Friday, 29 October 2010


A lovely little event at my local library on Wednesday, where I read from the collection (a spooky one for Halloween), as well as the novel, which is largely set locally. We had some time at the end, so I was keen to learn the audience’s views on the short story. Love it? Hate it? (Presumably not, given their attendance.) Indifferent? The consensus seemed that most people ‘quite liked them’, but perhaps didn’t go out of their way to find them.

I spoke of short fiction’s intensity, its capacity for transcendency, how it can provoke, thrill, stupefy. I talked about other countries’ relationship with the form, how its revered as much as, if not more so, than the novel, the poem. How it’s largely thought of as inferior in the UK due to our intransigence, our hangover with the Victorian novel. That it’s only really here that when you say you write short stories, the general retort is, So when are you going to write a novel?

I championed Carver, Chekhov, Munro. Salter, Updike, Prouxl. And the master of them all, William Trevor. I raved about the exciting new voices – the Wigfalls, Barrys, Ó Ceallaighs, the Hershmans (not to mention those across the pond, around the globe). And hopefully some of the audience will seek these out.

But I was determined to get to the crux of this issue, so we continued the debate in the pub across the road. (The library shut. Honest.)

And for me, it’s this. With a novel you have to invest just once. In the characters, in tense (usually), setting, POV (usually), in voice, in style, in theme. And then you’re made for the next 300 pages. With a collection you have to do this eight, ten, twelve times. Every story requires this new investment, even if the stories are linked thematically.

My response: savour. The novel is a good pint of beer, to be gorged upon, necked even, long sessions. Think of a short story as your favourite glass of Rioja (though there are plenty of ordinary Merlots out there). Take it by the fire. Just one a night. Savour every word, its cadence and artifice. But, advice I wish I’d heeded on Wednesday: never mix your drinks.



Kath said...

You've perfectly captured what it is I love about short stories: that I can read just one of an evening and if it is a good vintage, like a William Trevor, an Annie Proulx or a Lorrie Moore, that's all I need. Their short stories are so completely satisfying that it's as if I'd read a complete novel in condensed form.

TOM J VOWLER said...

Nicely put, Kath.

I would have thought it extraordinary a few years ago to say some of my favourite short stories have impacted on me, resonated, left a profound mark, more than my most treasured novels, but this is the case.

Charlotte said...

I'm an avid reader and had never been a fan of short stories - until I tried to write some. I have new respect; they are hard to write because every word has to count, whereas in a novel, the writer has some leeway to fluff it out.

I'm a big fan of Carver and Munro now, but perhaps I should seek out some of the others you mention.

TOM J VOWLER said...

They're not easy to get right, are they?

Marisa Birns said...

Amen to all you've said. I do enjoy reading short stories very much.

I would add that some stories I've read made me want to pop the cork on a Prosecco in celebration. :)

eimearryan said...

Love the beer/wine analogy! I always remember short stories more vividly than novels. I think it's like travel, e.g. if you're in a city for a weekend, your memories are more vivid than if you were there for a month, because you don't have a chance to get over the culture shock.

Rachel Fenton said...

It's a shame the UK has yet to get over the Victorian scorn of seeing short stories almost as literary prostitution - a quicky for a few quid - rather than the intense yet brief love affaris that they are.

You're spot on about the investment, and it's not just for the writers. I think some readers prefer novels for the same reasons you noted.

I think each has its place and its moment; there's room for all.

Cool post.

TOM J VOWLER said...

Well said, Marisa.

That's a wonderful analogy, eimearryan.

Beautifully put too, Rachel. I have such intelligent, eloquent readers.