Is a novel a short story that keeps going, or, is it a string of stories with connective tissue and padding, or, is it something else? Essayist Greg Hollingshead believes that the primary difference between the short story and the novel is not length but the larger, more conceptual weight of meaning that the longer narrative must carry on its back from page to page, scene to scene.
“It’s not baggy wordage that causes the diffusiveness of the novel. It’s this long-distance haul of meaning.” Greg Hollingshead
There is a widespread conviction among fiction writers that sooner or later one moves on from the short story to the novel. When John Cheever described himself as the world’s oldest living short story writer, everyone knew what he meant.
Greg Hollingshead says that every once in a while, to the salvation of literary fiction, there appears a mature writer of short stories—someone like Chekhov, or Munro—whose handling of the form at its best is so undulled, so poised, so capacious, so intelligent, that the short in short story is once again revealed as the silly adjective it is, for suddenly there are simply stories, spiritual histories, narratives amazingly porous yet concentrated and undiffused.
When you decide you want to write in a particular form—a novel, short story, poem—read a lot of writing in that form. Notice the rhythm. How does it begin? What makes it complete? When you read a lot in a particular form, it becomes imprinted inside you, so when you sit at your desk to write, you produce that same structure. In reading novels your whole being absorbs the pace of the sentences, the setting of scenes, knowing the colour of the bedspread and how the writer gets her character to move down the hallway to the front door.
I sit at my desk thinking about form as a low-slung blanket of cloud blocks my view of the sky. Through the fly screen I inhale the sweet smell of earth after rain as another day of possibility beckons.
We might write five novels before we write a good one. I wrote five book-length manuscripts before one was finally accepted for publication. My skill was in the short form. I’d published dozens of short stories in prestigious literary journals. So it made sense that my first book, ‘My Year With Sammy’ (Ginninderra Press) is a novella – a small book.
What about you? Is your skill in the short form or the marathon?