Worlds Collide – the novel & the story
As a writer, I’ve often noticed something in the way people talk about short stories. They pronounce the phrase as through it repulses them to such a degree they can barely believe they are thinking it. It gives them the shivers, turns them a little green and is usually only uttered when one doesn’t feel like reading a novel. It’s been called the novel’s ‘poor cousin’, yet has been mastered by some of the greatest writers that have ever lived. It is discriminated against by readers and publishers alike and is only purchased (in paperback, at least) in ‘collections.’ Like a bottle of cheap rum, where the first mouthful tastes horrible, but, from that point forward it doesn’t matter what you’re drinking.
The short story it seems, has lost all of it’s literary worth. We speak of writers working on their first novel, the self marketing and the quest for publishers, yet, we never hear from writers constructing their next short story. Readers hunger for the novel. It has even been said to myself, ‘I can’t wait to read your novel’ as if a 100,000 word tangent about the things that happen inside my head, told through other people essentially having a schizophrenic discourse, has more worth than the humble short story.
To a degree I can understand the novel orientated excitement. Novels contain worlds, developed and functioning. Whether that world be entirely fictional, or a fictional time in actual history, the novel constructs a three dimensional manifestation of the writer’s mind for the enjoyment of the reader. Within a novel, one can house complex characters, twisting plots, murder, betrayal, heartbreak, peace, love, passion and even a touch of the supernatural. The story is allowed to grow, to become what ever it pleases to survive for as long as it chooses. In the many pages, while the story evolves, the reader bonds with, falls in love with, hates and sometimes even fears the characters. These reasons alone are perhaps why the short story has fallen from grace.
Such a fall, however, comes with the opportunity to take flight. While the novel may be a place of wonder and of worship, we cannot discount the short story. A very misled and misinformed Neil Gaiman called the short the “best place for young writers to learn their craft: to try out different voices and techniques, to experiment, to learn.” While there may be logic hidden deep within those words, we cannot categorise the short story as simply a place for those to learn their craft. A meager training camp amongst the oceans of literary possibility. Perhaps the poem too is naught but a mere training ground for the aspiring novelist, musicians, for ever stuck within the bounds of poetry, until they are learned enough for that first novel. While I concede, the short story is one of the best places to start, this does not make it’s literary value nil.
The novel is indeed spectacular, to write one, is certainly no easy feat. However the short story, in it’s greatest form, is one of high art. It is a snapshot (if you will) of a world in which characters exist and interact. Inside this world, they grow, they fall and they die. The world of which I speak, is already created, dwells deep inside our imaginations. While the novel creates, the short story, inspires and provokes. It demands that each of it’s readers brings to the story a small piece of themselves, and the best stories, will keep that piece. We do not know how the characters came to be, the choices they’ve made and the ones they haven’t. Within these parameters, the relationship to a character can be just, as if not more so, intense and important that with that of a character in a novel.
For when one reads a short story, one brings with them their life. Life experiences are transferred to the characters as they make their way through the story. To degrees, our values become their values, and our lives their lives. While the novel allows characters the space to grow, the short story strips them of this. We witness how they react in tight parameters and observe, how we react to such claustrophobic situations. One only needs to look toward Poe’s The Pit & The Pendulum for the profound affect a short story can have on the mind.
Removed from characterisation and the act of living vicariously through characters, the short story writer is left with structural and linguistic challenges. One of the beauties of being a novelist, is the ability to drag and follow the story in any direction. There lies space for descriptions pages upon pages long and for revelations to occur that shift the characters destiny extremely. Short story writers find themselves constantly questioning the value of a sentence, it’s structure and the value of a single word. Each language mechanism is placed with great care and accuracy. The style of that of short story writer, has to be concise, clear, free of any superfluous words and at times, punctuation.
Existing within these bounds, writer’s have to be able to be emotive in few words, and descriptive in even fewer. There are not many instances where one, for example, can take the time to describe in detail the chain of a necklace acting as a motif. And still, the necklace mustn’t be left out. With each word in the short having equal weight to the word prior or next, there is an air of urgency to writing the short story. It is often believed that shorts lack depth, motif, and (don’t mind the pun) character. This, in whole, is due to the importance placed on the novel.
Urgency is derived from the importance of paced development of ideas and motifs. While the reader may bring a lot of themselves to the character and the story, the writer’s underlying intentions still remain. Many short stories have masterfully developed ideas to the point of blossoming or realisation within such constraints. One only has to look toward Dickens for an example of such development. While a novel provides the length to develop a complex idea, the short on the other hand, demands the skill to develop a complex idea in bounds without losing the reader. In order to successfully argue their point, writers, must first learn to be concise, but above this, must reach into the space between the story and the reader. In the space where readers connect and process the story, the writer needs to grow their idea, or implant the suggestion of it. Both equally complicated as no one writer can take command of this space.
The short story, therefore, is not the ‘poor cousin’ of the novel, nor is it (to paraphrase Gaiman) the best place for old writers to turn to, when an idea cannot make novel length. In it’s greatest form, it is a high art. In it’s regular form, it challenges skill, sense of structure, knowledge of language and syntax. And, it challenges the writer to draw the reader in only a few well placed words.
To compare the novel to the short story is to compare the play to the poem. Shorts are not simply ‘something to do’ when one doesn’t feel like a novel, or has a few free minutes. They are free standing works of art that have the power to be the training ground for the aspiring writer, while simultaneously being the challenge of concision and clarity for the veteran, and life altering sojourn for the reader.