Of course, no-one has ever set a word count to define a novel; when writers ask this question, what they usually mean is: will publishers think my work is too long, or too short?
Interestingly, when the word “novel” came into use in the seventeenth century, it broadly meant a short piece of fiction, as opposed to the longer, more epic, “romance” (not to be confused with the use of the word “romance” nowadays to describe the Mills & Boon genre). Later, when the term “novella” was coined, people began to get more opinionated about how long a novel should be, with some novelists becoming rather indignant if their intense literary masterpiece was labelled a “novella”, which sounds a bit flimsy and frivolous.
In fact, short novels can be every bit as serious and important as long tomes. The Death of Ivan Ilych, by Tolstoy, is not much more than 22,000 words, but it’s a perfect, insightful reflection on life and death; the short length is fundamental to the theme, encapsulating a man’s whole life in such a short narrative. Books as lauded as Orwell’s Animal Farm and The Outsiders by Camus are regarded as “novellas” simply because they’re short. A short, powerful work can say just as much about the human condition as a long, rambling one.
For publishers, though, there are of course considerations of printing and the appearance of books on the shelves of a shop; if you submit a novel less than about 40,000 words in length, you might turn up some noses. It’s an issue of pricing as much as anything: what will people pay for such a slim volume, and will that cover the costs of printing, cover design and distribution? Digital release might be more financially viable for a very short novel.
To confuse matters further, some publishers now refer to anything between about 7,000 and 20,000 words as a “novelette” – longer than a short story, but shorter than a novella. The issue remains, though, of finding a suitable publishing format for this kind of work. It’s worth noticing that Steven King published four novellas (including Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption and The Body, which eventually became the film Stand By Me) in one volume, called Different Seasons. Like short stories, novellas and novelettes are often grouped together to fill a more traditionally-sized book.
What if you’ve written a really long novel? Is that a problem for publishers? It can be. Proust’s wonderful In Search of Lost Time is over a million words long and was published in seven volumes; if you’re a new, unknown writer, you might have trouble convincing a publisher to invest in something so massive. Anything under 700,000 words can probably be printed in one volume, but it’s a big commitment for a publisher (and for a reader!). War and Peace is about 560,000 words and that’s famously hefty. Some fat books which have been successful with modern audiences are Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (210,975 words) and A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth (591,522 words), but if you’ve produced something that long as a debut, a publisher might hesitate. If you’ve written a really enormous tome, you might want to consider splitting it into a series of novels, with a punchy first instalment and a couple of sequels.
Ultimately, the length of a novel should simply be appropriate for the work: if it holds together and keeps the reader’s interest, it doesn’t matter if it’s 10,000 words or 1,000,000, just as a beautiful painting can fill the ceiling of a cathedral or the interior of a locket. And all fiction has value, whether it’s a short story or a seven-volume epic.