Is the short story really the novel's poor relation?
By: Chris Power
Last month saw the publication of 50 Mini Modern Classics by Penguin, marking the 50th anniversary of their Modern Classics list. Each of these miniature volumes, the size of a slice of toast, contains several short or single longer stories by one writer. It's often said short stories don't sell, or that the form only thrives in the independent sector, or in America, or online, so it's heartening to see a major UK publisher releasing 50 all in one go, in the traditional dead-tree format.
Yet if my friends, acquaintances and assorted others I speak to are at all representative, the short story is, like fiction in translation, a minority interest. A 2004 Arts Council report found that just over half of "light to medium" readers "sometimes read books of short stories". It's a situation that some in the publishing industry describe as a self-fulfilling prophecy: advances for short stories are much lower than those for novels; sales are expected to be one third or a quarter of those for a novel by the same writer, and marketing departments accordingly deny short stories much or any promotional budget. The advice the report offered writers was unequivocal: theme your collection, write it in such a way that it can be disguised as something else, or scrap it and write a novel instead.
The belief that the short story is a poor relation of the novel persists. Its roots reach back to literature's beginnings, but the short story as we know it only came to be regarded as a distinct form in the 19th century, with works by Poe, Kleist, Gogol and Turgenev resisting established pigeonholes. In the 20th century the short story was the site of as much innovation and great writing as the novel. Consider the Mini Modern Classics list: even in terms of this relatively modest sample, any reader who hasn't read at least some of the short stories of Joyce, Borges, Kafka, Barthelme, Mansfield, Conrad, Carter, Kipling or Trevor is neglecting some of the great literature of the last century.
Nadine Gordimer has said that "I don't think one should compare novels and stories. [The story] is a different thing." I agree: I consider the short story quite different from the novel. Extricating the two, however, is not straightforward. Writers seem incapable of defining the short story other than by its difference from the novel. Deborah Eisenberg tells us that "the plot of a good story is likely to be a stranger, more volatile and more evanescent sort of thing than the plot of a novel". To Nabokov, "In relation to the typical novel the short story represents a small Alpine, or Polar, form. It looks different, but is...linked to it by intermediate clines." For Lorrie Moore the short story, compared to the novel, is "a more magical form". JG Ballard sees short stories as "the loose change in the treasury of fiction, easily ignored beside the wealth of novels available, an over-valued currency that often turns out to be counterfeit".
I was reminded of Ballard's somewhat combative position by a 2008 New York Times op-ed by Steven Millhauser (which I came to via Charles May's excellent blog, Reading the Short Story). Millhauser knows whereof he speaks, having written novels as well as some outstanding short fiction, and begins on familiar ground: "The novel is insatiable - it wants to devour the world. What's left for the poor short story to do? [...] The novel buys up the land, cuts down the trees, puts up the condos. The short story scampers across a lawn, squeezes under a fence."
But he quickly subverts the idea of the "poor short story" and its modest ambitions. The novel, obsessed with containing the whole world, is doomed to fail, whereas the short story can see "a world in a grain of sand": "In that single grain of sand lies the beach that contains the grain of sand. In that single grain of sand lies the ocean that dashes against the beach, the ship that sails the ocean, the sun that shines down on the ship, the interstellar winds, a teaspoon in Kansas, the structure of the universe. 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."
As last month's debate on this blog about the "Great Novel" status of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom underlined, novels that seek to contain multitudes, to embody a particular society at a particular time, seem doomed to fall short. The short story, by contrast, acknowledges the vastness and diversity of life by the very act of focusing on one small moment or aspect of it. The story is small precisely because life is so big. Novelists are expected to tie up loose ends, whereas the short story writer can make a virtue of ambiguity. The short story is fundamentally different from the novel; not better, just different. As Richard Ford once told the Paris Review, recalling arguments with Raymond Carver about the story versus the novel, "Forms of literature don't compete. They don't have to compete. We can have it all."