Tuesday, September 18, 2007

When the Short Story Grows Up, It Wants to Be a Novel

The lines between the short story and the novel are becoming increasingly blurred, writes Julian Gough in the Guardian.

We've already seen that in the UK (though not in the US ... or here for that matter) the former is something of an endangered species and there have been conscious attempts to revive it, particularly through the National Short Story prize (which Gough won earlier this year).

He says that he thinks that the "membrane" between the two forms has become more "permeable", and reckons that much of the UK's best writing is from short story writers forced to find ways to write novel-length stuff.

He takes Ian McEwan as a case in point, and says he:
... started out as a terse, disciplined short story writer. But "the market demands novels". Now he is seen as a terse, disciplined novelist. Yet a more interesting way to think of him is as an increasingly, and deliberately, sprawling, short story writer.
And he reckons that On Chesil Beach, currently shortlisted for the Booker, is in fact a short story. (Something I agree with.)

... And it couldn't be a shorter story (skip the next line if you don't want the entire plot revealed): a man has a premature ejaculation which destroys two lives. That's it. Perfect, essential McEwan. Because McEwan has one thing he wants to write about again and again: middle-class lives destroyed by a single, shocking, unfair incident. His readers know that. So, in both Saturday and On Chesil Beach, he uses our knowledge against us, like the director of a good horror sequel. His chapters are now the equivalent of the slow pan around an empty room, with the viewer forced to look too long on every innocent object. Time gets stretched, objects obsessively overdescribed in an almost drugged atmosphere of dread. These are technically fascinating short stories of enormous length. Which is not to say McEwan is not a fine novelist. It's just that he is a writer who very seldom gets novel-length ideas (The Child in Time and Atonement, primarily).
David Mitchell, he says, is another author who is at heart a short story writer:

A genius of the unpublishable length, the long short story, the novella, he finds a new structuring principle and assembles a novel from modules of story. He nests six novellas (Cloud Atlas) in a marvellously metafictive regression. Or he weaves a gossamer-thin line from which to hang nine stories that drift west, around the world (Ghostwritten). It is revealing that the only book of his to have disappointed the critics was his first "proper" novel, Black Swan Green.
Gough also makes the point that readers don't seem to like short stories that don't connect to each other and reckons that writers need an "organising principle" for their work.

Lots more worthwhile reading on Julian Gough's website and blog. His new novel Jude: Level 1 was launched last month.


Julian said...

Hi Sharon,

I'm glad you agree with me about McEwan, and that you enjoyed the article (and some of the stuff on my website). Thanks for summarising my argument so carefully.

Incidentally, your blog is gorgeous. I love the layout, and the way you visually separate my quotes from your words. Very clear, very easy to read. Great colour scheme too!

My dad spent three years in your part of the world (well, Singapore... I know, I know, it got kicked out of Malaysia in 1965, but it's still, geographically, a lot closer to you than, say, Miri or Kudat would be). So I grew up with a lot of stories from the southern end of the Thai-Malay peninsula. (Should I call it the Kra peninsula these days?)

When he went there, in the 1950s, it took three months by ship. A newspaper posted from home could take months to arrive. Wonderful and strange to think you can instantly read my Guardian article there now.

Thanks again, and best of luck with the blog,

-Julian Gough


bibliobibuli said...

hey ... magic of the internet, Julian, which allows us not only to read across the world but also to talk back! it was a very thought provoking article, as was the other one you wrote about about length. i actually like the blurring of distinctions.

and i love on chesil beach no less for being short ... just i'm not sure of it on the booker shortlist.

wish i could go to the small wonder festival. please tell etgar keret that he has a fan base here!

one of the reasons i actually ended up in this part of the world was because my dad told me such great stories about his time here in 1946 (he was also stationed in singapore) that i always wanted to see it for myself. stories can be life-changing things!

Tunku Halim said...


On the subject of short stories and novels and that sad "in between place", THE NOVELLA, MPH has very kindly and much to my delight agreed to release my short novel (or long short story or novella) entitled JURIAH'S SONG as a separate book!

This is very exciting for me as a new baby is about to be born!

jawakistani said...

I am currently reading On Chesil Beach based on your recommendation Sharon and I thought I was the only one wondering why he over- describes things...irrelevant things. I wouldnt say it's a drag because so far I'm enjoying it.