Longer than a short story but shorter than a novel, the form has been the ugly stepchild of the literary world. But that's starting to change.
Publishers like short stories, and they love novels. But when a writer submits a mid-length work that falls somewhere between two genres, booksellers balk and editors narrow their eyes. This is the domain of the novella, an unfairly neglected literary art form that's been practiced for centuries by celebrated writers—from Charles Dickens to Jane Smiley to Alain Mabanckou—yet faces an ongoing struggle for commercial viability. "For me, the word denotes a lesser genre," literary agent Karolina Sutton told The Guardian in 2011. "If you pitch a book to a bookseller as a novel, you're likely to get more orders than if you call it a novella."
Mid-length works suffer from a koan-like criticism: They're too short and they're also too long. Novellas hog too much space to appear in magazines and literary journals, but they're usually too slight to release as books. If a reader's going to spend 16 bucks, the notion goes, he wants to take home a Franzen-size tome—not a slim volume he can slip in a jacket pocket.
As a result, a broad canyon yawns between the viable long story (10,000 words) and the short novel (60,000 words). This is the 50,000-Word Abyss, and anything that falls within it is generally considered untouchable. Most novellas—when they're published at all—are snuck into short story collections. That, or they're consigned to novella ghettoes: three or four mid-length tales forced to live in close quarters, bound and sold as a curiosity.