Size Matters: Short Stories vs. Novels

This Week’s Bit of String:   A cat in a bin

A few years ago, a man couldn’t find his cat. Luckily, he’d rigged CCTV outside his house, and he found that a woman passing by had stroked the cat, then picked it up and put it in his wheelie bin.

The outraged owner shared the video in a quest to identify this dastardly villainess. Once named, the woman received death threats from every corner of this United Kingdom.

Remember that?

Turned out the woman had been walking home from visiting her dying father. She always said, ‘I just didn’t know what I was thinking.’

It doesn’t bear thinking about what could have happened if the cat’s owner wasn’t hooked on surveillance. But we all do bad things. We just don’t get CCTVed doing them. Would we want our entire lives judged by a misdeed that took a few seconds?

Following the Thread
Warren Falls, VT
Warren Falls, Vermont: The big picture

Operating on that principal question, I began a short story back in 2011 about an upstanding man who, under stress, does something misconstrued as animal cruelty. But I never finished it.

It wasn’t suited to be a short story because there were too many questions. How did the disgraced culprit cope with the aftermath, and how did it affect his family? What about the person who publicised the transgression; did they regret provoking such bad will?

Last year I snowflaked it into a novel using this story planning technique, and wrote a draft in six months. So this particular Bit of String, when I pulled at it, revealed not a 2000-word competition entry, but an intricately plaited novel that I will edit and query this summer: The Wrong Ten Seconds.

Differences of Dimension: Length and Depth

I conducted a little Twitter poll this week to see what some of my fellow writers prefer: writing flash fiction, short stories or novels. The answer was resoundingly in favour of novels, with writers commenting that they enjoy fostering the ‘depth of character’ a novel requires (thanks to Libbie Toler), and the ‘total immersion in both the world and the plot.’ (Thanks to Donna Migliaccio.) I prefer novels myself, because I can let my characters go a little more. And they’re just easier.

A Writer’s Digest article on the difference between the two fictional forms proposes a test of theme: ‘If you feel your story will be more a journey than a statement, you may be leaning toward a novel.’ I suppose that when I started my short story version of The Wrong Ten Seconds, I was trying to make a statement. But that then inspired me to accompany the characters on their journey, so it became a novel.

Differences of Possibility
Warren Falls, Vermont
Warren Falls, Vermont: Close-Up

In current literary culture, it’s not fashionable to use writing to make statements. We’re supposed to show, not tell, aren’t we? That’s what makes short stories so difficult. Convey an idea, but don’t preach. Create sympathetic characters in very few pages. The advantage of writing a short story, perhaps, is some freedom in the ending. As Chris Power wrote for The Guardian, ‘Novelists are expected to tie up loose ends, whereas the short story writer can make a virtue of ambiguity.’

To me, that is the defining reason that makes an idea a short story rather than a novel. How much do I want to know about the end? It comes back to the What Ifs. When there’s a single central question, and I can’t bear to probe too far, I write a short story. Cowardly, isn’t it? While I find short stories artistically more challenging, emotionally I can stop them from taxing me as much as novels do. I didn’t need to decide, for example, what ultimately happened to Hannah and her son Jack in ‘The Apocalypse Alphabet.’ The statement was already made.

Differences of Literary Elements?

Short stories are more difficult for some of us because they still require all the ingredients of a novel. Plot, character, message, setting; they must be there, but condensed. It’s like these two photos: each picture has the same things in them—water, rocks, a person/ people—but one is close-up. That’s the short story, see. And because it’s zoomed in, those elements have to be damn near flawless.

Thanks to condensing those literary elements, the short story packs a powerful jolt. I love the way Joanna Carter, who’s written successfully in both literary forms, described the difference between short stories and novels at one of Bristol’s Novel Nights last summer: ‘A short story is a skeleton bursting from the closet. It’s raw, a moment of truth. A novel has to put flesh on those bones.’

Both relevant, both exciting. Do you prefer writing short stories or novels? Do you find either one more challenging to write?

The Whole Story, and Nothing But the Story

This Week’s Bit of String: A swimmer’s happiness

Once I was at the town pool when a group of adults with learning difficulties were brought for a swim. A young man stood in the shallow end, his fingers prancing over the waist-high surface of the water, and declared, ‘I am EXACTLY happy. Right now, I am exactly happy.’

One like graffiti
Let’s not overstate things. One like will do. (Graffiti in Bristol)

His words have stayed with me for years. In literature, though, no self-respecting author would allow a character to be so straightforward. We’re supposed to give readers evidence of emotion, not outright testimony. Show, don’t tell. Leave something to the imagination. But how much?

Last week I lamented the heavy-handedness, the lack of nuance, in a couple of pieces deemed ‘Literature’ by the GCSE exam board. As I researched that post, I found articles both advocating and opposing subtlety, which I’ve continued to explore this week.

How hidden should messages and motives be in literature?

In Defence of Subtlety

Iconic writers from the post-modern to contemporary age favour rendering the author invisible in his or her own work. Ernest Hemingway described his Theory of Omission in the 1930s, insisting writers leave out as much of their own experience as possible. John McPhee summed the theory up for the New Yorker: ‘Let the reader have the experience. Leave judgment in the eye of the beholder.’

Why? Joanna Scott, in a comprehensive piece for The Nation last summer, rounded up critics and authors to extol ‘The Virtues of Difficult Fiction.’ I particularly liked her quotes from David Mikics, who’s written a book called Slow Reading in a Hurried Age. He praised the ‘tactile and palpable
sense of a material object being worked on,’ explaining that reading challenging texts not only exercises creativity and patience, but also nurtures a love for the versatility of words and the layering of meaning.

butterfly-window-reflection
Honestly, who wants to see the photographer’s reflection? Butterfly window in Chalford, Gloucestershire

The word subtle itself, I discovered, is rooted in the Latin term for finely textured, just as the modern word text is derived from the Latin term texere; to weave. A text is meant, then, to have various components intermingling. It’s meant to be a challenge to take apart.

My characters often don’t say precisely what they feel, because how often do we in real life? I use dialogue, and try to minimise internal commentary, so readers can inhabit the action, watching it unfold. Here’s a scene from Artefacts, between a married couple on what becomes a climactic morning:

‘Where’s the peanut butter?’

‘In the top left cupboard.’

Mike opened a door. ‘It’s just dishes in here.’

She cleared her throat. ‘That’s the, um, right one.’

‘No,’ he snapped. ‘It’s my right, but it’s the cupboards’ left.’

‘Yes…the peanut butter is in the cupboard on your left.’

So it was. Mike set it on the counter with a bang. ‘That’s the opposite of what you said a minute ago. It’s like the difference between saying “Stage left” and “to the left of the audience.” You should know that.’ He spread peanut butter onto his toast with such vigour the surface cracked.

She handed him his trousers without looking at him. ‘Hasn’t anyone ever told you to look in a left or right anything before, or has your entire life been on a stage?’

Against Subtlety

There are other things to learn from reading, however, apart from interpretive skills and quiet resilience. I wrote a couple weeks ago about books that have changed my thinking, and those haven’t always been subtle (although certainly well-written and multi-layered).

Slate editor Forrest Wickman wrote a thorough piece Against Subtlety: The Case for Heavy-Handedness in Art, pointing out that our obsession with ‘highbrow,’ subtle literature stems from elitist ideas at the start of the twentieth century. He cited DH Lawrence writing: ‘There should be again a body of esoteric doctrine, defended from the herd. The herd will destroy everything.’ Much of art that has affected change, Wickman argued, is not coy or cryptic. It’s communicating a clear message: Something has to give!

brass-handle-reflection
There’s always some reflection…

He has a point. Why let a character speak up if you don’t let them say what they think really happened?

Last week, Helen Marten won the Turner Prize for her art, ‘labyrinthine works’ which critics have compared favourably to puzzles, while also praising ‘the emotionally provocative nature’ of her pieces. Earlier this year, Bob Dylan won the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature. His lyrics are sometimes obscure, but his perhaps most memorable song, Blowing in the Wind, poses very blunt, if beautifully phrased, questions about what the hell human beings allow to happen to each other. So balance and juxtaposition are allowed, and perhaps should be encouraged.

I like giving my brain a workout on big, tricky books. Characters don’t have to be sympathetic to intrigue me. But I expect to understand them better as the story unfolds. Any story is a character’s journey from one state of mind to another, and I want to accompany them, if not in their pocket, then at least in a neighbouring vehicle or a surveillance helicopter. And often, as we travel through a story, what starts as subtle and composed may begin to fray as the stakes get higher, and emotions may bleed through more strongly. Those shouldn’t repel us; they should draw us in even more.

After all, just because that one man in the swimming pool stated his feelings clearly, I never lost interest. I still wonder about him. Did he measure all his feelings in precise percentages? Was it a coping mechanism, or part of his genetic makeup? Were there things that made him exactly angry, or exactly sad?

There are always more layers. Always more questions.

GCSE Curriculum: Is It Literature?

This Week’s Bit of String: A Student’s Holiday Mix-Up

‘Miss, aren’t you excited about Christmas? Remember, Jesus died then!’

It was one of those teaching moments when you need Rewind and Slow Down buttons. ‘You mean He died just before Easter,’ I said.

‘No, He was born at Easter; that’s why there’s eggs everywhere, and baby animals. We celebrate Him getting killed at Christmas, by hanging stuff on trees.’

My student, in his first GCSE year at the time, had misinterpreted these symbols and traditions. But he legitimised it with evidence.

The real reason dinosaurs went extinct...
There’s a sign like this in our school library.

These days we hear of fake news, false equivalency, and other such ‘post-truth’ terms. Dangerous as those are in the political realm, the literary world has operated on a somewhat post-truth basis for some time—with the essential caveat that you cite passages to support your claims.

Evidence-gathering and interpretation are essential skills we get from studying literature. Interpreting characters’ motives, which builds empathy and social skills; plus interpreting the culture and time period the author belongs to.

In the UK, Year 10 and 11 students (aged 14-16) must earn a General Certificate of Secondary Education in Literature. The national exam board offers a limited range of literary works for students to be tested on: one of six selected Shakespeare plays, one of seven nineteenth century novels, one of twelve dramas or novels written since 1914 (by British authors only), and one themed ‘cluster’ of fifteen poems. Adolescents spend two years studying these four works, and then take the exam.

The list of literature options changed controversially two years ago, dropping American classics such as Of Mice and Men, and To Kill a Mockingbird. After the fuss kicked up over the changes, do the remaining options qualify as literature?

Interpreting Characters
school-bathroom-graffiti-spoilers
Found in the girls’ toilet in the Art/English corridor. ‘George shoots Lennie.’ ‘Piggy and Simon die…’

To me, several of the GCSE offerings lack character depth. I haven’t read all of them, and I don’t dislike any of them. I’m just not sure they’re literature. An Inspector Calls and Blood Brothers share upper class villains, while several other books such as Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde have quite clear-cut ones as well. Scrooge and Mr. Darcy undergo transformations, but their paths are quite obvious. There’s not a lot of mystery on why they change; students need do no serious detective work to examine it.

The most interesting characters are probably the plethora of bystanders and enablers in these tales: Mr. Bennett neither humouring nor challenging his wife’s ridiculous behaviour and Mrs. Lintott apparently looking the other way regarding her beloved co-worker’s paedophilic tendencies; the animal subjects of Animal Farm and the other boys on the Lord of the Flies Island.

Probing the motives of those who get caught in the action and end up almost unwittingly serving as catalysts is particularly relevant today, as far-right factions take hold in more governments. What drives a Macbeth and a Dr. Frankenstein? Let’s hope the exam board will encourage that sort of discussion.

Interpreting Culture and History

I don’t think Americans are going to suffer for no longer being represented in the GCSE curriculum; we’re not exactly a silent, repressed minority. The requirements for modern literature include stories by second-generation immigrants, and some about immigrants, too, plus Curious Incident, about a boy on the autism spectrum. And there are plenty of plots that highlight (sometimes glaringly, as in the aforementioned Inspector Calls and Blood Brothers) issues surrounding class and socioeconomic status.

It’s a decent start. Each one has its own argument to pick with the world, as I previously noted Salmon Rushdie said books must do. Each one attempts to harrow us a little bit, with various degrees of effectiveness.

books-fight
Spotted in an alley in Lewes. That’s right: books fight.

Teacher Tom Payne, writing in The Telegraph (which also, being The Telegraph, gave Conservative then-Minister of Education an opportunity to defend the changes in literature choices), raised this concern: ‘does this [rule that post-1914 literature studied must originate from the British Isles] mean that the question of Britain and its former empire has to be examined from the perspective of these islands? After all, much of the best literature on the subject comes from the lands Britain colonised: the Empire writes back.’
This is a good point. The removal of OMAM and TKAM disappointed me because I’d seen white students infatuated with the ‘n-word.’ Often, their perspectives matured after reading Of Mice and Men, as they realised the actual conditions from which the word derived its power; the threat and malice behind it. It’s important to keep those issues present in the literature we teach adolescents, because recognising others’ suffering, often at the hands of our own governments and even at benefit to ourselves, is an essential argument to keep putting before the world. And as fake news proliferates, the classics set a standard for us that’s not easily misinterpreted.