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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Novel vs. The Short Story

Alana Lennie of the Lennie Literary Agency, after recently reading HFR issue #42, sent these thoughts to me about the difference between stories and novels:
"Having worked with authors of short stories who have gone on to write novels, I'm often told by editors that so many short story authors create a bleakness that they leave the reader with. It seems to be the opinion of many editors of novels that no matter what might happen during the course of the story, they want a happy ending - tie everything up with a pretty pink bow when all is said and done. I must say I do encounter more desperation, much of it unresolved, in short stories than I do in novels."
Given that she was reading our Grotesque issue, of course a certain amount of "bleakness" was to be expected, and the comment seems to me to be more an observation than a criticism (Alana also said, "I must say I was quite impressed by the talent between the covers"). Her comment was interesting to me because it seems to have a lot to say about the expectation of editors (and readers) as they approach a novel (and, it seems, don't approach the short story).

In addition to length, what are the major differences between the novel and the short story? Is the short story, by its nature, bleak? If so, why? In general it seems to me that novels provide more opportunity for hope than do short stories. When you see a character through a series of events over a period of time, the possibility for change - for the resolution of a problem - is more ample. Stories often seem to take a kind of picture of a more narrow moment in time (there are, of course, many exceptions to this generalization). They describe an intense moment where a character feels conflicted, confused or troubled. Though many writers, readers or critics might argue that a short story should contain an epiphanic moment, or should evidence some kind of change in a character, I would disagree. Character epiphanies in short stories run the risk of feeling formulaic or unearned. The "stories show change" prerequisite also limits the possibilities of the form. A short story's happy ending, like the easy problem-solving in a sitcom, can feel fluffy and unsatisfying. In a novel, we expect some kind of major change in the characters or their situation from beginning to end. It's one of the payoffs of investing so much time with them.

A novel also necessarily deals with a character in the context of his or her community. Jane Smiley, in her book 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, argues that the novel is essentially political and liberal because of this fact. While a story can invest in the consciousness of a single person, a novel's protagonist takes on a role within a larger group of some kind, and once that happens, says Smiley, the novel evidences some explicit or implicit political theory, because politics is about the division of power in human groups. It is liberal because it focuses on the importance of individual rights and choices, awarding extraordinary moments to "regular" people, and allowing its readers the subversive privelidge of experience the mind of another. Whether the character's interactions with the group have a happy ending or not, these essential qualities of the novel might have much to do with its seeming more optimistic, less bleak than the short story.

Then again, some might argue that the aim and scope of a short story is no smaller than a novel simply because of its length. This past weekend, Steven Millhauser wrote an essay entitled "The Ambition of the Short Story," for the New York Times. "In a world ruled by swaggering novels, smallness has learned to make its way cautiously," he says. "Think of it: the world in a grain of sand; which is to say, every part of the world, however small, contains the world entirely. Or to put it another way: if you concentrate your attention on some apparently insignificant portion of the world, you will find, deep within it, nothing less than the world itself...And there you have the ambition of the short story, the terrible ambition that lies behind its fraudulent modesty: to body forth the whole world. The short story believes in transformation. It believes in hidden powers. The novel prefers things in plain view." Hidden powers! Transformation! Sounds like an argument for the short story's more subtle mechanics, but not its bleakness. Quite the opposite.

What do you think, blog readers?


Dani said...

A couple of years ago I took an intermediate creative writing course in which the instructor had us read every week from a collection of short stories. About three weeks into class, I asked her if we would be reading any HAPPY stories that semester. The class laughed but I still meant my question. So far we had read about families falling apart over alcoholism, a girl being raped by her father, another girl being kidnapped, and so on. But there was one, "Cathedral" by Raymond Carver, that could be said to by "happy," or at least not entirely bleak. Any other short story I've read since then that pretends to by "happy," written mostly by peers who are still trying to figure out their own voice and medium, falls flat on its face. So it may not necessarily be the nature of a short story to be bleak but it certainly has a different agenda than the novel. No one wants to read about a character that gets into a jam and can resolve it in ten or fifteen pages. It's just not that interesting. The short story is about a moment, or maybe a series of moments connected by the same resonating emotion. What are our more poignant emotions? Even more than love and happiness, usually the feelings we remember with the most clarity are ones of loss, be it of life or of innocence. But that doesn't mean we don't want happy endings, we just want to see a more realistic path to them.

As for Millhauser's essay, I think he paints the novel a little too diabolically. There's no denying that the short story is an art form completely separate from the novel. Short stories can be powerful, moving, and even political, despite Smiley's suggestion that that attribute belongs to the novel. The reality is that short stories translate into movies much better than novels do. In having that access to an alternate medium, the short story has a reservoir of power behind it. The short story may have been around for only the last couple hundred years, but the theater has been around much, much longer (first in live performance and now in celluloid) and has been subversive and radical more than it has ever been conservative.

But does this make the short story better than the novel? No. In fact, I don't see how that question even applies. And it's too reductive to say that novels deal with the world in "plain view." I've read plenty to the contrary. Where some stories require a few dozen pages to be told, others need a few hundred. If I can borrow some of Millhauser's mysticism, the story decides the format and the wise writer will submit to the will of the story.

I'm not sure if this actually adds to the conversation. Looking back, it looks like I'm agreeing with you on a lot of what was already written. Except, I'd say it's the aim that separates the novel from the short story, not the nature or the essence. You can't tell someone they're going the wrong or better way when they have a different destination than you altogether.

Chi said...

From my limited experience with short stories, it seems that short story writers seek to demonstrate that some issues or losses simply do not have resolutions. In this sense, the short story is, and must be more realistic than the novel. The short story tends to deal with one extraordinary moment or period of time in a character's life while novel tend to discuss character changes across a longer period of time.

Nevertheless, there are always exceptions to the norm. For example, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn's "The First Cirle" is a 600-page novel that covers three days in a Soviet sharashka, or prison. In it, he discusses everything under the sun, from politics to sex. The character list is extensive, but the novel has the ability to follow several characters at once, because of its length. Plus, I would argue that the "First Circle" is just as bleak as any short story. There is no hope in Communist Soviet Union, so Soviet authors at the time would be fooling readers, which some of them did, if they were to paint a happy picture.

As Millhauser argues, the short story attempts to summarize the human condition in as few words as possible. However, I still do not think one can compare the two genres next to each other. They serve different purposes. The novel attempt to woo the reader with its length, its description, its list of characters, and their mental and physical changes through the book. On the other hand, the short story focuses more or less on one character, and attempts to be as concise as possible.

People reading the two genres are also looking for different things. The person reading the novel plans on sitting for several hours or several sessions to learn about the characters and follow the plot line as if it were an adventure they were taking themselves. The person reading the short story, on the other hand, expects a quick reading. She expects to learn a bit about human nature in a few short pages. She expects to feel the power of emotion that runs through those few pages. She expects not too much description but concise emotions and actions.

Obviously, I just generalized so much about both the novel and short story. In the end, I don't think you can reduce the novel or short story down to any formula. As Stern argues, rules are meant to be broken. There are no rules in literature, but only generalities. The short story and novel are different only because of the lengths of each. A short story simply cannot cover as much ground as the novel, but that doesn't make it inferior.

Danielle said...

First, I feel the need to cite Edgar Allen Poe's opinion that fiction should be brief, and that the short story is the ideal literary form because it can be consumed in one sitting. Citing this does, however, bring up the problem that Poe was a bit of a bleak writer...

I definitely see the trend in short stories to be more inclined toward the morose or depressing, but as stated in the original post, I think the morose, depressing, and ultimately metamorphic moments in our lives are the ones most insightful and thought-provoking and, thus, the best stories. I think this is reflected on a macro scale, too, outside of just short stories. The news doesn't usually broadcast that everything is going just fine, because that wouldn't be interesting or even relevant. They broadcast the bad things that are happening. I don't think it is so much that short stories are inherently bleak, as it is that the short events most worth telling are usually sad.

David Edwards said...

Ultimately, I agree with the assumption that "short stories are bleaker than novels," but I didn't come to this conclusion through Millhauser's reasoning. He seemed too eager to ascend the soapbox and shout glorious praises for the not-so-subtle short story (people get touchy when their professions are questioned, after all).

Short stories are somewhat constricted in their brevity, but they use different mechanisms in achieving their literary power (which isn't lesser or greater than that of the novel, by the way). They rely heavily on the reader's own experiences and knowledge instead of developing their own reality. Short stories are inherently relatable and recognizable by readers. They're brutally honest about everything because they need readers to pour some of their emotional connection into the story themselves. And what greater connection exists between two people in a confined space than shared hardship or sorrow?

It's difficult to effectively compose the melodic cooing of two lovebirds in less than 5000 words. But it's much easier to reveal their heartache under those constrictions. People will easily identify with these things because, ultimately, failure is more transparent than success and easier to convey with shorter sentences. With success, readers want to understand why and how. With failure, they simply understand.

In this respect, and simply due to sheer paragraph volume, short stories are easier to write than novels. The author only supplies half the substance: the other half, the nebulous but important connection between writer and reader, is supplied by the readers themselves.

Novels, however, must generate a world in which emotions and actions are completely justified. Readers will only identify with the characters if they are painted practically from scratch. Sure, readers will identify with novels, but there isn't a requirement for this identification like that for short stories. There is, however, an expectation for deliverance on the author's part, the deliverance of compelling characters in interesting situations with realistic emotions - a tall order. But that expectation exists mostly because novels are huge time commitment for the reader.

In other respects, however, especially in terms of the urgency and economy of plot, novels are easier to write. They are forgiven slightly for their flabbiness, only because almost every imagined existence will contain a little literary paunch of an author's overexertion.

Aaron said...

I do not think that there is anything fundamentally different between the short story and the novel besides length. The issues that go along with writing prose have to do with the story being told. When you make dinner, whether there will be four people or fourteen may decide what you make. To me, it is the story to be told that dictates what form it takes. When it comes to process of creation, it is the same for short stories that it is for novels: Draft, revision, revision, revision, repeat until done
I do think the short story suffers in America, and not just in comparison to the novel. Not that there is anything wrong with the short story as an art form, it is just devalued in our culture. It is unfortunate in a substantially tragic way, I think, as if people in Germany were to stop listening to Beethoven, or Hawaii suddenly decided to dump the hula. The short story is high art in America, its practitioners here delivering some of the best examples of its greatness.
It could be the name. English is one of the richest languages in vocabulary, and yet the moniker is remarkably poor. In classical music, there are no ‘short symphonies’; in sports no one call the sprint a ‘short marathon’. The name we give to fiction which just happens to be under than 15,000 words (to quote one definition, more on that later) implies that there is something out there that is bigger that you could be reading. Names like sonata and concerto from music are a parallel for reference, implying a different aim of the composer from say, symphony. These all happens under the umbrella of “classical music”. I think we need other ways to refer to these works that all fall under the umbrella of fiction. Poetry is a type of literature that also has prose beat in the name game. You can write sonnets, villanelles, epics, lyrics, etc. Some of these refer to rhyme scheme but not all.
I am not even going to get into novellas. That is a whole other rant.
The short story may also have gotten on its high horse. Novels in book stores can be what we can term ‘serious literature’. Or you can read mystery novels or science fiction novels or romance novels or horror novels. Or even ‘chick lit’, whatever that is. Short stories that are current can be found in very few ‘major’ magazines and less every year. Conversely, the short story is the form of choice for the literature workshop, a staple of writing programs. It is also the form of prose seen most in the literary journals. They are treated as such serious literature by one class of people in America, and almost ignored by another. This disparity, which result from one group in America treating the short story as high art while the other group ignores it almost completely, make account for all the high seriousness in short fiction. The cell phone novels that currently are popular in Japan may be helpful in this way.
Prose needs to recognize two things in my opinion: First, that it’s all fiction where fiction is concerned, and we needn’t point fingers or differentiate, even if its in a aggrandizing way, like Millhauser (who is a novelist who wrote a novel that won the Pulitzer Prize). We use the paragraph and the sentence in all forms of prose, which are just as artificial in construction as any poetic verse. And second, we have to talk about why we might like shorter pieces of it, and why those shorter pieces aren’t as popular in the mainstream. I think those are the real issue with this so-called ‘short story’.

For funny short stories or happy short stories, I recommend ‘Living Alone in Iota’ by Lee K. Abbott or “The Trip Back” by Robert Olen Butler. Or Robert Coover. Or George Saunders. There are lots of good humorous and ‘happy ending’ short stories out there.

Tera said...

The short story, I believe, is simply more succinct than the novel. Within the brevity of the tale it may seem difficult for some readers to find the range of emotions that are spelled out for them in the length of a novel, so the overall feeling they're left with is a bleak one. However, I also think that bleak stories are the most common type whether they are short stories or not, and the short story is left with a more concentrated feeling of despair than the drawn out version of a novel. Unhappy tales are what people can get most passionate about, because they are such issues or moments that tend to leave the longest negative impressions - which are certainly felt harder for longer than positive emotions if for no other reason than the negative ones are unwanted and bothersome.

The short story, then, when reflected on later comes back as the strongest feeling we had when reading it, wherease the novel tends to come back to us in bits and pieces of information combined with how we felt when we finally turned the last page. Because the short story is usually read in one sitting, taking us far less time than a novel, many readers end up digesting it with an overall impression that could be changed with repeated readings, yet first impressions are intermingled with the strongest emotion the story elicited without the filter of other strong emotions coming through as the novel might have the oportunity for. This actually keeps the short story more focused and direct, and doesn't give the reader a chance to forget the main focus as they would in a novel.

Anonymous said...

The author of both, the novel and short story, use different techniques to enter the mind of the reader. The structure, purpose and focus of each form of literary prose provide the maximum clarity through different dialect. The novel builds a relationship and provides rich detail to complete the physical and mental landscape of a novel. Alternatively, the short story provides richness through the reader’s sub-conscious with its innate and lyrical connection. It combines a fragment of life with pointed events to develop the high impact and emotive attachment. The novel and short story are both a form of literary prose; however, their vernacular capture the mental world of the reader vastly different.