What Makes the Short Story Distinctive? Writers Discuss the Story vs. the Novel

This is the latest in our series on the short story--its unique aesthetic, how it's different from the writing of a novel, who are some of the form's major practitioners, and what it takes to craft a successful short story.
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This is the latest in our series on the short story--its unique aesthetic, how it's different from the writing of a novel, who are some of the form's major practitioners, and what it takes to craft a successful short story.

Aamer Hussein is one of the most prominent South Asian short story writers, whose books include Turquoise, The Blue Direction and Other Stories, This Other Salt, and Insomnia.

Read Aamer's story "Singapore Jay":

I was recently writing a short piece after spending the better part of three years on longer fictions; it took me only a couple of days to write two drafts to a word limit of 2,500. I felt I could breathe. With longer works I'm aware of the architecture of the whole book and don't feel able to work on each chapter as if it were a self-contained piece; I roam from room to room instead of focusing on the decor and construction of one. Novels also allow for slack and clumsy passages. What I like best about short fiction is the paradoxical flexibility the form allows; the overlap between other genres such as memoir, poem, travelogue or even, at times, ironic litcrit.

I began under the influence of the Chinese writer Lu Xun, the Japanese Tanizaki, the Norwegian Cora Sandel, and Yourcenar. I was rereading Lu Xun in a new translation last weekend and still admired him hugely, but feel I'm some distance away from him now, especially from his polemical side, though his influence lingers in my frequent use of the tricks and tropes of memoir or pseudo-memoir. I feel I'm now largely uninfluenced as everything I learned has been though a process of osmosis. I love Akutagawa, Isak Dinesen, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, M. Bashir, Qurratulain Hyder, Initezar Hussain, Saiichi Maruya; oh, the list goes on.

I think the short story makes many demands on the reader. A good short story requires that you read every word carefully and usually that you reread the story. A collection of stories has, at its best, more range and depth than a novel. As a practitioner I still feel that short fiction comes most easily to me, though I've found some of my fictions becoming longer, hence the recent shift of direction. However, both my recent books were originally short stories.

Recently, I've enjoyed Lydia Davis's work more than that of any other short story writer in English. I think Lorrie Moore is important as a dedicated practitioner. In England, the genre is in decline, probably because publishers won't take a risk, and many writers are dismissive of the form.

I read stories in the original Urdu, Hindi, Italian, French and Spanish, and in translation from Arabic and other languages. I don't feel that North America has a monopoly on prowess in the form though it has definitely and consistently produced wonderful practitioners; my own influences have been largely non-Anglo-Saxon, so judging the formal differences is very tricky for me, but perhaps other traditions rely much less on the fleeting moment. In the nineteenth century, short fiction by, say, Kleist in German, Pushkin in Russian, or Villiers de L'Isle Adam in French told an entire story and I think that in Spanish, Italian, and the Romance languages this tradition persisted through much of the 20th century. Reading mid- to late twentieth century Urdu fiction was a minor revelation; the ways in which realism and fable, tradition and post-modernism are juxtaposed.

I think my work has become simpler as the years have gone by. And I'm perhaps more able to cast memory in the mold of storytelling. In style and themes, I became, in midstream, less cosmopolitan in my approach and made connections with my Urdu literary heritage. Formally, the approach of a certain heaviness signals that I'm straying away from the sparser terrain of the story into the woods of the novella or novel and I follow my instinct if that seems to be the case. But I'll always go back to my original dedication to the translucent brevity of my chosen form.

In America, read your own masters, from Welty to Tennessee Williams, Barthelme to Katherine Anne Porter, Richard Yates to Jean Stafford: there's a wonderful range. Then move to the Latin Americans--Borges, Cortazar--and the Europeans. About England, I'll remain silent: I think the form is popular only in Creative Writing classes.

Larry Fondation is the author of two novels and two collections of short stories, all set in inner city Los Angeles. Two of his books are collaborations with visual artist Kate Ruth.

Read Larry's new story, "The Last Stop":

Read Larry's work here, here, here, and here.

Larry: My fictional project is largely one of compression. I am very influenced by the visual arts, which are generally less "conservative" than literature, perhaps still the most conservative of all the art forms. I try to find what Henri Cartier-Bresson called, in photography, "the decisive moment," the idea being to evoke a broader, more complete story at a given moment in time. I mostly leave back story to inference. So, the short story is a "natural" form for me.

Contemporary life is fragmented and discontinuous, and our stories follow suit--punctuated by a choppy, irregular rhythm. The short story is the ideal form of fiction for our times, though we have not recognized that notion yet. Without an apologia for short attention spans, the short form in fiction mirrors the pop song, even of the "indie" variety, in and out in five minutes or less.

Despite the endurance vs. stamina debate, I think the short form is the more demanding. It would be better to have ten years than two to reconcile quantum mechanics and relativity. Or an hour to pick up the cutest boy or girl at the bar rather than five minutes...well, perhaps.

Larger-than-life influences and models include Chekhov, of course, and Stephen Crane, Beckett, Borges, Paul Bowles, Nelson Algren, Denis Johnson. Today there are some excellent writers working in the short form: Dennis Cooper, Barry Graham, and Harold Jaffe, who has invented a kind of new form with his "docu-fictions."

I read a fair amount of European literature and have begun reading contemporary work from Iraq and Korea. The conservatism of both form and content that haunts American storytellers is not so present in other countries. Writers from other nations do not seem so obsessed with "parlor fiction" or so fearful of "public fiction." I am not advocating didactic fiction, but rather, relevant fiction--fiction of the world as opposed to that of the living room. I'm not alone in not wanting to read more stories about the troubled lives of over-privileged people--particularly in these times.

In terms of form, if contemporary American literature were jazz, we wouldn't have gotten as far as be-bop. Sure in the sixties and seventies, we had Donald Bartheleme, Ronald Sukenick and all. And while I do not write in a style terribly similar to theirs, I do see myself as a kind of "experimental realist," or "post-realist," who is greatly indebted to them. By contrast, a reading of today's journals would largely suggest that those folks had never written at all.

Though most contemporary American writers would no doubt define themselves as political progressives, we do live in a reactionary, "Tea Party" moment in time, and our literature reflects that--albeit perhaps unconsciously.

Among recent European writers, many seem to hybridize and blend elements of the short story in their longer work, taking advantage of the strengths of the short form--its precision, its sharper edges. The late Max Frisch and Dubrakva Ugresic come to mind as writers who build novels from briefer fragments. Irvine Welsh often does the same. (Among Americans, Mary Robison is an exemplar of such a method). And, recent Nobel laureates Herta Muller and J. M. G. Le Clezio are both excellent and cutting-edge short story writers, as well as accomplished novelists.

All six writers I just mentioned delve deeply into the public as well private realms of fiction. Their work all has a social and political relevance in the best sense; it illuminates the times we live in. For example, Robison's "One DOA, One On The Way" is the best book we have on post-Katrina New Orleans. Form and content do indeed go hand-in-hand.

As for the current state of the story, there is a glimmer of hope: small presses continue to do a good job, and even some of the larger houses, notably the Harper Perennial imprint, are fueling a possible short story resurgence. And music's DIY ethos could serve as a model. Artists in every creative medium always complain-- typically justifiably--about their "industry." But, as writers, the best thing we can do to strengthen the art form is to strengthen our writing, to rise to the challenge of chronicling our complex and troubled era.

Clifford Garstang is the author of a story collection, In an Uncharted Country, and is the editor of Prime Number Magazine.

Watch Clifford discuss linked stories and his collection.

Listen to Clifford discuss his story collection.

Clifford: I like the way many stories begin, truly in the middle of things, and then remain focused on a narrow pivot point--a choice, or a decision, or the outcome of a conflict. In contrast, despite the impatience of readers, novels begin more slowly, and there is rarely a single moment that is the focus. I know, or think I know, when I'm done with a story. I have not yet arrived at the point in a novel where I was even reasonably certain that it was finished. The story writers I admire are all over the place in terms of style. Some I admire are Russell Banks, Raymond Carver, Richard Bausch, Frederick Busch, Elizabeth Strout, Alice Munro.

Alyson Hagy is the author of four collections of short stories and three novels. Ghosts of Wyoming: Stories is her latest book from Graywolf Press.

Alyson read from her novel Snow, Ashes (Graywolf, 2007) for the University of Wyoming TV.

Read an excerpt from Alyson's novel-in-progress:

Alyson: I think of writing short stories as being comparable to composing chamber music or Old World ballads. Stories may be short, but the best ones are so full, so capable of expressing the best of language, character and plot, that the experience of reading them feels complete. Stories are songs, and they can move and engage readers even if they don't have the symphonic heft of a novel. It's not the length of stories that fascinates me; it's the density. You can try to put as much in one story as the structure can possibly bear. Or you can try to pare the form down and hone only the tiniest flicker of a narrative, something that is very close to a poem. Working in the short form allows me to play. The longer I work as a writer, the more important it becomes for me to play, to discover, to be surprised.

I've published two novels. And I'm working on a new one now. Novels require sheer stamina. And, for me, that means hours and days and weeks of uninterrupted time. I'm at the point in my life where I'm willing to try almost anything in prose. But I will spend months trying to talk myself out of starting a new novel because the time investment will be so significant. I almost never try to talk myself out of beginning a new story. There's too much to learn there--even in the failing.

I wasn't able to imagine myself as a writer until I was introduced to the stories of Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty, and Katherine Anne Porter. That first seduction was based on sound. The characters in those stories sounded like the people I'd grown up with. I wanted to join that writers' choir. Only later did I begin to think about things like structure, and my models shifted. Ann Beattie. Charles Baxter. George Garrett. Raymond Carver. Alice Munro. I devoured contemporary short fiction in the 1980s and 1990s. The next phase involved going back and looking at earlier American sources--Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, Jean Toomer, Edith Wharton. I also began to read poetry more regularly, and that has probably had as deep an effect on my work as anything else. Anne Carson. W.S. Merwin. Those writers have truly bent the rim to the wheel when it comes to language and form. Recent influences? I read widely and instinctively. Lydia Davis followed by Haruki Murakami followed by Edward P. Jones. How do great writers shape narratives that haunt and surprise us? I mull that question over every day.

Only when it comes to time. I work intensely on both forms. But it can take me all day (or more than that) just to re-read what I've drafted in a novel. I can re-read a story, tinker and placate and revise, then re-read it again all in a single work day. That can be very gratifying, particularly if there's a day job to attend to.

My list of favorites is extensive. Alice Munro. William Trevor. Haruki Murakami. Edward P. Jones. Lydia Davis. I could go on and on.

The difference in aesthetic between American short stories and those in other languages fascinate me. Chekhov had his aesthetic. Borges had his. Cortazar. Luisa Valenzuela. Yukio Mishima. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The impulse to organize culture with stories seems universal. But the aesthetics vary greatly. I am not as well read as I should be. I know very little about the stories of Africa or Central Asia, for instance. I plan to keep plunging in.

I try to press myself forward on two fronts. Is the story urgent enough to take up a reader's time and energy? Is it a tale worth telling? And am I taking some kind of risk--aesthetically or thematically or dramatically? I don't want to tell the same bits over and over. I want to lurch and change as America lurches and changes around me.

The American story seems as healthy to me right now as it's been in my lifetime. Collections may not attract large advances in New York, but the independent publishing scene has never been livelier or more free-wheeling. The advances in electronic media seem to have bolstered communities of writers and readers who like short fiction. It's easier to find smart, compelling reviews of short fiction. It's easier to buy the books you want. The blog scene is hopping. I've also had folks stop me on the street to talk about how much they like to listen to story podcasts while they commute or work out or whatever. And it seems possible to me that the increased use of Kindles and iPads and those kinds of devices will link more and more readers to short stories. So I think it's an exciting time. There is no American "house style." There is a lot of innovative work out there. There is also a wealth of good, old-fashioned storytelling. What's more, I'd argue that people may indeed be reading less, but they crave narrative as never before. America is an anxious, shifting, bawling, brawling nation right now. There's plenty of good, important work for writers to do.

Ben Greenman is the author of several books of fiction.

Ben reads from "Helpmate," from his collection Correspondences

Ben shares his story, "What 100 People, Real and Fake, Believe about Dolores"

A short story can be fertilized, grow, and peck its way out of the egg (aka my head) in a few days or a week. A novel gestates for a year, minimum (although there are cases when it comes quicker, most people would tell you that's premature). It's not easier, really, but it can feel more creatively compressed and intense: a one-night stand rather than a long courtship. And now that I'm all tangled in metaphors of sex and birth, I'll add a more external consideration: short stories affect readers differently than novels. This is true for individual works, but it's especially true when stories are collected. For me, that's the best part of the process, deciding which stories to place next to each other. It's like collecting a bunch of songs and making an album: you can have variety, charge of context, chicanes and chicanery.

More of my models have come aboard over time, though the earliest ones haven't disappeared. There are genre writers, crime fiction especially, who are geniuses at setting up and then discharging a mystery in a short space. There's Borges, of course, who did things with the form that other people couldn't imagine. There's Chekhov, who I'm co-writing a book with that will be out in October. There's Poe and Melville and Mary Robison and Mary Gaitskill and Julian Barnes and Haruki Murakami and so many others. I don't read as many contemporary short stories as I'd like, either by living writers or recently deceased ones, partly because I like to go back in time to mostly forgotten early twentieth-century writers like Grace Sartwell Mason or Parry Truscott. It's amazing to see what they were writing about, and how it is or isn't recognizable when read against current short fiction.

Does a home make fewer demands on an architect than an office building? Does a small canvas make fewer demands on a painter than a large one? It makes different demands: more economy, more responsibility for interpretation offloaded to the reader.

I'm not sure there's a single American aesthetic. Is there? The country is so huge that it's like many countries all rolled into one. There are places (and consequently, groups of writers) where nature is a player. There are places (and writers) that are preoccupied with form. I think that probably these groupings, if really studied, would yield some kind of aesthetic taxonomy: how irony is used or misused, whether realism is a precise blade or a cudgel, if funny names should be permissible.

I have tried to take chances whenever possible. Early on, that meant more experimentation, and stories like "What 100 People, Real and Fake, Believe About Dolores," which is a kind of crime-scene related by, as the title indicates, 100 people, both real and fake. As my career has gone on, taking chances meant more emotional openness and honesty: more incorporation of real-world problems, maybe a little more formality. I have always been somewhat skeptical of plot in short stories, though I'm envious when I see it done well.

As for strengthening the art of the short story, this is an impossibly complex question, because it's tied to so many other things, and so many of those other things are slippery: to attention spans, to technology, to alternate sources of narrative and character, to distribution networks, to processes of critical vetting, to the economics of writing fiction. I think that one of the things we can do is to be brave about how we get short stories in front of people, and flexible about what exactly a short story is. Journals like Electric Literature are helping to lead the way out of the cul-de-sac, though who knows what kind of traffic they'll encounter.

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