Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Short Story


I know many people who never read short stories. They claim shorts are not absorbing enough to spend time with. They don't transport them to the place that good novels do. Of course, I disagree with this. And because a short story can usually be read in one sitting, the experience can be very transporting. You usually know very clearly what the story is about.

In the 2011 O'Henry Awards, A.M. Homes compares novels to short stories by using the metaphor of a train. "The novel is a cross-country trip; one boards leisurely in D.C. and watches the landscape unfold as the train passes through Maryland, Ohio, Illinois as one prepares to disembark in L.A.'s Union Station. The short story is like hopping on that same train already in motion in Chicago and riding it into Albuquerque with no time to waste."

Is this a good metaphor for you? Yes and no. I don't see why the short story has to told as she indicated by the phrase "no time to waste." Also some novels seem to rush by us and some short stories seem to linger on a moment forever.

How would you define the difference?

14 comments:

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

I like reading short stories so I usually try and squeeze in a few between the three books I read at a time. They are mostly absorbing, they are quick to read, and they break the monotony of reading a full-length novel. I particularly like reading short stories by authors who have also written novels.

Dan_Luft said...

I think that a good story finds its own size to fit. I've read a few short stories or novellas that were rewritten as novels and the puffing never works.

In contrast to your quote I think that quiet contemplation works better in a short story. Some stories by Updike or Carver have no plots other than a character noticing or realizing something.

Todd Mason said...

Short fiction usually deals with relatively few important changes, while the better novels usually deal with a few more, or how they effect more characters or characters through a longer period. Though even this is not universal.

Short fiction has fewer words is often the only reliable truism about their relation. And it's usually easier to read short fiction in one sitting.

I honestly don't understand anyone who denigrates shorter forms in favor of novels, unless they don't enjoy reading very much, find it a chore, and the necessary mental "stage-setting" is for them a difficulty...hence the megabook or open-ended series is less trying than the shorter work.

One might as well hate songs and insist on only symphonies or opera or perhaps song-cycle albums. Disparage portraits for landscapes. But, then, those who dislike b&w film (still or movie) and crave only color similarly flummox me.

F.T. Bradley said...

Short stories are more about effect--you can be so much more daring, darker, etc. It's hard to get away with a completely dark ending in a novel.

Not sure I like that train metaphor, because it reduces a short story to a rushed novel. Hmmm...

Maybe it's like running a marathon vs. sprinting? Both take a different skill set. The novel has a comfortable feeling, where the short story has intensity.

Todd Mason said...

Oh, but there are utterly uncomfortable (and utterly bleak) novels.

Anonymous said...

Well Todd, my wife would disagree with you. She hates reading short stories (I've read at least one a day since August of 1995). Her reasons? She feels there is no time for character or plot development. Needless to say I disagree.

Jeff M.

Gerald So said...

Though short stories are short, I would argue that they should be read more slowly, more attentively than novels. Frenetic action is only one possible virtue of short stories. A better one is that each word, phrase, sentence in a short story is more powerful than any one word, phrase, or sentence in a novel.

I would argue that it's easier to get a head of steam reading a novel such that you don't notice every sentence or paragraph. This is why writers say novels are more forgiving than short stories. I sometimes feel sorry that novelists have to write entire books when, depending on a section's overall pace, readers may just breeze through it.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Nice points here. I always thought of shorts as a good segue from poetry. You learn to care about every word in both.

Richard R. said...

I like them and read them. My problem is I often finish one and simply charge on to the next one, without giving what I just read adequate consideration. With novels, there is always a day lag while I mull the book over. I guess I ust need to give myself a few minutes before I start the next story...

pattinase (abbott) said...

With this reading one a day for a year, it has stopped me from doing that. I have perhaps a hundred collections sitting around and I just pick one up every day and read the one.

George said...

I'd rather read a good short story than a bloated novel any day. Jeff Meyerson got me into reading a short story every day. It's fun to work your way through a great writer's COLLECTED SHORT STORIES collection!

pattinase (abbott) said...

I like switching around. I have them piled up everywhere and it is great fun to choose what to read every day.

Charles Gramlich said...

shorts and novels are different experiences. I'm not sure I'd consider them enough alike to use the same metaphor of a train ride. Short stories, at least when well done, are individual gems studied at close range with a jeweler's glass. Novels, when done well, are more like the Crown Jewels.

Ron Scheer said...

I prefer novels because they stick with me long afterwards, yet while I say this, I can think of some short fiction that's been just as memorable: James Joyce's "The Dead," for instance, Annie Proulx's "Brokeback Mountain," or T. C. Boyle's "Killing Babies."