Saturday, February 10, 2007

Short Stories vs. Novels

Way back when I read a lot of short stories. And I read a lot of novels. I found, though, that it was difficult to switch back and forth and I never really figured out why. If I read a book of short stories it took a certain amount of weird effort to get back into reading a novel. The reverse was true, as well. A strange kind of inertia existed that tended to keep me serially reading either short story collections or novels.

For the purposes of this discussion, I'm not talking about the classics or "literary" fiction; not the stories of Chekhov, Turgenev or Hemingway, and not "Moby Dick" or "Don Quixote." This should stay squarely in the realm of "popular fiction," whatever that actually is.

In times past, the path to becoming an author was frequently one of establishing a body of work as a short story writer before moving on to novel writing. The near total collapse of the fiction magazine market probably had a lot to do with this changing and in any case is no longer true. I no longer "discover" authors by their magazine appearances.

So what is the discrepancy between reading short stories and novels? I can't put my finger on it. I do think that both bad novels and bad short stories can be discarded unfinished with fairly equal alacrity, so with works of low skill or quality they have that in common.

But when was the last time you enjoyed a novel, thought it was good, and failed to understand it? Sadly, I read a good number of short stories where I'm left wondering just what exactly was the point. For example, to show an adulterous affair took place? To portray said affair with beautiful prose or technique? To evoke a single emotion (which may be all you have space for)?

So I read many short stories that are very well written and enjoyable to read but leave me ultimately unfulfilled. I feel like I've just read somebody's warm up exercise, a prelude to a work some place, some where that will be more filling and less unresolved. Are these just faulty short stories? Is the deficiency with me?

Oddly enough this doesn't happen so much with "genre" stories. The works of Jack Vance, Harlan Ellison, and Theodore Sturgeon only rarely leave me scratching my head and wondering, "Why? What exactly was that?" I wonder if this is because as genre fiction there is more of an implicit pressure to relate an entire story, a more fully realized work, than is necessary with a literary offering. I kinda sorta sometimes think that with a literary story you're not supposed to get it.

I may just lack the skills, knowledge or background to appreciate stories like this. Maybe there'll come a day, like the one where I discovered I could appreciate classical music, when their existence will make more sense to me. And yet novels, genre or otherwise, have never produced in me the same feelings. I never find myself asking, "Why the hell did they write that?" I may not care for it, or I may very much, I may think the author did an excellent job or a poor one, but I don't question its reason for being.

So while I wait for the promised fire I'll keep reading them, enjoying and appreciating some, scratching my head over others. Periodically I'll return to Vance, Ellison and Sturgeon and I'll continue to read William Trevor, Paul Bowles, Somerset Maugham. But for many of the folks I come across in places like Granta or anthologies, I may keep a-scratching on my noggin for a spell, at least until another neuron or three fire up.


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