Culture Clash: Short Stories vs Novels

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Short Stories – Julia Molloy

I never used to be a short story fan. As an English Literature student, I would always veer towards novels and – occasionally – poetry instead of something that’s only going to hold my attention for an hour or so, depending on the length. Yet this year, the short story has really grabbed hold of me, and I don’t want to let go. I’m not saying, of course, that you shouldn’t ever read a novel again – trust me, the amount of novels that I read is becoming obscene. But often the novel, especially if it is ‘pop fiction’, lays out the bare facts for you, or reveals everything you could possibly want to know by the end of the book. The short story, however, allows us to focus on one moment in time, a “glimpse” as William Trevor calls it.

Studying the short story as part of my Creative Writing modules has opened my eyes to the possibilities of fiction beyond the novel. Before this year the only short stories I’d read came from Roald Dahl, and I’ll be honest in saying they were a bit of shock to the system after having ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ as a childhood favourite (if you haven’t read any of Dahl’s adult fiction, they’re a far cry from the innocent hilarity of his children’s books). His funny and often quite rude tales, however, are startling and can be far more thought-provoking than a novel. “Lamb to the Slaughter” is particularly intriguing and entertaining without spelling everything out for us. Leaving the gaps forces us to want to read it again and stimulates the imagination, something that is often lacking in most popular novels.

The scope for the short story is simply immense. With a novel you’re almost guaranteed to follow a particular character for a long time, whether you like them or not; with the short story, you can sit in someone else’s life for just a moment, and often you’ll experience an epiphany (the technical term for transformation) along with them. What is even more encouraging is the fact that the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature went to Canadian writer Alice Munro for being the “master of the contemporary short story.” Having just finished reading her award-winning collection “Dear Life”, it’s easy to see why. For Munro there are no high-speed chases or fantastical crimes; as the title of her collection suggests, her short stories deal with the ordinary, the day-to-day life that we all experience and that, in fact, is far more interesting than we realise.

If you’re the kind of person who is intrigued with how the marginalised experience their lives, or if you simply don’t have the time to commit to a 700 page novel, I’d implore you to give the short story a go. Just pick up a collection from the library, or Google some famous short stories by Carver, Edgar Allen Poe or Hemingway. Though you may not understand or like everything you read, it’s a fascinating form because of all its permutations. I guarantee that you’ll find something to interest you.

Novels – Sarah Dutton

There is something of a sense of achievement when you get to the end of a 500 page novel (or a 1,000 if you’re reading Ulysses. Although apparently the longest existing novel is over thirteen thousand pages long!). I fear that doesn’t help my argument. What I’m trying to say is you invest in a novel: the length of it helps you to develop more of a relationship with the characters and therefore you have more interest in what happens to them. It is far harder to care about the protagonist of a two-page short story with very little background information than a fully-fledged, three-dimensional character.

I think the longer a story is, the more we know about the characters and the more realistic they appear, which leads us to identify with them better. Therefore a novel is more likely to stay in your mind long after you finish it. The list of novels I could enthuse for hours about is pretty endless, whereas I can remember the details of very few short stories. There just isn’t enough time to care in a short story, it’s over before you really realise what’s going on. Novels show a character’s journey, and how a variety of events change their personality and outlook which allows the reader to follow this journey.

The structuring of a novel is usually more interesting and complex, often weaving multiple storylines and subplots with a wide range of different characters. While this is an impressive feat for the author it also keeps the story fresh and exciting, never allowing you to get bored. Although I find short stories good if you have a spare half an hour and want a quick narrative fix, I far prefer to follow the drawn out adventures of a novel’s protagonist. If you like to know everything about a character and their world a novel is far more fleshed out, more detailed, introducing you to the protagonist’s friends and family, their work life, pet hyena, phobia of bananas, undercover life as a spy for MI5 etc. Whereas in a shorter piece of fiction you would probably only see their Bond-style capers and know that they have a white cat called Felix. You would not be able to delve deeper into their lives, and get a sense of a rounded character.

Short stories sometimes leave you wanting more. This would be a good technique, except there is no more. It’s just 2,000 words and then that’s it. A novel hooks you in at the end of every chapter, and then you can keep reading on, rather than merely getting an infuriating snippet of somebody’s life and then never meeting them again. A short story is like overhearing an anecdote on the bus whereas you feel like you come to know a novel’s main characters as if they were your flatmates or neighbours, and the prospect of a series heighten this even further. Novels are definitely more memorable. I’m sure there are some exceptions, but just think how many novels you can think of, and how many short stories? If you’ve got the choice and a bit more time, I strongly recommend picking up a novel.

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