The Short Shrift: Story vs. Novel
I love short stories. A great short story is a short, hot shower, while a great novel is a long, luxurious bath, and both are equally satisfying to me.
However, the short story is an underappreciated literary form in Western culture, perhaps even more so than poetry. I blame the big publishing houses for marginalising the short story by actively discriminating against its creators, blatantly refusing to accept submissions of short story collections.
“Too niche,” they claim.
“Bullshit,” I say.
The reason so many people don’t read the short form is that the publishing industry perpetuates the myths that A) size matters, and B) short stories are too “literary” to have mass appeal. But, in actual fact, audiences LOVE short-form storytelling. They love it in the form of a beloved childhood storybook; they love it in the form of the many feature films adapted from short stories; they love it in the form of the annual Christmas tearjerker ad campaigns; they love it in the form of episodes of their favourite shows. The public would love short story collections too, if only the publishers gave readers the chance to discover them.
This unjustified literary prejudice is depressingly prevalent among new writers, too. Most of the writers I meet are working on full-length projects, be it a memoir or a novel, because they either think the short story too trivial or too intimidating. On that matter of triviality, those writers could not be more wrong. But when it comes to writing, the short story is certainly no easy option.
Why are short stories so tough? In my view, they are hard because the artform requires the author to NOT write. The short story needs restraint because it is most powerful when it is economical and undiluted, and when its ending is not neatly resolved but left open. Trickiest of all, the focus of a story must be narrow but its resonance universal.
Turning out a first draft of a short story might be quicker than a first draft of a novel, but it still requires a lot of work to hone it ... as the philosopher Cicero so eloquently put it, “If I had longer, I would have written you a shorter letter.” Nevertheless, I believe that writers should embrace the artform for many reasons, of which here are my top three:
1. A first draft of a short story can be finished quickly. This is great for new writers because finishing a first draft of anything is a huge confidence booster.
2. The short form is perfect for experimenting. It is a great vehicle for the dark, the weird, and the crazy because the writer doesn’t have to sustain it for long. It allows the writer to let their imagination loose and explore new voices and styles without committing to the long, exhausting marathon of novel-writing.
3. A story is more likely to give a writer their first publishing credit. There are thousands of publishers of short stories but relatively few for full-length work. With a couple of story publications or story contest victories under their belts, writers stand a far higher chance of attracting an agent or publisher for their novels.
Here are my recommendations for initiating yourself into the wonderful world of the short form:
Look out of my Short Story Study Group launching via The Writers Workshop in 2022! We will read and analyse short stories and use them to inspire our own short-form creativity.
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Lorna Partington Walsh, Wordsmith