Hayden's Ferry Review


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?
Beth StaplesCraft, Fiction