Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Clash of Forms, or, the Novelist Contemplates the Implications of His Navel Lint

I've been thinking about this post for a while now. It remains to be seen whether it's worth the wait.

I think that most writers are either short story writers or novelists by inclination. I know some excellent short story writers who speak of novels as daunting, impossible animals. For myself, it's more the reverse; novels are comfortable ground. I feel like I have more room to stretch in a novel. Short stories are much more of a struggle. (Not coincidentally, this post coincides with my embarking upon another novel manuscript after working on short stories for the past 3-4 years. I guess I'm trying to figure out what I've learned in the interim.)

So what's the difference between the two forms? I don't claim to have a definitive answer (I doubt there is one), but first of all I need to say what I think it's not. I must confess that this was all brought on by something Jay Lake--an accomplished writer in both forms--posted a while back. I say this not to pick on Jay, but to cite an example of one school of thought with regards to the question of novels vs. short stories: the proportional school.

Jay sez:

I've never had a problem with plot. I've written novel-sized plots in 5,000-word stories, and I'm happy to posit on the flip side that Rocket Science can be considered to be a 65,000-word short story. . . . I have a problem with word economy. . . . [W]orking on a novel one is expected to diverge into detail, provide exegeses on character, setting, and so forth, and otherwise divert and entertain the reader for some hours rather than simply getting to the point as in a short story. . . . [A]s a short story writer of some practice, when I'm working on novels I still default to economy except by conscious consideration. Which leads to people commenting that scenes feel rushed, characters not fully developed, endings precipitate. It's not that words shouldn't be economical in a novel, it's that the reader's very experience of a novel is different. People rarely talk about "getting lost in a good short story." I need continue to find ways to write to novel pacing.

So while Jay acknowledges that novels work differently than short stories, that there are different expectations attached to them, the basic distinction he draws between the two forms is length. The implication of talking about 5,000-word novel plots and 65,000-word short stories is that the one is generally a boiled-down version of the other; that short stories are condensed and novels are bloated. I'm simplifying, but that's how I read this post. But while there are certainly novels that are over-long, in general I think it's the wrong way to approach the question. Jay may simply be saying that, at bottom, he prefers short stories to novels. That's entirely fair, and I'm not planning to argue the merits of one over the other. That would be ridiculous. But the mere fact that there are preferences points to the idea that there's more going on here than just a difference of proportion. Ironically, Jay himself says as much in response to Greg van Eekhout's question about what short stories do for us that novels don't (to which I'll return in a moment).

Jay says:

The arc of gratification is radically different. Shorts don't require *less* of a commitment, but by definition they require a shorter term of commitment. It's like the difference between an appetizer and a banquet. Either can be exquisite, or horrid, but they're substantially different instances of the same underlying process.

This I'm more in agreement with (although the appetizer/banquet comment is another proportional distinction). But yes, the arc of gratification is radically different. In fact, the forms are radically different.

In an essay titled, aptly, "Short Story vs. Novel," writer Greg Hollingshead says: "A short story is far less like a novel than it is like a poem. The primary difference between a short story and a poem is line breaks. . . . A novel is not a short story that kept going, though every short story writer dreams of writing such a story."

Now, I'm not going to pretend that I know a lot about poetry, but there are some obvious differences between a novel and poem. (Yes, length, but we've been over that.) Off the top of my head: experimentation is more welcome in poetry than in novels. A poem can be as much about what's left unsaid as what is said. Plot and character are not necessary in poetry; creating an emotional reaction is.

Not all of the characteristics of poetry transfer readily to their closer cousin (if we believe Hollingshead), the short story. A story usually needs either a plot or a character to succeed, and in most cases both. But otherwise that (very short) list more or less works. There's more freedom to experiment in the short form, if only because you're trying the reader's patience for a lesser distance. Short stories often work through implication of a larger world, a larger history, even if that world and history only encompass one or two characters. And while not all of us are as focused on the effect of our stories as Poe was, by the time a reader reaches the last line we hope to have created a reaction.

In some ways, I think that this is where my own pitfalls with the short form lie, because I tend to have a lot of anxiety about problematic concepts such as "theme" when it comes to writing short stories. In my novels I'm less concerned with being profound and more concerned with simple storytelling. This is not to say that I don't wish to say something in the longer form as well, but that in novels I feel more comfortable posing a number of questions for the reader to either consider or ignore, and in gradually building an emotional rapport between the characters and the reader. In contrast, I tend to either weigh short stories down with leaden (and often obvious) "messages," or let them float away for lack of any resonance at all. In some ways perhaps this is a matter of proportion after all, of meaning--a problem of condensation (in the short form) vs. dilution (in the novel).

A further complication, for me, is that I consider it most effective--as a writer and as a reader--to find meaning in story through characters. I find ideas much less interesting than people, or at least, beings. (That whole "science-fiction-is-the-literature-of-ideas" mantra makes me want to wring necks.) And it's hard (for me, at least) to write a really engaging and emotionally complex character in less than 10,000 words.

The aforementioned (and wicked talented) Mr. Van Eekhout confesses to his own preference for character-rich novels in a follow-up post to the above-linked query:

Here's a quick and messy summation of your responses. You like the succinctness and focus of short stories, not having to carry a story beyond its natural span because there are more flexible length requirements, you enjoy the pleasure of reading a story in a single sitting, the impact gained from focus and precision, the pleasure of a world and a character's life evoked rather than elaborated. You get satisfaction from creating a work in a span of days or weeks rather than months or years. You like the opportunity to experiment. You like the quick cycle of feedback and gratification.

I like these things, too. Very much. I consider myself a short story writer, primarily, and I love reading short stories, and I love writing them, and I can't be reasoned with, I can't be bargained with, I don't feel pity or remorse or fear, and I absolutely will not stop. Ever. Until you are dead.

That being said, I really do prefer reading novels. The stuff I remember reading and loving tends to be the stuff with characters whose lives I get involved with, and for that to happen, I usually need a few hundred pages. And, since one of the things that drives me to write is a desire to create stuff that I'd want to read, I'm stuck learning how to write novels.

It's perhaps worth pointing out--and I'm not sure if it's a function of our different starting points or what--that I find myself to be nearly the opposite of Greg, in that nowadays I mainly prefer reading short stories. I guess us writers is just crazy.

Now I need to make it clear that I'm not saying (and I don't think Greg is either) that short stories can't have vivid characters. I think, for example, of Kelly Link's "The Hortlak," which has vivid and unforgettable characters. Or of the myopic and empathetic protagonists of Carol Emshwiller's short fiction. Short, precise strokes can create portraits of surprising clarity. Sometimes short stories actually are characters, or vice versa--sketches, yes, but elaborated upon by the reader's imagination, cued by carefully chosen details.

And yet I can't help feeling that a well-crafted short story is usually about a moment in time. The story has a center, a point towards which each line of narrative inevitably points. There may be more; secrets, mysteries, a suggestion that the story continues after the words have stopped. The center may not be the most memorable part of the story or the most interesting to every reader. But it's the balancing point, the fulcrum upon which its impact rests.

Perhaps you disagree. But I wonder if that center isn't related to a difference that Scott Westerfeld highlighted in a post about writing advice gleaned from a collection of Raymond Chandler's letters. One of the excerpts Scott discusses is the following:

Letter to Dorothy Gardner, secretary of the Mystery Writers Association - January 1956

The trouble with most English mystery writers, however well known in their world, is that they can't turn a corner. About halfway through a book they start fooling with alibis, analyzing bits and pieces of evidence and so on. The story dies on them. Any book which is any good has to turn the corner. You get to the point where everything implicit in the original situation has been developed or explored, and then a new element has to introduced which is not implied from the beginning but which is seen to be part of the situation when it shows up.

Scott sez: "Beyond his anti-Agatha Christie snark, there is an excellent point . . . about the difference between novels and short stories. A lot of writers who excel at the story level don’t think to 'turn the corner' when attempting the longer form."

What this suggests to me is that novels don't have centers in the same way that short stories do. (Assuming that you agree that either of them have centers, whether they be Tootsie Roll or just a gooey flavor explosion.) If The Lord of the Rings were a short story, perhaps the center point of it would be Frodo and Gollum's struggle on Mount Doom; but to posit that scene as the center of the books (which are really just one long novel, let's face it) is completely missing the point. Or, if you're a J.R.R.-hater, to put Steerpike's climb to the heights of Gormenghast at the center of Titus Groan is to create an imbalanced picture. Both are crucial scenes: one carries the weight of hundreds of pages of prologue behind it, the other illustrates a crucial difference in perspective which separates Steerpike from the other denizens of the castle. But, to use Chandler's metaphor, many corners have already been turned, or are left to be. Tolkien's story is not the same as it was when Bilbo left the Shire, or when Frodo left, or when the Fellowship left Rivendell, or when the Fellowship left Lothlórien, etc. Peake's story has layers and accretions, many of them atmospheric, that are beyond the implications of Steerpike's rooftop survey. I've defaulted to examples from fantasy, because that's where I live. But I think that it's true of nearly all novels in all genres. (Even shorter ones.) The Catcher in the Rye becomes a much more complex novel when we meet Holden's sister Phoebe. The Maltese Falcon has as many corners as chapters--it's lucky for Sam Spade that he can see around them.

So what's the implication? That novel plots are more complex? Of course some are, but I don't think that's a necessity of the form. While it is perhaps true that the long form is more forgiving of complexity, there are still limits. Going back to Hollingshead: "One of the first things the writer learns is how amazingly little room there is in a good novel for extraneousness, or noise." Speaking from my own bad habits, I have a tendency towards the kitchen-sink approach; tossing in stuff I think is cool, THEN trying to make it work. Assuming you're working in a noisy genre to begin with--as speculative fiction tends to be--then I would say that the novel is a bit more forgiving than Hollingshead implies. But at some point you have to stop tossing new things in, and to make everything connect back. Too much, and you've got a hopelessly clogged plot. In fact, I would argue that on a proportional level, novels clog more easily than short stories. Some people say that a short story shouldn't have more than two or three characters; does that mean that a novel--which might be, say, twenty times as long as the short story--can bear the weight of between forty and sixty characters? What about fantastic elements, or murders? Same principle. At some point you're overcomplicating at the same time that you're diluting impact. It's the law of diminishing returns.

At this point I'm looking over all this and starting to wonder if I'm not just proving the point of those leery short story writers. Maybe novels really are harder. But I think that's a false conclusion, only a step removed from arguing the merits of one form over the other. So I'm left without a conclusion, just a lot of thinking out loud. But I'm curious what those of you reading this think of it all. Do you feel more comfortable working in one form than another? What do you see as the differences between the two? Are you a short story writer struggling with a novel, or a novelist fighting with the short form? Or do you think this is all nonsense, and stories just stories, each one a unique flower?

To be continued . . . ?