Sunday, November 28, 2010

Short Story or Novel?

This is one of those navel-gazing posts.  You know, all about me.  The kind in which I’m mostly just trying to figure out why I am the way I am. 

Regular readers will know that I’m not much for short stories.  When I sit down to read short stories I can often appreciate them but they are never my first choice to read.  I instinctively shy away from them when I am looking for something to read and I automatically reach for a novel.

I was thinking about that a little more after reading Chad Harbach’s article in Slate.  I was thinking about it in terms of a book I am currently reading and a book I just read.  I decided months ago not to blog about books that I’m not interested in and I wasn’t intending to blog about either of these books but now they seem of more interest to me.  Or at least they fit into a topic that I’m currently finding interesting.  Short story v. Novel.

Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It is a book of short stories by Maile Meloy that my reading group chose for our next book.  Even though I was involved in the decision I really didn’t remember anything about the book description when I picked it up the other day and began reading.   I also completely forgot it was a book of short stories.  So when I started reading I was thinking … novel.

I was hooked immediately as I read about the ranch hand who, in a desperate search to escape the loneliness of the ranch, drove into town one cold winter night and followed a group of people into a building just to be near them.  It turned out to be a night class on “school law” and  I thought that was a a realistic but unexpected way to start.  As the ranch hand returned to class the next week, the reader sees that he has a crush on/fallen in love with/become obsessed with the young woman lawyer who is teaching the night class.  Ah, I thought.  Great characters, good set up.  The plot thickened when the young woman disappeared after a few classes because the drive was too long for her and the ranch hand searched her out.   They have an awkward conversation outside her office and he leaves feeling disheartened.

The next chapter … turned out to be an entirely different story.  But the fact that it was about entirely different characters in a different locale, talking about different times in their lives didn’t throw me.  Lots of novels are like that these days.  They jump around.  I fully expected that somehow we’d get back to the ranch hand and/or the woman lawyer and explore the idea of living the lonely life.

So I felt pretty dumb when I finally figured out that these were short stories.  And then very disappointed because I had set myself up for wanting to see the development of that ranch hand character, not to mention the character of the young woman lawyer.  And mostly because I thought she had been developing an idea that she was going to explore in depth with these characters.  Now I had to come to terms that, as far as she was concerned, this was it.  She had said all she was going to say.  And as far as I was concerned it wasn’t enough.  I mean, if a person can’t tell that a short story is a short story as they are reading it and instead mistake it for a first chapter in a novel, don’t you think there’s a problem?  I do.

And that, I thought in disgust, is why I don’t like most short stories. They seem unfinished.

But, when I calmed down and started thinking about it I realized that I do like many short stories.  Flannery O’Connor’s stories.  O’Henry’s stories.  Stories that have a beginning, a middle and an end and you know damn good and well when you get to the end of the story.  Heck, even the chapters of Olive Kitteridge had endings. Each one could have been published as a short story.

We got off to a bad start, this book and I.  It isn’t that I don’t like her writing style, I do.  And I’ve enjoyed some of the other stories. But with most stories I feel like there should be more.  I want to tell her – go back and write a novel with the ranch hand in it.  He’s got the beginnings of a good story – finish it.  Don’t just tell me about him and then let the story peter out.   


I googled her and discovered she has written two novels.  Maybe I’ll give them a try.  Obviously she has the capacity to draw me in.  But will I trust her not to leave me hanging?

On the other hand, I recently read The Perfect Reader, a first novel by Maggie Pouncey. This was a novel that should have been a short story.  It’s rare that I think that, but I did with this one. In fact, part of me wondered if it started as a short story and someone told her “there’s more to this story than you are telling” and so she tried to finish the story but just ended up with an unsatisfying novel.  

In this novel the heroine, Flora Dempsey, moves back to New England when her father, former president of the local college, dies.  He has made her his literary executor. Most of his work is academic but she finds he has also written some erotic poems dedicated to a fellow academic named Cynthia with whom he has been in a relationship for a while, to the surprise of Flora.  Flora has to come to terms with his poems and with Cynthia. 

According to Publisher’s Weekly:  “This imaginative debut takes a profound look at the connection between words on the page and the infinite interpretations for a reader.”   Uh, no.  There was no “profound look”. At least not as far as I was concerned.  Sure, she raised the issue and she had the character come to some conclusions.  But she didn’t need 300 pages to do that. At least, not the way that she did it. 

I had the impression that she wasn’t really interested in looking at the connection with the word on the page and the interpretation of them by readers.  Because every time she got close to that, she switched topics.  I think if she had really wanted to take a profound look at that issue she might have created a good novel, but instead she just kept giving us characters and plot and not ideas, and she created an average novel.  It wasn’t terrible.  But it wasn’t memorable or thought provoking either.

So I’ve been thinking about what the difference is, for me, between short stories and novels.  I think it is about the depth of exploration of an idea

I don’t think I get that with a short story.  At least not at the level that I want.  I’m not talking about bad short stories, even I know that there are good short stories out there and sometimes I actually read one.  Those are the ones I’m talking about.  Of course a good short story usually does have an idea being explored.  But in the small amount of time allotted, the short story really has to have a couple of well drawn characters and a story that hangs together and has to explore the idea through character and plot.

A novel, on the other hand, has more time to explore big ideas from many angles.  Sure a novel can have great characters and plots but, for me, a novel isn’t really worth the time without an an idea that is being explored on multiple levels.  My rating goes up in big increments if the structure of the novel helps the exploration of the idea.  The novelist can create an intricate structure and multiple characters and multiple plot lines and can have them all work in service to the idea.  Of course, many novels don’t.  But the good ones do. 

For a person like me with limited reading time, I’m always going to try to maximize the chance that I’ll get the kind of fiction I like to read.  It’s annoying to be stuck reading something that is only “ok” (if it’s bad I just stop reading, but “ok” means it could get better.  You only know the whole thing is average when you get to the end.). 

For me, character and plot are less important than beautiful sentences, intricate structure and interesting ideas explored on a deep level.   With short stories I can get characters and plot and beautiful sentences.  I can even get a good idea but I can’t get it explored on a deep level and usually there isn’t an intricate structure.  So that’s one reason that, given a chance, I’ll choose a novel over a short story any day.  My odds are better of getting something I’ll love rather than something I’ll simply like.