The long and the short

I begin with the first two paragraphs from E.L. Doctorow’s Preface to his new collection of stories, All the Time in the World:

A novel may begin in your mind as an evocative image, a bit of conversation, a piece of music, an incident you’ve read about in someone’s life, a presiding anger, but in any case as something that proposes a meaningful world. And so the act of writing is in the nature of an exploration. You write to find out what you’re writing. And as you work, the sentences become generative, the book foretold in that image, that fragment of conversation, begins to emerge and itself participates in its composition, telling you what it is and how it must be realized.

A story, by contrast, usually comes to you as a situation, with the characters and setting irrevocably attached to it. Stories are assertive, they are self-announcing, their voice and circumstances decided and immutable. It is not a matter of finding your way to them; they’ve arrived unbidden, and more or less whole, with a demand that you put everything else aside and write them down before they fade as dreams fade.

I have not, to date, written a novel, and have only produced a handful of stories, so I cannot comment on this from experience. But it feels right.

It feels right for two reasons. The first is that it explains the generic difference between the novel and the short story (using genre in its older and broader sense). I have always experienced a sort of Todorovian hesitation when I read critics talking about the novel and the short story as two different genres. They are both prose fictions, and the difference between them is one of scale: presumably, and theoretically, one word could make the difference between a long short story and a short novel. If it all comes down to word count, how could they be different genres? And yet, when you look at them critically, there is a difference. Sometimes the difference can seem to be a side-effect of word length: novels tend to be more relaxed, more expansive; short stories more compressed, more urgent. But word length alone doesn’t seem to be sufficient to explain the different affect of a good novel and a good short story.

Doctorow identifies the difference as one of composition. The novel is an exploration, an object that will, in and of itself, change during the process of its own composition. The story is a statement, and expression of something immediate and whole. Now this isn’t quite the whole story. I know from my own experience that, however much a short story might come to me whole, there is still an element of exploration in finding out how to reach the ending that was envisaged. But still, what he suggests here does give a clue as to why there is a generic difference between the two, and it has absolutely nothing to do with word length.

This still leaves one big question: the difference as laid out here is one that is clear and obvious to the writer, but not to the reader. When we first approach a work of fiction we can have no way of knowing whether the author had to explore an ever-shifting territory, or whether it emerged full-grown like Athena. And generic difference has to be at least as much about the nature of the work as it appears to the reader as it is about the nature as it appears to the author. So the distinction laid out in Doctorow’s Preface is not a definition of the generic difference between novel and short story. But it does seem to point to something in which generic difference is inherent, it convinces me that they are two forms separated by more than word length.

But I said it felt right for two reasons. The second reason is in two passing phrases. A novel is something “that proposes a meaningful world”, while a story will “fade as dreams fade”. This also feels like a step towards understanding the generic difference between the forms. Because a novel implies rationality, meaning, an ability to make sense of the world (or at least of the world about which one is writing). Even if you attempt, in a novel, to lay out a meaningless, an irrational world, by the end of the work, either as reader or as writer, you will be trying to impose some sense upon the words. A novel says that there is something to be grasped. His starting points, I notice, are all things for which one might endeavour to find an explanation.

There is no such need in a short story. In fact, of course, most short stories do present a rational, explicable world, they do tell us that we can make sense. But not all do, and there is no generic requisite for them to do so. A story can present a moment, a dream, an encapsulated experience cut off from all its contexts. In broad terms, over the passage of time, life makes sense (or, at least, we expect it to, we behave as if it does). In the short term, moment by moment, it often makes no sense whatsoever.

Those senseless moments cannot make a novel, but they do constitute a story.

But here is the companion to the first point I made. Over the duration of a novel, duration being time spent in composition or in reading or simply the passage of time within the fiction, there has to be time enough to seek explanation, to make sense. And that is the time spent in the exploration that Doctorow talks about. Within the compass of a story, on the other hand, the unbidden, the whole, there need be no more than that moment that makes no sense, because it is adrift from history and from future, seen separated from what went before and what comes after which are in their turn what gives it context. Without that context we are not looking to make sense so much as experiencing the moment as it stands.

So if we look at the exploration of writing a novel as a way of finding meaning over time, and the instant of a story as a way of experiencing the moment, then we may be some way towards understanding why there is a generic difference between the novel and the short story.

(The stories in this collection, by the way, are excellent and I hope to come back and discuss them in another post.)

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5 thoughts on “The long and the short

  1. What a evocative passage! Thanks — though I hardly could pull my mind out of the worlds Doctorow called forth in order to post.

    Also, I’ve long been a fan of the Billy Bathgate story, an entirely different animal from the novel, & predating it by far.

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  4. I agree with a lot of this—it feels right to me—but I do think there are (as always) exceptions. For example, my second novel (“The New Boyfriend,” currently unpublished) came to me all at once in a flash, in the middle of the night, even. I woke up and scribbled part of it down, and then in the morning began effectively “channeling” it—it just poured out of me over the next few weeks. I made hardly any decisions at all in writing it (meaning, I only had to pause once or twice to figure out things that weren’t immediately obvious).

    But that novel is also much like a short story. It’s one continuous scene, with only four characters and one setting, and despite it’s length (33,000 words), I intended for the reader to read it straight through, in one sitting. So it’s in some ways a very long short story. It’s also fairly irrational and does more, I think, to upset order than to suggest it. (Several people who’ve read it have told me that they’ve found it distinctly unsettling, eve nightmarish.)

    And I imagine there are other novel-length short stories out there. John Hawkes’s Travesty comes to mind. Maybe also Donald Barthelme’s Paradise? Others?

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