Is the short story really worthwhile, is the novel really dead? by Ali Bacon

Ali Bacon
My feelings about short stories have always been mixed. Until I began writing I’d read very few unless you count my Mum's Woman’s Own on a rainy day circa 1967.  Then in my quest to Become A Writer I signed up to an evening class without noticing the topic was short stories.  I enjoyed it but was over the moon when I found out that the excellent teacher was starting another course the following autumn on writing a novel. Since then I only ever really considered short stories as a kind of career stepping-stone, a ‘look at me’ moment in the greater plan of trying to sell a novel to an agent or publisher. 

Even when I began having some modest success in competitions I was still a reluctant consumer of short stories, literary or otherwise, and if I’m honest, viewed all those claims about the short story having at last come into its own with some scepticism.
Don’t get me wrong I’m still not completely won over (of the several anthologies I own, I don’t think there’s one in which I’ve read every single story - *blush*) but I may be on the path to conversion.

What has changed? Well as you’ll have seen from previous posts  I've discovered that if I have a limited attention span for reading short stories, I do like listening to them and have been involved in several ‘livelit’ events where I’ve met talented local writers who can write and perform with great panache.

Jenny Heap with other writers (I'm 3rd from right!) at Hawkesbury Upton Litfest
But what about reading short fiction? Well at HawkesburyUpton Literature festival (where I was in the company of as many short story writers as novelists without feeling like a fish out of water) I ran into Jenny Heap who has recently published ‘a circle of short stories.’  That had me intrigued straight away. In my short stay on the MA at Bath Spa the idea of a collection of linked short stories was often bandied about, but had I ever met one, as it were, in the flesh? Tessa Hadley’s Accidents in the Home has been given this label but to me it was more coherent than that. Other collections (Debbie Young’s witty Marry in Haste or the Unchained library anthology published by my writing group) have themes but no interconnections.

The Woman Who Never Did (I reviewed it here)is both entertaining and thought provoking and doen't conform to many (off-putting!) preconceptions of the short story genre. Its interconnections (some tight some loose) also kept me interested.  As a result, when I came across this article by Anthony Cummins Clear-eyed and cutting edge, has the short story come of age,  I decided to suspend my usual scepticism and read it properly. 

Cummins  praises a number of short story collections including a new one by Mark Haddon but also identifies quite a few novels which are really made up from separate stories.  He says: 

"This is either a grown-up way to construct a story that trusts the reader to make sense of it, or it neglects the writers duty to build something coherent. It can be a way to sidestep the contrivance of plot and let the characters breathe..."

Sidestepping the contrivance of plot rings a bell with me even as a reader. I think modern commercial fiction has become increasingly plot-driven. I’m thinking of things like Gone Girl or even Elizabeth is Missing. These are compelling reads but do they give the lasting satisfaction of a novel that builds more slowly and demands more of us? And as a writer who has had struggled with plot in the past, I’m always on the look out for a McGuffin or a plot-twist and even if I don’t see it, the knowledge that it’s there is somehow distracting.  I remember a few years ago Andrew Marr declared himself growing weary of the novel form and although they will always be my staple reading diet I think I see now where he was coming from.

And so I am attracted at least in theory to this new form of novel and although I’ve twice started and given up on Cloud Atlas (more blushes) maybe it’s time I got to grips with some of the others mentioned in the article. As to the ‘pure’ short story collection, Cummins hits the nail on the head in explaining my own past aversion, "A traditional novel can be put down and picked up with steady enjoyment, whereas short stories demand engagement, continually renewed. It’s a form that asks for more attention, not less."
This has been my problem exactly. Reading short stories consecutively is just too mentally tiring. Unlike a novel I just have to put them down!

Of course there are exceptions, and If anyone needs more persuading to give short stories a go, there's our own anthology Another Flash in the Pen availabe on pre-order now - no mental tiredness or your money back!
(I can say that can't I?)

You can read more about Ali Bacon on our author website.


This post made me think about my own attitude to short stories - as a reader rather than a writer. I do read them, but I almost never read mixed anthologies, which is interesting (and probably a bit worrying, since I've contributed to a few mixed anthologies myself, not least for this group!) If I find a writer I like I'll read pretty much every story in a volume. I could name M R James, E F Benson's fat and fabulous collection of ghost stories, China Mieville's weird and wonderful stuff, Bernard MacLaverty's small masterpieces, William Trevor ditto. I like them because I do a lot of reading late at night, and I can read a single story and then fall asleep, knowing that there will be another one in the same 'voice' to come back to the next night. Maybe this also explains why, recently, I've been rereading big Victorian novels, especially those episodic ones that were originally printed in serial form. Just coming to the end of Vanity Fair for instance. I've felt the need of something to get my teeth into, so maybe you're right about the over emphasis on plot in some contemporary hit novels. Excellent post - thanks! Really made me think about my own reading habits!
Jan Needle said…
just rereading de maupassant's stories, and can't stop. strangely, it's a volume i had to struggle with at school (it's a 'text book', in French of all things) and it's astonishing. i read once that de M was caught burying pebbles in the garden of the institution where he died (aged 47) of tertiary syphilis, in the fond hope they would be born as the children he never had. but perhaps his stories were, in fact. hope so. they're wonderful.
Bill Kirton said…
First, I should say that I love short stories. But then I need to confess that, despite the label being apparently a clear definition of the form (it's a story and it's short), they can be shorter than a sonnet and nearly as long as a novella. Writing flash fiction is the closest I come nowadays to writing poetry but my novel 'Alternative Dimension' started life as 22 self-contained short stories, all on the theme of role-playing online games.

Speaking as a reader of the form, I like the fact that they can be put down. Little beats the full absorption that comes from being drawn into a novel but it's annoying when necessities such as eating and sleeping force me to step out of it into a reality far less structured and interesting.
Debbie Young said…
Very interesting piece, Ali - and thanks for the mention! I agree that short stories are a double-edged sword when it comes to engagement - one of their appeals is that they're easily digestible to read at a sitting, but once you've finished one in a book, whether a single-author collection like mine (thanks for the kind comments, btw!) or a multi-author anthology, you need to start all over again.

That's one of the reasons I write themed collections - to provide a bit more coherence and continuity, and a recognisable shape that will keep the reader engaged, in the hope that it'll be harder for the reader to resist moving on to the next story after each one finishes.

I too really enjoyed Jenny Heap's collection, and the intrigue as to how she was going to keep the circle going definitely kept me reading, although the some of the stories were really different in feel and characters.

I do think the short story has grown in appeal and status in the last few years, but there are still huge numbers of people who avoid them as if they're allergic, without ever having really given them a chance. I take it as a backhanded compliment when a reviewer says of one of my collections "I don't usually like (or read) short stories, but Debbie Young's are different". Hence my current work in progress is a novel - though not one that is any kind of combination of short stories. I'm hoping that once I've got some novels out there, more readers will be tempted to try my short stories while waiting for me to write the next novel. I'm not giving up on the form that I love so much just yet, and I hope you won't either!
madwippitt said…
Love short stories!
Enid Richemont said…
My writing career began when a short story I'd written was accepted by a women's magazine. Decades later,my first children's book was published, but I do have a collection of these - I did very well out of them and acquired my first agent - and I've recently been considering putting them out there as an anthology. I still love short stories.
Lydia Bennet said…
Yes a thought provoking post Ali, short stories can be superb (cf Saki for example) though I've been tortured by ghastly ones read interminably at live lit events where the whole thing is just stream of not-very-interesting consciousness. I think some people do find them easier for short bursts of reading eg on short commutes. however every announcement that they have suddenly come into their own from the commercial pov seems to be premature.
AliB said…
Many thanks for all your comments although it seems like only Lydia is starting from roughly the same place as me. I agree Catherine that single author collections are more approachable than mixed anthologies - and an interesting point on serialised novels. Debbie I'm surprised - or maybe not? - you feel the need to have a novel to make a mark when your stories are so popular - but always good to have a few irons in the fire. As for livelit - hah! I've been in them and also organised a couple. The most interesting for me in that situation is that it's all - or nearly all - about the performance!
I grew up as a writer reading Interzone - a SF/fantasy magazine that published many well-known SF writers. Never persuaded them to publish one of mine, but enjoyed many of the stories and admired others (not quite the same thing?).

I still enjoy reading short stories, though you can't really escape into them in the same way as you can escape into a novel. Especially with fantasy worlds, a short story just doesn't stay long enough - it's like spending a weekend in a strange city, when if I enjoy the experience I really want to move there for six months and get to know the whole country.

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