This week author Ian McEwan expressed his love of short novels, saying “very few [long] novels earn their length.” Certainly it seems like a novel has to be a minimum of 500 pages to win a major literary award these days, and many genre novels have ballooned to absurd sizes.

I love a good tome, but like McEwan many of my favorite novels are sharpened little gems. It’s immensely satisfying to finish a book in a single day, so in the spirit of celebrating quick reads here are some of my favorite short novels. I’ve tried to avoid the most obvious titles that are regularly assigned in school (The Stranger, Heart of Darkness, Mrs Dalloway, Of Mice and Men, Frankenstein, The Crying of Lot 49, etc.). Hopefully you’ll find some titles here you haven’t read before.

 

By Night in Chile

By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño

There’s a passage in Bolaño’s own great tome, 2666, attacking people who prefer “the perfect exercises of the great masters” to “the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown.” Admittedly, By Night in Chile is not quite on par with 2666, but it manages to be both a perfect exercise and a blazing path into the unknown.  

 

Sleepless Nights book

Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick

A lyrical combination of memoir, fiction, hopes, dreams, and musings, Hardwick’s novel is as undefinable as it is brilliant.

 

Child of God

Child of God by Cormac McCarthy

Perhaps McCarthy’s second greatest novel, after the incomparable Blood MeridianChild of God is an Appalachian nightmare written in gorgeously lush prose.

 

In Watermelon Sugar

In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan

Brautigan at his best and weirdest. This surreal novel is set in a commune named iDEATH where different colored watermelons provide building materials. A lot of modern indie fiction seems indebted to Brautigan’s unique combination of whimsy and sadness, but few if any match his power.

 The Lathe of Heaven

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin

This is one of the weirdest science fiction books you’ll ever read. Le Guin channels Philip K. Dick to tell the story of a man who can change reality with his dreams. We recently published an interview between Le Guin and Michael Cunningham that included a deal on an ebook version of The Lathe of Heaven, so grab it cheap.

 

We Have Always Lived in the Castle


We Have Always Lived in the Castle
by Shirley Jackson

Of all the books I regularly recommend to people, Jackson’s masterpiece has the best track record. Every person I’ve recommended it to has adored it and recommended it to others. (I wrote a longer essay on the book for Flavorwire this May.)

 

The Third Policeman cover

The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien

One of the greatest novels of the 20th century, this underrated book is a wild roller coaster of dark comedy, surreal images, and just plain brilliant writing.

 

Robert Walser cover

Jakob von Gunten by Robert Walser

Walser seems to be experience a well-deserved revival in recent years. If you haven’t read his joyous yet bizarre writings, Jakob von Gunten is the place to start.

 

Housekeeping book

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

Dreamy and completely beautiful, Robinson’s slim 1981 novel is frequently cited as one of the greatest American novels of the last 50 years. I agree.

 

The Loser Bernhard

The Loser by Thomas Bernhard

If you are like me, there’s nothing you love as much as a witty grump. Bernhard’s novels take the form of acerbic rants, and The Loser is among the best of them.

 

Duras, the Lover

The Lover by Marguerite Duras

Perhaps a nice antidote to The Loser’s anger and bitterness, The Lover is a beautiful and life-affirming short novel.

 

Giovanni's Room cover

Giovanni’s Room

James Baldwin’s second and perhaps best novel is a beautiful and moving story about a homosexual American man in Paris.

 

Clarice Lispector

The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector

Most people seem to read Lispector’s—also very short—novel The Hour of the Star and call it a day. However, her other novels are even stronger. The Passion is an energetic yet philosophical short novel that everyone should read.

 

The Lime Twig

The Lime Twig by John Hawkes

A dark nightmare in the form of a crime novel, Hawkes explores terror through innovative prose. I only just read The Lime Twig this week and already feel happy recommending it.

 

Barry Hannah

Ray by Barry Hannah

One of the greatest Southern American writers—which is saying something given that the region has given us O’Connor, Faulkner, Hurston, and more—Barry Hannah’s prose is acrobatic and addictive. Ray, his shortest novel, is a great starting place if you have never read him.

 

Speedboat

Speedboat by Renata Adler

Everyone in the literary world seemed to be reading Adler last year when NYRB reissued her two classic novels. And with good reason. Adler is a one-of-a-kind genius whose revival is more than earned.

 

Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel García Márquez

This taut murder mystery doesn’t have many of the magical realism trappings of Márquez’s large tomes, but it is just as engrossing.

 

59 Responses

  1. FKUI

    I can also recommend books by Erlend Loe, and Jean-Philippe Touissant, they both write short, humorous novels with great intelligence and wit.

    Reply
    • bill snowden

      Few will find this list complete. However, its black hole critical flaw is the absence of Americas’s best short novel. Ever, ” Jesus’ Son ” by Denis Johnson. Are you F-cking kidding me? You left off Denis Johnson? Did some squeaky bright first year literary intern do the assignment for you? In what f-cking small novel discussion would Jesus’ Son NOT be in? The replies above are so white rice bland, the words roll out of their minds into font like the last few sheets of toilet paper unwind; insufficient to do the job.

      Reply
      • Ellen

        There’s clearly good reason toilet paper is your metaphor of choice. Admiration of Denis Johnson, which I share, doesn’t necessitate shitting on his fellow writers or their advocates.

      • Lincoln Michel

        I love Jesus’ Son, one of my favorite books ever. I tend to consider it more of a collection of stories than a novel and the list was not meant to be definitive by any means.

      • bill snowden

        Dear Ellen, I didn’t shit on the other writers. I shit on the list and the absence of Johnson’s Jesus’ Son NOT being included. Reading comprehension is critical for intelligent argument. Lincoln; Hugo’s, Le Miserable is a collection of stories. So what? It’s no less of a major novel. The brilliance of both Hugo and Johnson is the physics of their ” theory of everything” narrative. You excluded Johnson because you thought it a collection of stories? Seriously? Does the weaving of character and theme through those ” stories” mean anything in your evalulative scheme? Tell Denis to return that National Book award. How fortunate he enjoys yours and Ellen’s warmest affection for his work. Lit Students, Jesus’ Son isn’t a short novel, Lincoln says its a ” collection of small stories”. Like your bug collection you had as a kid. Saul Bellow, take back those words you said about Denis and Jesus’ Son . Denis, your work has been made small- er.

      • Lincoln Michel

        This wasn’t a ranking of best short books, it was a list of short books that I thought are underread. I didn’t include tons of famous and worthy short novels that I thought were already popular enough. I imagine the vast majority of Electric Literature readers are aware of Jesus’ Son, and for good reason! That book is fantastic.

        I do not believe stories are lesser than novels, and he won the National Book Award for Tree of Smoke not Jesus’ Son. (Although I think Jesus’ Son is the superior work. The National Book Award goes to story collections too, such as this year’s winner Phil Klay.)

      • Sergio

        I love Jesus’ Son. But that particular book is not considered a novel, but rather a collection of inter-connected short stories. Therefore, it’s omission from this list is not so egregious. Of course, one can find tons of great short novels that were left off – any of the Patrick Modiano wonderful novels in translation could qualify, J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (a novel, which at the time I read it, I considered the greatest novel of the 2nd half of the 20th century) the Breast by Philip Roth (truly a weird and very short novel) and others I won’t mention. So there’s no reason to get so worked up over this list. I personally think it’s a great list which includes a very eclectic mix of excellent books including recent reprints from the great NYRB’s imprint.

    • bill snowden

      Lincoln, I didn’t say Denis won the National Book award for Jesus’ Son did I? No. I said he should give back the award. Reading comprehension. Strunk and White stuff. Nor did I describe your list as a ranking. Cindy, Denis’ wife, read her husband’s acceptance speech that night. Denis was in Afghanistan on an article. The You Tube of that speech is worth a take. In his read thank you note, Denis skewered Christopher Hitchens’s atheism, who was on the dais for a non fiction award that evening. Strunk and White, the pilings under the platform of clear understandable rules of written communication. Yasuo !

      Reply
      • Wally

        Well done Bill, what a hero, you have an opinion on the internet! Git

      • Nick

        Snowden, you are acerbic to the point of inducing that unique form of salivation that begins back behind the molars and compels one to spit in hopes of abating the need to vomit. You are either a very adept troll, or a very deluded narcissist.

        As Lincoln made clear in his introduction to the list, his intention was to avoid the most obvious and well-known candidates. He wrote, “Hopefully you’ll find some titles here you haven’t read before” , and here you are moaning about the absence of your very favorite book.

        You’ve obviously missed the point of the list entirely. More importantly, even if the list were titled, “Top 17 Short Novels of All Time”, one should always understand that a “best of” list will always be incomplete by nearly everyone’s measure. If Jesus’ Son were included in said list, I can guarantee you that there would be innumerable others bemoaning the absence of their own personal great that they feel had been slighted.

        Your overblown, self-indulgent writing is, at best, symptomatic of poor mental health. At worst, it’s a sad and vain attempt to hide your own ignorance behind a transparent mask of “mad genius”. We get it – Jesus’ Son is a fantastic book. It is one of the best short novels written in the English language. What you don’t get is that Lincoln is not saying otherwise by excluding it from this list.

        Lower your pitchfork, slink back to your basement, and Google “Why Jesus’ Son is fantastic”, until your arrhythmia subsides.

      • Nick

        p.s. Thank you, Lincoln, for sharing this list. I have a particular fondness for the immediacy and power of short fiction, and there are a number of titles here I’ve never read. For someone with very little free time, one of the toughest aspects of reading is picking the next book! I’m really looking forward to checking some of these out.

  2. Nathaniel Tower

    This is a great list of novels. However, I challenge the notion that these are books that can be read in one sitting. These are challenging books. A one-sitting book moves quickly and requires little in the way of deeper thinking. To read Child of God in one sitting is to gloss over a great deal of brilliance.

    There are several on here I do need to read still. I’ll see if I can handle any of them in a day. Had I no day job and no family, it would be much easier.

    Reply
    • Simon Lavery

      I agree, Nathaniel. Having read several of these more ‘challenging’ novels, including the Hardwick and Adler – with their tricky fragmented structures – I’d hesitate to take on a reading in one sitting. Rewarding, yes, but not to be gobbled up quickly…

      Reply
    • Terri

      How about The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers. It’s relatively short at 226 pages and I read it on a lazy Sunday. It’s beautiful and sad and speaks to the horrors of war. I loved this book.

      Reply
  3. HLS Weekly Roundup | hls

    […] to help you stay balanced and happy. Fortunately, Electric Literature is at your service with 17 Brilliant Short Novels You Can Read In a Sitting. I also recently finished, and can highly recommend, Teju Cole’s Every Day is For the Thief, […]

    Reply
  4. Bonnie Altucher

    And: The Subterraneans by Jack Kerouac, Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker, Desperate Characters by Paula Fox, Death Sentence by Maurice Blanchot. Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis might be too long at 176 pages, but I love it, so sneaking it in.

    Reply
  5. Michael

    I’d consider adding Thornton Wilder’s absolute master work “The Bridge at San Luis Rey” to this list. At 109 pages, it carries a great deal of weight. And, for a Pulitzer winner, it gets almost no attention.

    Reply
  6. Emma

    I love short novels too.
    I’d recommend:
    I’d suggest:
    In the Absence of Men by Philippe Besson
    Contempt by Moravia
    Consequences by Philippe Djian
    Montana 1948 by Larry Watson
    The Man Who Walked on the Moon by Horace McCoy
    Belle de Jour by Joseph Kessel
    An unusual novel by a young writer to read absolutely in one sitting: Sleeping Patterns by J.R. Crook.

    I don’t share your enthusiasm for The Crying of Lot 49 or Housekeeping which I found creepy and utterly depressing. (the atmosphere was suffocating I could never read this in one sitting)

    Reply
  7. Carolyn

    Also, “The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night-Time” by Mark Haddon somewas twisted (in a good way) and tremendous.

    Reply
  8. Jan

    I’d like to add to this already very inspiring list Saul Bellow’s Seize the day and as a more recent title Julian Barnes’ Levels of life.
    It is indeed in the short novel that a writer’s true genius is shown at its brightest.

    Reply
  9. Rebecca Palmer

    Great list!! I love In Watermelon Sugar!!
    My other favourites read in a day are The Stranger by Albert Camus, The Body Artist by Delillo and Franny & Zooey by Salinger 🙂

    Reply
  10. Guttersnipe Das

    The first time I read this article, I was astonished that there could be someone on Earth who loved the all same authors I loved. I mean, how many people have read Walser and Lispector and Adler? (Should we be dating?) Oddly enough, I’d never read “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” so I ordered it immediately. I adored it.

    Thank you so much. Please continue creating lists and recommendations. There are people on your wavelength who appreciate it very much.

    Reply
  11. Ted Fontenot

    Good selection. A few of my personal favorite short novels are John Fowles’s The Collector, Salinger’s Franny and Zooey (as well as Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, for that matter, if novellas count), Peter De Vries’s The Cat’s Pajamas & Witch’s Milk (two interlocking novellas), and John Barth’s The End of the Road. Most of P. G. Wodehouse’s novels, especially the Wooster/Jeeves ones, are fairly short and readable, as much so as some listed above, anyway, and read really fast. I would go with: Right Ho, Jeeves and Joy in the Morning. Then there’s the greatest of all short novels, Alice In Wonderland and its sequel–and I’d probably include The Wind in the Willows also.

    Reply
  12. Evelyn Walsh

    What a fun list. So happy to see John Hawkes here, and share the last poster’s love of children’s novels…thinking especially of P.L. Travers, a writer that Hawkes read from childhood and refers to in his retrospective HUMORS of BLOOD AND SKIN. Specifically he refers to his identification with “the boy-hero” Michael Banks. Read and re-read the Mary Poppins books throughout childhood and my eldest has done the same. I enjoy the film on its own term, but that film should not have eclipsed those extraordinary books. And don’t get me started on the disservice SAVING MR BANKS did to Travers’ achievement. Actually, DO get me started..working on an essay.

    And yes, WIDE SARGASSO SEA! as well as Rhys’ early novellas– QUARTET, AFTER LEAVING MR. MCKENZIE, etc.

    TINKERS.

    THE RING OF BRIGHTEST ANGELS AROUND HEAVEN.

    Reply
  13. Tom

    I really appreciate these types of lists that let me know of books I should check out. I have read many of them, and enjoyed them, but there were a few I haven’t and so I will now check them out. I am ALWAYS searching for the next great read and these types of lists are valuable to me. I don’t expect these lists to be definitive. That would be unrealistic. I could only hope that we soon will see a list with the next 17. So, thank you.

    Reply
  14. Writing | Pearltrees

    […] around the world. Masks – Poem. » 17 Brilliant Short Novels You Can Read in a Sitting. This week author Ian McEwan expressed his love of short novels, saying “very few [long] novels […]

    Reply
  15. John

    The books by Buddy Duke are wonderful short stories. “The Belt” and “Mother Earth”. I found these on Lulu.com.

    Reply
  16. TomR

    Thank you for the list, Lincoln. It’s been more than six months since the first list. How about an update? How about another 17? I had read about half of them when I found your list, so please let the hits keep on coming. And if readers want to add others, please do.

    Let’s shoot for the 100 best novellas. How about Philip Roth’s Goodbye Columbus, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (would you call that a short story) and Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary?

    Reply
  17. Wayne

    What a glorious little list, Lincoln. Thanks for it. I, too, loved McCarthy’s shortest work.

    I suggest to all Mr. Paul Harding’s award-winning novel, Tinkers. I think it to be the shortest novel ever to win the National Book Award. It’s gorgeously conceived.

    I’m going to try the Ms. Hardwick selection from your list, Lincoln. It sounds appealing. Thank you for your opinions.

    Sincerely, Wayne.

    P.S. Disregard the Bill Snowden comments. He sounds like a miserable fuck and were we to see him face-to-face, we’d have him upside-down in a dumpster in two shakes of his beer-muscles.

    Reply

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