Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Brevity is the soul of wit: Short stories vs. novels

     One of the truisms of the publishing trade is that Americans don’t like short stories. That’s not entirely true, but given their druthers, most readers will select a novel rather than a short story collection by the same author.
     Some popular “novels” are actually short story collections that the publisher tried to disguise by use of a clever framing narrative.
     Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles is one of the more successful ones. Bradbury had written a couple of dozen stories about Earthmen on Mars, but without any continuing characters. In fact, it doesn’t seem he wrote them with any overall plan or even a consistent background. But the book was published as a pseudo-novel and was very popular. Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” was also cobbled together from stories, though these did have a common background and worked better as a novel. (All the Bradbury stories with that background and/or thematic connections have just been collected as A Pleasure to Burn: Fahrenheit 451 Stories.)
     Isaac Asimov’s initial “Foundation Trilogy” was made up of short stories, novelettes and novellas (subsequent volumes were novels), with a common progressive background, and some characters in common, and also lent themselves to “novelization.” They don’t really read as novels either, yet it’s one of the most popular “novel” series of all time.
     Maybe Americans like short stories if they don’t know they are reading – or at least buying – short stories.
     While I like short story collections, especially if they’re by an author I know from experience that I like, I understand why most people prefer novels.
1.       A short story collection takes longer to read than a novel of similar length. When you read a novel, you often develop momentum as you go along. With collections, you lose that momentum and have to start over again.
2.       Similarly, in some novels at least, you develop an emotional attachment to the characters and want to prolong the experience. With short stories, you don’t always have time to develop that connection. I’ve read this described as novels are about character, and short stories are about plot.
     But if you don’t read short stories, you miss out on some of the greatest writers of all time. Edgar Allan Poe was a master of the short story. “The Cask of Amontillado” is considered by some to be the greatest short story ever written. Jorge Luis Borges, an Argentinean writer, once a candidate for the Nobel Prize for literature, wrote almost entirely in the short story form. So does Harlan Ellison, a modern American fantasist. Other American writers who wrote predominantly in shorter lengths include O. Henry (famous for his twist endings) and Saki (“The Open Window” is another universally praised classic). And while Ernest Hemingway and Mark Twain are best known for their novels, many readers believe the short story was where they did their best work.
     In the past few years, I’ve read three books by Joe Hill: 20th Century Ghosts, The Heart-Shaped Box and Horns. The latter two are novels; the first is a short story collection. I read Ghosts first and might not have read the others if I hadn’t.
     Box is a horror story about a curse. A rock musician receives a dress in a heart-shaped box. The dress belonged to an old girlfriend who killed herself, perhaps because he dumped her. Now someone has cursed him, apparently on her behalf, and he has to try to outrun the curse or somehow break it. This basic idea has been the subject of short stories and movies (such as “Casting the Runes” by M.R. James and its film adaptation The Curse of the Demon), but I found the book to be too long and drawn-out. A note I made at the time suggested that it might have worked better at 150 pages rather than 350.
     Horns is about a man who suddenly starts turning into a caricature of a demon: horns, red skin, impervious to flame – or at least he heals fast. Another side effect is that while no one seems to notice the change, in his presence they unknowingly tell him what they think about him in their worst and deepest thoughts. Again it seems to be related to guilt and the death of a girl he loved. But worse than just dragged out, I found the physical change that occurs to him pointless. The story could have been told without the supernatural angle, and his supernatural “powers” don’t do him much good in finding out what happened or gaining retribution on those who wronged him.
     Ghosts, however, was marvelous. Not all the stories are horror or supernatural, though most are disturbing. Two stories stand out in my memory. “Best New Horror” is about the editor of a “best horror” stories anthology who tries to track down the author of a particularly disturbing tale. “Pop Art” is about a boy’s friendship with another boy who – though born of man and woman and boy-shaped – is a balloon. It’s told as matter-of-factly as in E. B. White’s Stuart Little (the book, not the movies) when it’s written that Mrs. Little gave birth to a mouse. (Joe Hill, incidentally, is the son of Stephen King, which I didn’t know when I read Ghosts.)
     Do you read short stories? Do you have a favorite? Let me know what you think.


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