a man growing old.

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain

Winner by a hair in front of Double Indemnity, Postman is the smash-and-grab job that all contemporary crime fiction aspires to. Despite its quick pace, anachronistic sexual energy, and frank brutality, the mark of this novella is the calculating cruelness of main character Frank Chambers.

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

This is the prime example of the flexibility that novellas offer. It’s a twist on the “Last Man on Earth” story, a vampire/zombie story, and, like Philip K. Dick, asks the reader what it means to belong. The movie of same name brushes up against this question but never hopes to answer it (going so far as to change the ending). In this case, the book version has more to offer. And Charlton Heston’s The Omega Man, while good, deviates from this 160 page original.

Animal Farm by George Orwell

Some novellas are more equal than others, and nothing goes down smoother than this satire. You thought you knew what Orwell was talking about when you read this in high school, but you only got half the jokes and a quarter of the politics. It’s okay though; Flavorpill forgives you. We know you were still working through your Communisty phase (before you realized that there are no jokes under Communism). Please reread this classic — “Orwellian” didn’t enter the vernacular because he was a bad writer.

The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells

Written before the turn of the century, no one in 1898 quite knew how to categorize it — settling on “Scientific Romance” — or what Wells was trying to say. Back when writing was never “about” what it was about, this was a breakthrough in telling a great story. The prescience of this novella is its most alluring aspect. “Predicted” is too strong a word, but many of the fantastic elements in The War of the Worlds ended up being true or inspired a generation that would make them true.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Steinbeck’s is the novella to which all others kowtow. It’s emotionally stirring, it’s funny, and it captures a time in the Depression that we’re close to forgetting. Because of both the violence and the frank depiction of hillbilly language, Of Mice and Men met all kinds of resistance upon publication. (The American Library Association ranks it Number 4, behind some books we’ve never really heard of.) If you haven’t read this, do it today, and at least have the decency to cry at the end.