Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Short Story v. Novel

If you were to tell someone about one moment of your life, and only one, that moment would be the short story. A short story is a glimpse into the life of a character. This glimpse is definitive. The events of a short story compel a character through the rest of his or her life. Everything that happens before a short story is a preamble. Everything after a short story is a consequence. After all, Alan Cheuse often quotes his good friend Bernard Malamud as saying "a short story predicates a life."

Novels on the other hand are allowed the space to create entire worlds for readers. Prolonged depictions of life and place set the goal of the novel as something different than that of the short story. Rather than suggest a life that happened outside the confines of a narrative, the novel aims to show the reader life.

John Gardner writes in On Becoming a Novelist about the experience of reading a novel.
We read five words on the first page of a really good novel and we begin to forget that we are reading printed words on a page... We slip into a dream, forgetting the room we're sitting in, forgetting it's lunchtime or time to go to work. We recreate, with minor and for the most part unimportant changes, the vivid and continuous dream the writer worked out in his mind (revising and revising until he got it right) and captured in language so that other human beings, whenever they feel like it, may open his book and dream that dream again.
Here Gardner demonstrates how novels can be engrossing. Readers can become absorbed in a world different than their own. One can roam around the life of a character and experience a different life. The experience can be so exhaustive that upon closing a book a reader examines his or her own world in a different light, almost unsure of which reality is more compelling.

Is one better than the other? They seem to aspire to different goals. Sometimes you need the precision of a Kawabata story, and the suggestion that one moment can predicate an entire life. The brevity of a page can have a simplistic beauty to it. The novel on the other hand can be an exhaustive exploration of time and place. Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude explores several generations of a family who inhabit a city from its rise to its fall. In this journey, we see not just the definitive moment of one character but those of a family and a place that are engrossing. Both narrative experiences are satisfying. One offers brevity and the other thoroughness.

My question to you is which do you prefer?

1 comment:

  1. I prefer the short story, but that may be because I am a poet and have inclinations toward the beauty of brevity. I love the feeling of finishing a short story and craving more, wondering "What happens next?!" Although 100 Years of Solitude is one of my favorite books, I'm certainly not left craving more or wondering what happens next at the end.

    -Alyse Knorr