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Why isn’t a short work considered ambitious?

Beckett's play 'Play' is less than fourteen minutes long.

It seems it’s just as ambitious to tell a story succinctly, to have a short amount of pages make up one’s entire enterprise.

Novels under 200 pages:

Albert Camus – L’Etranger

Paula Fox – Desperate Characters

James Salter – A Sport and a Pastime

Short/long stories that “feel” like novelesque creatures:

William Gass – “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” 40 pages

Alice Munro – “The Albanian Virgin,” 50 pages

Gary Lutz – “Recessional,” 10 pages


how about a cheer for ambitious flash fictions like Amber Sparks’ May We Shed These Human Bodies

and Joseph Young’s pieces in Easter Rabbit.

34 thoughts on “Why isn’t a short work considered ambitious?

  1. Who doesn’t consider it ambitious? I want names, mon ami.

    It doesn’t seem to me that anyone in the small press world is down on shorter works; quite the opposite. And I suppose we could say that “the large presses value only longer works” (though I don’t think that’s really true). And in any case, who would care if they did? We could also say that Martians don’t value longer works; it wouldn’t matter. None of us have daily interactions with Martians.

    I don’t think. But we do have daily interactions with small presses.

    1. That Beckett guy you refer to in the picture? I think people value him, think he was pretty good.

      I don’t think there’s much battle left to be fought over the value of shorter pieces. It seems to me that battle was fought and won (in the US) between 1960—1980. (Meaning US writers finally caught on to what experimental French writers were doing one hundred years earlier.)

      By the late 80s/early 90s, the Minimalist realists (the Lish school) were in dominance, major publishers were putting out flash fiction anthologies [Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories (Gibbs Smith 1983), Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories (Norton & Company 1992), Charles Simic was winning the Pulitzer for a prose poetry collection, etc. And Donald Barthelme was still publishing regularly in the New Yorker. Short writing was no longer confined to fringier collections like Anti-Story (The Free Press 1971). (Note, though, that The Free Press was an imprint of Simon & Shuster.)

      That Sudden Fiction collection and Flash Fiction collection were seminal reading in the very Minimalist-influenced, realist fiction writing program I attended 94–98 (Penn State University). And part of what so bores me about so much contemporary flash fiction is that the stories in those two anthologies are, for the most part, more experimental and more diverse than so much of what I see being put out by so many small presses today.

      1. Good points Adam, match to Jameson. But I’m not really battling, I’m just wondering why. I hear people talk about these books being massive and overwhelming and yes, they are. But I also get overwhelmed by a very short piece, a poem. Corydon & Alexis by D.A. Powell.

        RE: anthologies – well they are filled with the top writers of the day. Why is so much of contemporary flash fiction bore you? Same endings? A person looks at the trees? Same beginnings?

        1. A lot of the flash fiction I see today looks the same to me. It strikes me as being very post-Marcus, post-Language. I haven’t done an exhaustive survey, mind you. But I would prefer there to be more variety. This might be my own failing; I haven’t been reading a ton of flash as of late. I think I was more excited about it in the 90s than I am now, when it seems so ubiquitous. (Again, my own tendency, my own potential failing.)

          (And of course there’s flash today I like, etc. etc.)

          Remember that Steve Martin flash that Nicolle read at our Brooklyn reading? (I think that’s what she did, right at the start—I may be wrong, though.) It struck me at the time as being “very early 80s.” And I thought it refreshing, to hear a flash like that again—like something no one really writes any more. Although Lord knows it might have been par for the course at the time. (Indeed, the fact that I thought of it as being very “1983” or so made me think that it probably was.)

          Stuff like Barry Yourgrau, Wearing Dad’s Head. I feel like I don’t see that kind of thing anymore. Among other things.

    2. http://www.nytimes.com/ref/books/fiction-25-years.html

      The best are big books. Housekeeping and the two short story collections excluded. Counterlife as well?

      And I’m not thinking about the small press world per se.

      Am I stretching it? Fair enough. But I’ve never seen ambitious superlatives on anything not long (I’m under-read). Infinite Jest, The Corrections, Witz – long, ambitious – check the reviews.

      What if your ambition leaves you with a small page count? Is that any less laudatory? I know this sprung out of the discussion here – http://bigother.com/2010/06/29/amy-hempels-answer-whats-yours/

      Size them up.

        1. ‘Long’ meaning? And to go deeper it’s four white men – Delillo, McCarthy, Roth and Updike. One, two, three, four horsemen of the apocalypse.

      1. I think context is really needed here. It might be the case that certain awards and editors are stuck in the mindset that only long books by middle-aged white men are worthwhile. And that view should be combated, for all of the reasons that it’s wrong-headed.

        But the question becomes, why does one care what The New York Times thinks? I’m not saying one shouldn’t care, but why does one care? And what can one do about it?

        I don’t live in the world of The New York Times, really. I don’t spend my days thinking about these authors, really, or wishing that the Times would choose my book instead.

        I worry more about small press editors who don’t want to consider story submissions that are longer than 1000 words. That’s my daily reality; that’s what makes me wonder what I should be doing.

        Meanwhile, were I to teach a writing class, or assemble a favorites list, I’d try to take care not to repeat the mistakes of the Times. I certainly like big fat books by older white men—”big chubbies,” I call them (the books)—but that’s not all I like.

        Currently in my bag: The Center of the Cyclone by John C. Lilly. 237 pages—but a pocket edition! (I miss pocket paperbacks.)

  2. I think short works might be considered great, but ambitious just isn’t a word that goes with a short work. When someone walks from New York to San Francisco barefoot, you call that ambitious. When someone walks to the corner store barefoot to buy a Mickey’s tall boy, you call them a bum.

    1. Ambition is an ardent desire for rank, fame or power. So when one writes many pages, one has a larger desire for fame? ha ha maybe no yes

      When the conversation shifts to film it becomes more ridiculous. Lawrence of Arabia is an epic and considered ambitious because it’s over three hours long. Meshes in the Afternoon by Maya Deren and her husband is 14 minutes long, yet it’s a watershed in cinema. Yet because it’s so short, commercial audiences have not been so exposed to it. Of course film students and scholars have. Arabia certainly took more time to conceive, shoot and edit. So more time spent = more ambition?

      1. I would agree that there’s a real bias against short films, and that there long has been. Features are largely valued over shorts. Theaters aren’t even equipped to screen shorts. Most awards are for features only, etc.

        This despite that fact that shorts are easier to teach, could be programmed together, shown more easily on TV, gathered on DVDs, etc. Yet attempts to do all these things have met with only marginal success.

        The only short form that’s really succeeded over the past 30 years is the music video. Now, YouTube may be changing things somewhat.

  3. page counts of recent titles from two large small presses:

    1. Melville House Press

    Baddies: 128 pages
    The Canal: 224
    Casino Jack and the United States of Money: n/a
    The Cleanest Race: 200
    Drunk: 224
    Eat When You Feel Sad: 112
    Every Man Dies Alone: 554
    The Flight of the Intellectuals: 224
    A Happy Man: 192
    The Hollywood Economist: 252
    How to Wreck a Nice Beach: 352
    Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview: 128
    Sandokan: 128
    Shoplifting from American Apparel: 112
    The Union Jack: 80
    Wolf Among Wolves: 811

    range: 80–811 pages
    avg: 248
    med: 200

    – – – –
    2. Dalkey Archive Press

    Best European Fiction 2010: 460 pages
    The Best of Myles: 400
    The Collaborators: 496
    The Golden Age: 336
    Heartbreak Tango: 232
    Poor Things: 319
    Ryder: 250
    Self-Portrait Abroad: 96
    Witz: 824

    range: 96–824 pages
    avg: 379
    med: 336

    1. Adam, I find your blog comments impressive & ambitious. Seriously, though, I do think there’s a connection between size & effect, though it’s not a direct connection–I think both flash fiction & really long novels have an ability to overwhelm in a certain way that short-stories and average length novels generally don’t (those things tend towards other effects–beauty rather than sublimity).

  4. I am just talking about how the word ambition is used in books. Rhys Hughes for instance is trying to write a series of 1,000 short stories. That is ambitous. But it is difficult to call something small ambitious.

    Large things are ambitous. Small things are not.

    Ulysses was ambitious. The Dead, while a great short story, was not.

    1. I might agree with that. But I think, too, that that’s a very American view of ambition: the fascination with the biggest.

      How about the smallest? Ambition might be thought of as going that direction as well. “Shortest novel ever.” “Shortest story using the shortest words possible.”

      1. an earnest desire for some type of achievement or distinction, as power, honor, fame, or wealth, and the willingness to strive for its attainment: Too much ambition caused him to be disliked by his colleagues.
      2. the object, state, or result desired or sought after: The crown was his ambition.
      3. desire for work or activity; energy: I awoke feeling tired and utterly lacking in ambition.

      1. Um. As far as art goes, Americans actually have a tendency to do things small if compared to people in other parts of the world. Just go and look at the big Tintorettos in Italy or look at some of the massive literary works out there. All of the classic works of fiction in China are just massive. The books by Ponson du Terrail, Paul Feval and George Reynolds dwarf pretty much anything Americans have ever done.

        Flash fiction on the other hand, is basically an American thing. Not that other nations have not had their versions (Fineon, Kawabata, etc.). But only Americans have actually made a genre of it.

        As far as the dictionary definition goes, that is ok. I am just saying how the word is used pertaining to art and literature.

        Only in nuclear physics are small things considered ambitious.

        1. Funny how the art is small (I kind of disagree with this-looks at all those shopping malls!) but everything else is big. Big mouths, big appetites. Have you ever seen the refrigerators people in Europe live with? they are a quarter of the size of those here.

          My overarching query is why ambition equals the best? I know some people don’t equate the two here, but in common parlance this is not the case. Size=domination?

  5. i tend to think there is an element of risk or sacrifice in something that is ambitious. the longer the work the more apparent the personal sacrifice the author made for it.

    1. But what about writers who write hundreds and hundreds of pages and throw most everything out and end up with a short story or a novella? Mary Caponegro is one example.

  6. Regardless of the dictionary definition of “ambitious,” it’s all about the writing and the content. Short works (and their authors) deserve the same respect.

    1. There are other words to denote respect aside from “ambitious”.

      I mean, ambition has its place, but it is not the only thing to give respect. The truth is, that calling something “ambitious” is not the same as calling it good. As far as I can see, short fiction, especially in the small press “community” gets about as much respect as it deserves. There is lovely short fiction out there, but the fact is that most of it is being written for the simple reason that it is less risky. If you write a two page story and no one publishes it, you write another. If you spend years writing a long novel and no one publishes it, it is a major life blow.

      1. yes, that’s important to realize. when i say ambitious, i in no way imply ‘good.’ ambition has little to do with the value of a work. it has more to do with work ethic.

  7. As an aspiring writer, I know how difficult it is to convey meaning in a short amount of space. Sometimes the short works are packed with more to ponder over and they take so little time to digest. Less is more in many cases. Brevity is the soul of wit.

  8. this is the stock response but i always come back with what you are talking about is not word length, but density. density is independent of word length. you can have a dense poem, but in the same manner, you can have a dense epic novel. equal density. only difference is the epic author sacrificed a decade of his life while the poet sacrificed an afternoon.

    1. Come on Darby. I’m sure many poets would take umbrage here. Yes, it takes less time to write a poem, but I think we’re giving too much credit to the novelist. Most often, when people say they worked ten years on one novel, they don’t mean they spent every single day working on it. Months probably go by when they work on other things, or nothing at all.

      I’m with you on the density.

      1. I guess it’s time for me to take umbrage: poets spend decades writing long poems. Williams, Pound, Zukofsky come to mind — but also Ronald Johnson, Charles Olson, David Jones — as well as poets these days — Rachel Blau Duplessis, Nathaniel Mackey, Ron Silliman — you get the picture…

        This is a complex issue, Greg, but here is some more food for thought:

        – In terms of quantity, T.S. Eliot’s _The Wasteland_ is a short poem: just over 400 lines. But certainly it’s very dense.

        – To paraphrase R. Blau Duplessis, the long poem is not about length but about cultural ambition.

        – Dickinson and Whitman (to the neglect of others) seem like the towering American poets of the 19th Century, and they appear as contraries: the expansive bard of long lines and the miniaturist of small, chiseled lyrics. But Dickinson’s fascicles taken as a whole seem as monumental (ambitious?) as the clusters of _Leaves of Grass_.

        – What is a long poem anyway? This is Poe:

        “What we term a long poem is, in fact, merely a succession of brief ones- that is to say, of brief poetical effects. It is needless to demonstrate that a poem is such only inasmuch as it intensely excites, by elevating the soul; and all intense excitements are, through a psychal necessity, brief. For this reason, at least, one-half of the “Paradise Lost” is essentially prose- a succession of poetical excitements interspersed, inevitably, with corresponding depressions- the whole being deprived, through the extremeness of its length, of the vastly important artistic element, totality, or unity of effect.”

  9. Ambitious poetry seems to be poetry that aims for a kind of totalizing scope, which oftentimes requires length. At the same time, short poems, especially those which are shooting for maximum compression of idea and language and form, can be considered ambitious if they achieve their affects. Here’s an example, a quatrain penned by a painter in Boston named W’O.K after returning from the 60th anniversary of the Auschwitz liberation. I think this captures something very profound about history and its uses today.

    The Crime

    I yawn like the brick oven
    Making a list in my head
    Of who gets shoved in
    And who gets sent to bed

  10. The greatest Mexican fiction writer, by all acclaim, is Juan Rulfo (1917-1988). Rulfo’s entire work consists of one volume of short stories, El llano en llamas (translated by Margaret Sayers Peden as The Burning Plain and Other Stories), and one short novel, Pedro Páramo. Rulfo is little read in translation, perhaps because his work is so very rooted in mexicanidad,perhaps because Carlos Fuentes wrote much longer books.

    John Oliver Simon

  11. A couple thoughts.

    One defining characteristic of novellas, as opposed to novels, is a sustained lyric intensity. The other is a single plotline. The length thing, which seems to factor into the question here of ‘ambitiousness’ (and then comes to seem to have more to do with whether something is ‘epic’ or expansive), then, is only one question.

    As was pointed out, ambitiousness and ‘greatness’ aren’t the same. Hence “The Great Gatsby,” which is really a novella, is often spoke of as being the ‘great American novel.’ Strangely, the other book that frequently tries to claim that space is “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” a book that’s tremendously episodic and full of subplots and digressions.

    If a ‘novel’ is a series of digressions that point, ideally, at one thing, then in a way it depends on ground covered– it is supposed to be ambitious. But that nonetheless seems at odds with Flannery O’Connor’s dictum that “Form is necessity in a work of art,” which is to say, you need exactly what you need, and no more.

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