Crawford Kilian’s “About Writing” blog is one of my regular reads; he offers lots of good, no-nonsense, nuts-and-bolts advice about writing. A recent article, though, about the rather arbitrary demarcations based on length between short stories, novellas, and novels, contained a paragraph that raised my hackles a bit:
I don’t want to discourage anyone from writing at whatever length they like. Short stories can be great reading, and also great training for writers aiming at novels. Two or three novellas, published together, can be quite marketable (preferably, however, if the author’s already well known).
This touches on two misconceptions about the short story that overlook the fact that the story and the novel are two completely different creatures:
- Short stories are a training ground for the real work of fiction, the novel.
- Short stories are outside the marketable space that novels occupy.
These are commonly-held beliefs, and to a great extent self-fulfilling prophesies. And they are both far off the mark.
Short stories (and sometimes novellas, too, those odd ducks in the middle distance) are not miniature novels. They do not do the same things that novels do, and do not play by the novel’s rules. The pleasures to be found in writing and reading stories are completely different from those to be found in writing and reading novels; they are not mutually exclusive pleasures–a reader can be passionate about both forms, and a writer can be successful at both (though, I would argue, there are few who are supremely successful at both)–but they are very different.
The short story is an art of compression. It is in many ways closer to poetry than to the novel; though it’s written in prose, with paragraphs and often dialogue and frequently plot, it relies upon a succinct and careful choice of words to convey its effect. The story is about the art of excision: the story writer’s scalpel must be sharp and merciless.
Novels, by contrast, tend toward the inclusive. They are about finding and extending relations and connections across characters and settings, and often have a baroque architecture full of reflections and echoes. A novel need not be mercilessly efficient: it can be, as Henry James (one of those few who was a master of both forms) said, a “loose and baggy monster” and still be successful. Indeed, the looser and baggier the better in many cases.
Reading a novel is like relaxing into a comfortable chair. It invites the reader to become lost in its world, to spin out the million possibilities of its setting while reading; there’s a hypnotic effect to reading a novel, a loss of the sense of time and place. When I’m reading a good novel, I find that I slow down toward the end and try not to glance at the bottom of the page: I want the effect to go on, I don’t want to leave the novel’s world.
Stories, on the other hand, are more like a Shaker chair: carefully crafted, beautiful in their apparent simplicity, but a little uncomfortable for an extended sit. Most stories have few characters, one or two settings, and almost never subplots. Like a poem, every word in a story has to serve the story’s ultimate goal; there’s very little room for digression and diversion. Reading a story is a quick plunge into a bracing pool: its ultimate effect occurs more on reflection than while submerged.
What the stories offer to the reader and the writer, that the novel doesn’t, is a variety of experience and a diversity of voices. A story can be experimental in ways that a novel, or at least the traditional novel, cannot, because it doesn’t have to sustain a style or voice or device over hundreds of pages. Each story is its own world, swiftly brought to life in twenty or so pages and then just as quickly discarded. Though many writers of short fiction revisit the same places, themes, even characters, over the course of many stories, there’s no demand for unity across the stories as there would be in a novel: each story offers a new view of the familiar, a different perspective that may reinforce or contradict related stories.
When a writer has had a successful career at writing stories, the critics will often wonder aloud, “Why hasn’t she written a novel?” Raymond Carver, Andre Dubus, Alice Munro, Amy Hempel: incredibly gifted short story writers, but not a novel among them. Not, I think, because of a lack of ambition on their part: their ideas, concise and sparkling, are simply more suited to the story form.
We fans of the story often hear that “short story collections don’t sell,” “publishers never buy story collections,” “people would rather read novels.” When publishers do put out a collection of stories, they tend to disguise it: “a novel in stories,” they say, or they make clear in the marketing material that the stories are “linked” in some way. This does a great disservice to both the story and to the reader: it forces the stories into a relationship that may not be appropriate, and it tries to trick the reader into thinking they’re getting something that they aren’t. The publishing industry’s fear of the short story is a self-fulfilling prophecy. No one wants to read story collections because story collections aren’t offered to readers as what they are: a reading experience very different from a novel, but equally enjoyable and engrossing. Stories might be a little more work sometimes than novels–the reader is switching settings and characters every ten or twenty pages, which can sometimes feel like whiplash–but a well-sequenced story collection, like a good poetry collection, can leave space for reflection between pieces and help the cumulative effect of dissonant themes and voices build to a powerful crescendo.
Stories are also the appropriate form for the way we live now. They are interstitial by nature, able to be squeezed into small spaces (I love the little volumes of One Story and Duck and Herring, perfect for slipping into a pocket or purse), ideal for the few moments we can steal for ourselves. And their fractured narratives and small moments of insight feel more like a modern life than the carefully wrought, intricately plotted novel: this morning I felt like I was in a Faulkner story, by mid-day things had turned Kafkaesque, and perhaps tonight I’ll relax into a more genteel Mansfield mode. Our lives are a jangling buzz of voices, and stories help us make sense of that.
My library puts an orange label on the spines of story collections, perhaps as a warning to readers: this book is not quite like its neighbors, it may offer a reading experience completely different from what you expect. I find this to be useful not as a warning, but as a beacon: I know that inside each of these emblazoned books are a dozen different voices, clamoring against each other, and that some of them will whisper in my ears for weeks.