Why the Short Form Should be Here for the Long Term

Writers often talk about the merits of short stories over novels.  They say the form is more demanding, it forces us to be more economical and to focus on the sizzling significance of each and every word.  There’s no room for backstory – to suggest a character you have to use every device available to you.

But to me the reason short stories work is that when it comes down to it, short stories are a far more accurate representation of life than a novel can ever be.  By its very nature, life is a series of moments, of connections, and each of those moments has meaning that can transfer far beyond the actual events.

Publishers will have us believe that readers don’t want short stories.  Apparently, they are not good value for money.  I can only suppose that the same reasoning has been applied to the ever expanding girth of much of the novel length fiction we buy today.  While I’m never one to argue that girth can be a good thing, I’m not sure it applies to literature!

Maybe it’s just my media background, but while I’m clearly a fan of words, I’m not a fan of too many words.  Why say something in 600 pages when it can probably be said more clearly, and eloquently, in 400, or 300, or 200, or 20.  My approach to language has always been fairly brutal, to cut and slash, to get down to the bones of the thing, to reveal it.  Perhaps because of this, I’ve always been drawn to the short story as my preferred choice of reading.

To me, a novel, simply because of its length, must have a very clear thread, no, more like a rope, of story running through it.  I can admire beautiful words, the way I can admire a beautiful painting, but I can no more read beauty alone for 400 pages than I can spend the night in an art gallery staring at one painting.  It’s too exhausting.

A short story, on the other hand, is a glimpse of life.  A tantalising glimpse at that, because it is so short.  But what would be the good of it if you didn’t want more.  It seems to me that the best art, the best of everything in life should be like that, it should leave you wanting more.

If you were to ask me who my favourite, and most read authors are, they would all be short story writers.  Alice Munro, Bernard Mclaverty, Grace Paley, these are all authors that I have read not one, but several books by.  With novels, however, I can’t name a favourite author.  I tend to read whatever is current and then move on to the next current thing.  As does the publishing world, it seems.  Many people complain that a lauded new writer’s second novel hasn’t delivered the way the first has.  But perhaps there’s a reason for this.  If writers had the time and opportunity to write more short stories, perhaps the quality of their novel writing would also be given a chance to develop.

I think short stories are important for readers because they create better writers.   As someone who has just written three novels and a children’s book over the last five years, I would say that creatively, it is very hard to sustain the passion for writing unless you have the freedom to mix up your genres a little, to experiment with ideas in shorter form, to rediscover new characters, and a love of words for their own sake, rather than going straight from one year long project to the next with little or no break in between.

So with this in mind, I’m giving myself a break, a short story holiday, and the month of May will be short story month in this author’s house.  During May I will be reading and writing only short stories.  So far I am reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, Linda Cracknell, Grace Paley, Alice Munro, and Bernard McLaverty, and I’m on the lookout for more, so please feel free to suggest.

I would love to hear your thoughts about this post