Short story versus novel

Every story encompasses a world. Every story accounts for a series of actions, whether experienced or imagined. The story, if it is any good, also contains within it a substratum, or an undertow, through which the reader is guided towards some underlying truth – or the possibility of a truth. This may consist of a paradox or even a seeming contradiction, but it will, in some way, be traced or suggested by the contours of the outer story.

This notion, at least, can be applied to the short story. When it comes to anything longer I tend to balk.  Today on the Guardian website, I read an article about the new novel by the admirable Donna Tartt, a monster of a book at 771 pages, and I recall what Italo Calvino once wrote:

‘Long novels written today are perhaps a contradiction: the dimension of time has been shattered, we cannot love or think except in fragments of time each of which goes off along its own trajectory and immediately disappears. We can rediscover the continuity of time only in the novels of that period when time no longer seemed stopped and did not yet seem to have exploded, a period that lasted no more than a hundred years.’

I don’t know whether or not I entirely agree with this, but the idea of time progressing as a linear continuum does seem to be tied to a social structure where roles (including that of the author) were more fixed, sedentary things. The author proclaimed his (and it was usually a his) authority through texts permeated with the authorial voice, and which sustained that voice, gave it credibility as a constant over a period of calculable time.

And who wants that authority? Not me. Not I, even. Which is why, on days like today, the simple rigour of the short story seems so much more appealing, and far less tiring.

4 Comments on “Short story versus novel

  1. A very good post. I think you are touching a very sensitive issue here. And it helps me to think in my own distress of current novels. .


  2. I’m with you on this one, Senor Blanco. It’s interesting that every report I’ve read or heard of Eleanor Catton’s ‘The Luminaries’ winning the Man Booker Prize immediately refers to the fact that it is 832 pages long – with a certain amount of deference or awe. Maybe some speed-readers (especially reviewers for the broadsheets whose livelihoods depend on it) live sufficiently relaxed lives as to be able to devote the huge portion of time needed to simply get through it, never mind ‘experience’ it, but for slower readers like myself who tend to read novels at poetry-reading pace, ‘The Luminaries’ and Tartt’s ‘The Goldfinch’, are likely to remain on the shelf in the bookstore. ‘The Goldfinch’ apparently took ten years to write with Tartt working on it every day. Admirable dedication.


  3. I entirely agree with your conclusion. Yet, from the cozy contours of the short story, one cannot but admire the occasional writer who can grasp the reader’s attention and keep it riveted for hundreds of pages.


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