Sunday, August 24, 2008

Short stories vs. novels ... again

If you're in a rush, come back later. There's a lot here. Maybe this long post will make up for my often terse posts, or sporadic ones.

It's long, like a novel, but it's mostly about short stories, which I've been thinking of a lot lately--especially since writing a noir short story for an anthology, which I loved loved loved writing.

I dwell on this so much of late, whether what I'm obsessed with these days -- namely, the past -- should go into my novel or stand alone as a short story. I just read Polly Frost's thoughts on this subject and think: short story! Then I think, short stories can be too short when you tend to write long; my first published short story ("Quickening") was 9,000 words.

Short stories were my first love. I spent my entire time in college writing short stories and poetry. Didn't even consider writing a novel until I was years out of college.

Short stories give you more immediate gratification, too. A novel can take years but a short story might take, at most, a couple of months. Getting it published can be a trial, though, unless you're willing to pub it anywhere.

I just received the new book, Off the Page, edited by Carole Burns. It's a compendium of short pieces with quotes by 40-some writers on aspects of writing. I like what Gish Jen says about novels vs. short stories:
It's the difference between having an affair and being married. The story is fun because you can go anywhere, you can write about anything. I think in my stories you can see that there's a slightly giddy air to them. I think you can see I'm on holiday. But there's a way in which you can put everything that you know as a human, including the texture of your life, into a novel.


I love novels, yet--and don't hit me for saying this--sometimes I think too many are being published. So many cross my threshold in consideration for the show and I can't help but think some shouldn't have been published at all, and others should be way shorter--short story length, actually. There's such pressure to write novels, not short stories.

Depends on my mood as to what I want to read. Lately I tend to read novels, though I love the noir anthologies published by Akashic Books. Los Angeles Noir is a current favorite. (This year Susan Straight won an Edgar award for her story.) Susan, Gary Phillips and Naomi Hirahara talk about writing noir on my show, which you can hear on podcast. (Enter one of their names in the Search box and you'll find it.)

I asked Frost what she thought about short stories vs. novels. She said:

God bless everyone in the mainstream book world who publishes short fiction! The New Yorker, the book publishers who are committed to anthologies, the editors who stand up for short story collections. I'm grateful for your radio show and for Tania Hershman's
The Short Review -- you celebrate short fiction!

But I don't think the road to mainstream publication is easy for anyone writing short fiction of any kind, literary or genre, these days. I wish I could say that there is one easier path to get published, but I don't think there it exists.

This is a puzzle to me, to be frank. For one thing, I've been writing and publishing since the mid-1980's, so I've seen phases come and go. There have been times when mainstream publishing gushed out a lot of short fiction of many different kinds, and when critics and readers enjoyed a real wealth of material and talent to explore.

Remember the Gordon Lish years? The years when both women's and men's magazines like Redbook and GQ regularly published short fiction?

Now doesn't seem to be one of those eras. Still, I'm confident the good times will return soon.

For another thing, there's a growing audience for short fiction, especially among younger readers. People are working longer and longer hours, time is getting chopped-up in strange ways, and life seems to be getting faster and faster.

It really should be a great time for short fiction. But maybe we creators of it need to be more entrepreneurial. Maybe we need to take more advantage of the online world, of Amazon's Kindle, of self-publishing, of audio, of doing live readings. I myself did live readings in lounges and bars during the last five years and it was a fantastic experience -- I was happily surprised to get full houses and lively audiences eager to hear short fiction.

So whenever I think the grass may be greener for either literary short fiction writers or other genre writers, I stop myself. The truth is, we short fiction writers need to stop whining and start looking after our own business until mainstream publishing catches up with us and realizes that short fiction rules.


What about publishing, I said. Is it easier publishing novels?

It's absolutely easier on every level if you write a novel, from getting an agent to getting a book published.

A funny experience I had: When I first published a humor story in The New Yorker I got a call from a literary agent. The first thing she said was "So, do you have a novel?"

She lost interest in me the moment I said, "Actually, I haven't thought about writing a novel at all. I love writing short fiction."

I think this attitude on the part of the mainstream book business is, in fact, why there are so many crappy novels out there. I always say that many of today's novels feel like a short story that's gone on way too long!

It's easier, too, to get your book reviewed by the mainstream press (in so far as the mainstream press still even reviews books) if it's a novel.

However, I will say that my story collection, Deep Inside, has been reviewed close to 50 times, by mainstream and online publications and blogs. I found that many editors and critics welcomed a book of short fiction. Like everyone else, they have limited time, and it's appealing for them to read a collection of stories. I can't complain about the coverage I got for my collection -- it was much better than many novelists get.

The conversation isn't over, but this is enough about what I think. What do you think?

8 comments:

Tania Hershman said...

Barbara,
thanks so much for stopping by The Short Review blog and for mentioning it here. I am a great fan of Writers on Writing!

As a short story writer myself, and as editor of The Short Review, I second everything you say about the joys of short stories. What I'd like to add is that it seems to have become some kind of contest: short stories versus novels. Why? Is anyone trying to say that a reader has to choose? Whenever I tell someone that I am publishing a book of short stories, they look apologetic, like a meateater towards a vegetarian, and say something like "Oh, sorry, I don't read short stories, only novels". And I think to myself, If you are someone who loves good writing, great plots, strong characters, humour, depth... why would you not read short stories as well as novels? At the Short Review, we're just trying to redress the balance, give short story collections their turn in the spotlight. No-one's saying, Don't read novels. No-one's saying, You have to make a choice. There are great novels, and there are not-so-great novels, just as there are great short stories and lesser ones. It should be about the writing, not about the length.

Suko said...

I'm a big fan of short fiction and wrote two posts recently about the engaging short story collection by Kate Sutherland, All in Together Girls, in my blog about books, Suko's Notebook.

As Tania Hershman says, "it should be about the writing, not about the length". Short stories are certainly a valid form of fiction, and there are countless authors who have written and continue to write them--a quick look on Wikipedia reveals this to be true.

(P.S. I've just ordered your book, Pen on Fire....)

Anonymous said...

I can't be certain, but I think it was Hemingway who said, "I never set out to write a novel - they just turned out that way."
j.

Barbara DeMarco-Barrett said...

All three of you are so smart...

Tania, Thanks for posting the link to The Short Review. I hope my blog readers visit your site.

Suko, Post your blog link so my readers, here, can easily find you.

And Jordie, what a great line.

Thanks, you three, for posting here.

Todd said...

While I love both forms, novels tend to absorb me because of the deeper involvement with all the elements of character, setting, language, etc.

Jim Murdoch said...

I'm a little different from you. I began with poetry and wrote nothing but until my mid thirties when I wrote two novels. Stuck on my third I moved onto short stories and then back onto the novel a couple of years later. I'm now working on my fifth book which I fully expect to be a novella which is the one thing you didn't mention.

Personally I have always believed the text will dictate its own length but then I've never been one for planning out my books. I just stick a character in a situation and see what happens to him. That said, I've always been a firm believer in saying what you have to say and then getting off the page so I don't milk it.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Jim. I can't be certain but wasn't it Lincoln who said, "A story should just be long enough to make sense." Or something like that.
j.

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.