…I hold that it is this element of depth that is the defining element of the modern novella, not length.
There are those who would argue differently, of course. Charles May says:
Although the term “novella” is used to refer to both short pieces of fourteenth century fiction best exemplified by The Decameron and the highly developed nineteenth century German form, it is more often used in the twentieth century to refer to a number of works of mid-length, somewhat longer than the short story and somewhat shorter than the novel (3874).
For May, apparently, it all comes down to length, with the additional inference that the contemporary novella (May was writing in 1983) is somewhat different in form than the German novellas of the 19th century.
In “Why Not a Novella?,” his 1998 introduction to The Granta Book of the American Long Story, Richard Ford asserts that the novella is so indistinct as to not exist at all as a separate genre, and that what is commonly referred to as a novella is really nothing more than a long short story. Henry James, Scott Fitzgerald, Nathaniel West, and Edith Wharton, Ford says, all
…wrote what they or their reviewers called novellas, but in their stories these writers made no special effort to employ the traditional [19th century Germanic] structure and intellectual hardware (cyclical ordering, the framing device, turning point, the specific use of symbols) (xxii).
This might just mean nothing more than that these “traditional elements” are not necessary to the genre—or that these American writers were not writing 19th century German novellas. Whatever. Ford argues that length alone is an indistinct standard for defining a literary genre: “Length certainly doesn’t constitute a shaping purpose” (xxix).
Ford is essentially correct here, though his reasoning is inverted. Length, however nebulous, is only the most obvious way of looking at any genre of fiction, and emerges as a result of the shaping purpose—the “shaping purpose” being the writer’s intention to fill the available compositional space with narrative. A blank page or computer screen presents the writer with a practically infinite space, and the process of writing is the process of imaginatively occupying the available space. The decisions a writer makes during the composition of her or his narrative forces the narrative into different forms, resulting in a short story or a novel—or a novella. Length, then, is merely the most external attribute of genre; the internal elements used to fill the space are determinative. And so while the short story concentrates on the psychology of the individual within a constrained compositional space, and the novel concentrates largely on the relationship between society and an individual (or individuals) in a practically unlimited compositional space, the novella demonstrates the psychology of the individual though action, in depth, in a loosely expanded compositional space. As Howard Nemerov says, the definition of the novella is “not a question of length, but much rather a question of depth…” (60).
It is my feeling that the current resurgence in the novella’s popularity is tied to its ability to use narrative depth to respond to and depict societal change. To restate Siegfried Weing’s quote of critic Heinrich Laube: the novella “deals with the process of becoming…” (38). In its narrative depth, the novella offers writers a way in which to depict change—”the process of becoming”—in more detail than is possible in the short story, while at the same time avoiding much of the diffusing expository clutter and plotlessness that can often occur in a novel.