multicultural
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Saturday, May 1, 2010

Which Do You Prefer - Novels or Short Stories?



“Unlike the novel, a short story may be, for all purposes, essential.”
— Jorge Luís Borges


Recently, I reread the masterful short story "Tell Me a Riddle" by Tillie Olsen, which won the 1961 O. Henry Award. The story’s emotional impact was so powerful that I asked myself how it was possible that a 30-page story could do that. It might seem as if writing a novel is more difficult than writing a short story, but the technical skill employed in Olsen’s story demolishes that argument.

I might be alone in having written novels before I ever got around to writing short stories. In that, perhaps I had fallen prey to the attitude that only novels could be important. I began writing short stories only to satisfy the requirements of a writing class. I complied, but still clung to my first love, writing novels. Over thirty stories later, though, I looked up and said, wow, I really like the short story form.

As I began writing this post about the differences between novels and short stories, I quickly found myself speaking in similes. That bothered me until I realized that perhaps no definition, other than word count, evokes the telling distinction between a novel and a short story. So bear with me as I indulge in simile.

A novelist has to be like a symphony composer as well as an orchestra conductor. In those capacities, the writer is in charge of lots of moving parts, in harmony or disharmony, threatening at any point to run away from the group or remaining happily seamless.

A short story is like a single drop of water which freefalls to a new destination; clear, whole, its parts conjoined in compact form, having a subversive power. Over time, like its relative—the torrent—a drop of water will etch through rock. Carrying the water simile further, the torrent is of course the novel, except that sometimes novels are more like eddies.

A short story, like an exposed nerve, can only be borne for a short period of time. A novel is more like a recent bruise, whose healing allows time to reflect on its cause and also to watch its slow healing.

They are both powerful forms. Indeed, two of my favorite movies of the previous decade bring home this point for me. Both Oscar-winning movies were developed from previously published print material. The Hours was adapted from the novel by Michael Cunningham; Brokeback Mountain, from the short story by Annie Proulx. In both cases, I believe the movie caught the essential power of the source material. Did Cunningham then waste his readers’ time since Annie Proulx packed an equally powerful emotional punch in a tenth the length of the novel? I suspect the answer to this will be as individual as the person who opines. Let us just perhaps agree that both source materials were excellent.

By the way, writing short stories did improve my writing craft. I am a much better novelist for it. I would like to think that even though only a few of my stories have been published, I have also turned into a decent short story writer. I suspect that, once I have done some ruthless editing, more of my stories will be published. I have just sent out for consideration a story which is now half of its former size. Let’s see what happens.

I would love to hear your thoughts about the short story form versus the novel form.

9 comments:

Judy Croome said...

Depends on my mood, Judith. Sometimes a short story or a novella is more suited to the moment than a novel. I do find that as I get older (and have so many more demands on my time) my favourite form is the short novel (anything from +-50k to 80k). It's what I prefer to write as well.

Judy

Chennifer said...

I loved how you described it here:

"A short story, like an exposed nerve, can only be borne for a short period of time. A novel is more like a recent bruise, whose healing allows time to reflect on its cause and also to watch its slow healing."

I love both forms, both for reading and writing, and couldn't choose between them. I'm reading two great collections of short stories right now:
Cubana - Mirta Yanez

Short Stories by Latin American Women - Celia Correas de Zapata

Judith Mercado said...

Judy, it seems we agree that there is a place for both the short story and the novel.

Chennifer, thanks for the tip on the short story collections. I'm always looking for good new product from Hispanic authors.

Lady Glamis said...

I think you know how I feel about this subject. I LOVE the short story, and I think your similes are just lovely and accurate. I think both forms need a lot of practice and talent to master.

I certainly hope you'll be entering my short story contest!

Judith Mercado said...

Lady Glamis, I'm so glad you stopped by. I'm excited about entering your contest. What amazing prizes.

A Cuban In London said...

'A novelist has to be like a symphony composer as well as an orchestra conductor. In those capacities, the writer is in charge of lots of moving parts, in harmony or disharmony, threatening at any point to run away from the group or remaining happily seamless.

A short story is like a single drop of water which freefalls to a new destination; clear, whole, its parts conjoined in compact form, having a subversive power. Over time, like its relative—the torrent—a drop of water will etch through rock.'

I've yet to reador hear a better comparison between novels and short stories. And as if by chance, I'm just about to embark on my first book of short stories by Alice Munro,a writer who has some pedigree in this genre.

I don't you think you're alone in having made that leap from the novel to the short story, I just think it's a more recent phenomenon. For centuries the short story has played second fiddle ot the novel and yet some of my favourite authors are short-story writers. Poe comes to mind.

Thanks for such a brilliant post. As for your question, I enjoy both forms equally, although in my younger years I was more biased towards the novel.

Greetings from London.

Chennifer said...

Hola Judith! Thanx for coming by my blog - I love to have you there. I have a book-list on the blog, all by Hispanic authours- if you want some tips. And I'll be posting reviews of them soon.

Espero que tengas un bue día

Nevine said...

I used to think writing a novel was such a great achievement, and I still believe this to be true. But when I started experimenting with the short story form, I came up against a hurdle. I am a rambler. A novel allows me to ramble. A short story makes no such allowance. In a short story, because by its very definition it is "short," we have to cut to the chase. There is barely room for backstory and all of the other nuances that we are able to indulge in when we know the word count will support us. This is not to say that novels are rambling fests. On the contrary, a good novel's content should be compact and "happening" all the time, despite the higher word count. Still, with a short story, the expectation is that we will come to the point, and quickly. I find this much more of a challenge, and that's why I started to experiment with the "short short". For me, this was the ultimate challenge: how to make a full statement, capture a full event, within 1000 words or less. I still tend to ramble, but I've been able, lately, to trim down even my 1500-word short shorts to a mere 700 words or so without compromising the flow.

As far as reading is concerned, I enjoy a short story when I need an immediate distraction from something I've been focused on for a while, and that I need to return to soon. When I have time at my hands, there's nothing better or more enjoyable than a long novel with a hot cup of tea... pure bliss!

This was a highly interesting post, Judy. And you can "similize" away any time you want (there, I just invented my own word). It was such a pleasure to share your thoughts on novels and short stories.

Nevine

Judith Mercado said...

Nevine, your comments are all right on. I too seem to be heading in the direction of shorter stories. I wonder if that means that eventually I'll be doing what everybody else is doing -- expressing myself in Twitter length!