Issue 97 |
Fall 2005


In Story v. Novel, the story nearly always wins. In my opinion. I've written in both genres, and these days, when asked which I prefer, I say story. I like the precision of the language, the focus of the angle, the intensity placed on the moment. I like spending just that length of time, and no more, with that person and his or her mess. I have a short attention span. I grow impatient.

I've heard that's true of our national nature, in general, that we're in a hurry, USA Today far outsells The New York Times, and that immediate gratification still far outranks that other sort. We want our food fast and our weight loss even faster. We absorb information best delivered via bumper sticker. If this is so, I wonder why the short story isn't preferred by the Average Reader, that army of ADD-afflicted people who must make up the general and book-buying public. Take a poll, and you'll find that most people in the Story v. Novel conflict favor the novel. Just this spring The Atlantic Monthly joined many of its slick magazine peers by announcing that it would be cutting back on its offerings of short stories.

As for being a fiction writer, neither your agent nor anyone affiliated with New York publishing houses want to hear that the three hundred pages of prose you're prepared to send to them is a collection of stories. Their latest strategy in addressing this dilemma is to ask that you at least attempt to wrest a "Story Cycle" out of your collection, find some way or other to make the book resemble a novel. That, and the promise that, next time, you'll get your act together and produce something they can sink their teeth into, something they can take to the bank, a real live novel.

So okay, if we're so vapid and busy and distractible, this country of book buyers and readers, why do New York and John Q. Public desire the longer form? I'll take a stab at addressing this seeming paradox: short stories are depressing. Ask any undergraduate member of a class reading them exclusively. Short stories tell the tale of a single suffering soul—the man who's wakened to find himself transformed into a giant bug; the woman set loose in a landscape where the killer Misfit is afoot; the guy fixated on mending, replacing, adoring, and then losing his overcoat; or poor Nick Adams, who is sent relentlessly by his author to learn lessons he'd rather not know; or those Chekhovian mopes whose humanity is only restored after an intimate brush with humiliation. Short stories are about individuals, these mentioned above and many others. They are generally in the process of losing something (idealism, innocence, health, virginity, friends, a spouse, a child, a parent, their very life) with only the consolation of spiritual enlightenment to compensate. And said compensation, btw, is oftentimes a moot point, since, in many instances, the character has died and it's actually the reader who stands to benefit.

As I see it, that's the problem with rooting for the short story: it's usually about an individual. And the shape of an individual's life is fixed: beginning, middle, end, which is to say: birth, life, death. The organic trajectory of a short story seems to reflect that basic, inevitable shape. In general, it declines.

But novels are usually about communities. There are whole groups of people for the reader to follow around, whether it's a small community like a family, or a big one like czarist Russia or turn-of-the-century New York City. And communities, unlike individuals, mostly survive. They carry on, even in the face of losing individual members; their trajectory, in other words, is not about decline but about sustenance, growth even. And I think that the reading public would rather take home that message, that one about enduring rather than expiring. There are many ways to reconcile death, to make peace with it, and I think the human animal instinctively gravitates toward reassurance that there's some point to its existence. Our children and grandchildren provide similar comfort: we won't be here, but they will. Sometimes that allows the panic-stricken mortal to breathe deeply and keep going.

The short story is a truncated exposure to a moment—protracted or brief—in an individual's existence. This character is generally in crisis, and the crisis reveals his or her true personality, the sum total of humanity available to him or her, and it's oftentimes insufficient. Woefully so. As a reader, you might identify with that sense of feeling inadequate to the task before you, and you might take some solace from the story, might deeply embrace some essential truth about the human condition and its puny, pathetic, highly limited frailty. Maybe. But maybe it just kills your buzz to read those depressing short stories that reiterate what you've no doubt already intuited: one sad day you're going to die. Many people don't like short stories—don't like them, don't understand them, won't read them, won't buy books of them.

Wouldn't take the care and time to write them well, wouldn't know where to send them when they were ready, couldn't enjoy the fruits of those labors in the form of the contents of this journal.

But there's "you," communal, and then there's "you," individual.

That's right, you.