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 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 Meridian, Child 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 by James Baldwin

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.

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