When it comes to fiction, it’s an interesting fact that size matters. I’ve been thinking about this because I recently downloaded Dubliners, James Joyce’s collection of stories, from Gutenberg and have been rereading the stories on my phone. (Yes, my phone, whatevs).
It’s funny to think, but there was a time when you could find a short story in most any periodical, and they were even somewhat culturally relevant. Some speculate the internet will lead to a Renaissance for short fiction, but it hasn’t materialized. And may never.
Novels sell so much better that it has engendered an entire genre of collections of (occasionally very vaguely) interconnected short stories that get called novels. You see more an more of these things all the time. I believe if Dubliners was published today, it would have been marketed as “Dubliners: A Novel,” just to garner sales.
But, of course, the difference between short stories, novellas and novels is about much more than length. Reading Kurt Vonnegut’s advice on how to write short stories, I’m tempted to say the difference is in digression.
Usually a really effective short story does not digress from its main objective, and it delivers its meaning in a single bold stroke of insight. But a novel can go all over the place. In this way some novels really do end up like a collection of short stories, although, of course, there is usually some ultimate coherence.
That said, there are more than a few ways to bring focus to the short story genre. Atlantic Monthly Fiction Editor C. Michael Curtis has detailed a couple of the main ways:
A short story can “work” in a number of ways, depending on the author’s intentions. Some stories, the ones I tend to admire most, are “dynamic.” That is, they move forward toward a resolution of some kind, and have a fulcrum, or transforming moment, for which the author prepares us, and toward which the action of the story is plainly directed. This transforming moment provides a change of some sort: a concrete change of circumstance, an illuminating and life-altering insight, a moment of clarity, an authentic glimpse of the self, or the like.
The other familiar story type is “static,” or rooted in the moment. Such stories are meant to explore “How Things Are,” rather than where they’re going or ought to go. They depend upon shrewdness of insight, elasticity of language, a gift for weaving together apparently disparate elements into a revealing and organic whole. They illuminate problems rather than follow characters toward decisive action, and many are both shrewd about human behavior, and entertaining in their use of language and paradox.
So, we’ve got dynamic and static short stories, what you might call stories and sketches. There are other styles you are probably familiar with, such as the O. Henry twist. Joyce liked to say his story technique was to seek out epiphanies. Whatever you call it, each technique is just another way to accomplish the same thing: to apply pressure to the story. To compress it. And that’s perhaps exactly why short stories aren’t as powerful as novels for modern readers.
Readers of fiction, the ones that read large quantities of fiction, do so to escape the real world. And hence they want that escape to draw them back in and go on and on. Witness what sells. Short stories aren’t really doing it for these readers, because the whole purpose of the short story is precisely the opposite. If what you want is a long digression, a short punch in the face isn’t going to satisfy your want.
Thankfully, there are still some people who love short stories, and the genre is widely recognized as an important way for writers to practice craft. At a recent event at 826 Valencia, Daniel Alarcón referred to short stories as “a gateway drug.” And given the addictive nature of writing, maybe that’s just what they are. They get people started down the path that will lead them to those novels that the public loves.
Plus, sometimes, they’re just frickin’ awesome.
William Emery wrote a great response to this post over at 365 Crush. (If this keeps up, I’m going to have to open this blog up to comments!)