Novelism.Casebook: Renaming the "Short Story"

Novelism.Casebook is for posts that address more controversial and advanced topics in the literary community. These posts can give more seasoned writers something to chew on while introducing those with less experience to the nuance of what defines fiction. 


“Just as the yacht is not simply a bigger rowboat, the novel is not a big short story; knowledge of one doesn't necessarily translate into knowledge of the other.”

-John Stazinski, A Novel Approach

The term “short story” has come to define a genre of form. But this definition is both ambiguous and relative. Any attempt to define it will reveal contradictions. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “short” as an adjective to mean “Having small longitudinal extent...Opposed to long.” Short is a relative term. Nothing can be short without comparison or external reference. “Story” is a little more subjective. To me, a story a work of fiction which engages conflict. The Oxford English Dictionary, on the other hand, deigns to call it “A narrative, true or presumed to be true, relating to important events and celebrated persons of a more or less remote past...” This definition, aside from making me flinch, makes me question whether “true” is synonymous with “real.” And neither that question or the original definition help to make the very real distinction between “narrative” and “story.”

You don't have to go far to find problems with the “short story” designation. Pushing the semantic examination aside, a more useful study presents itself: is a short story defined by a quantitative measure, a qualitative measure, or both? A quantitative measure would entail the presence of "cut off points" which separate short stories, novellas, and novels. These cut off points could be objective, but only if they were consistent; and they never are. It varies from writer to publisher and on. A qualitative measurement, however, would vary from one piece to the next and would necessitate a concrete understanding of style.

The pull between these two roughly defined standards for understanding the short story genre is a long standing controversy. In “A Novel Approach,” John Stazinski discusses how MFA programs can be detrimental for aspiring novelists because students are trained primarily on how to write a short story instead. His reasoning is that a short story can “ an hour long workshop, can be chiseled down to its essential parts." I may disagree with that, but there's not doubt that because of its length, a short story has a greater range of pedagogical uses. 

The most puzzling thing to me about the "short story" is that there the spefication of it being short. Novels are not called “long stories.” This dichotomy implies that the term “story” on its own is naturally long winded. In “A Short History of the Short Story,” Boyd discusses the short story as an evolved form of anedoctal speech and oral traditions. He says: “The short form is, conceivably, more natural to us than longer forms: the anecdote that lasts several hours is going to find its listeners drifting away pretty soon.” If a longer anecdote is boring, than is the shortening of an anecdote part of what consitutes a story? On this thoery, Boyd says: “...even the most unprofessional anecdotalist will find him or herself having to select some details and omit others....A whole editing process is engaged....A convincing lie is, in its own way, a tiny, perfect narrative.”

So this “tiny, perfect narrative” may be a matter of editing. This is where a qualitative measure can play a role. John Stazinski contrasts the short story and the novel by saying: “The novel, on the other hand, is a loose and sprawling thing, a symphony as compared with the story's simple country tune." Stazinski calls the novel “loose and sprawling,” but then later likens it to a symphony. His description of the novel suggests that he sees it as being sloppy, or perhaps ill defined. A symphony, however, has a defined form, so the comparison is inconsistent. It's possible that it serves Stazinski's second comparison. His analogy asserts that short stories are somehow less sophisticated than novels. This may not be a strictly quanititative difference, but it isn't exactly qualitative, either. Rather, here Stazinski seems to suggest a hierarchy of genres, and that the novel has a higher place on that hierarchy than the short story does. This is an imprecise approach to defining the qualitative measure.

Paolo Bacigalupi, award winning novelist and short story writer, is quoted as saying: “Short fiction seems more targeted - hand grenades of ideas, if you will. When they work, they hit, they explode, and you never forget them. Long fiction feels more like atmosphere: it's a lot smokier and less defined.” What do short stories do to create an extra punch? Short stories focus on a single idea and are able to explore that idea thoroughly through expert use of layered language, or subtext. The Oxford English Dictionary calls subtext “An underlying theme in a piece of writing...” The key word here is “underlying”; it refers to a consolidation of language.

According to Ann Charters in The Story and its Writer, short stories are distinct from novels because they have a “striking compression by using language with the force of poetry." A qualitative measure could mark a short story based on the weight of its language. Examining this requires a thorough understanding of style.

Style is a series of choices. An author's diction, syntax, paragraph and sentence arrangment, metaphors, and more inform their style. Such a complex formula can not be defined outside of one individual work, although there are umbrella terms that cover the different types of styles. These terms can be defined by author, time period, type of language, and cognition of audience.

Since style is a series of both conscious and unconscious choices, fiction, as a technical manifestation of these choices, acts in two ways: it presents a systematic interpretation of the reality that forms its frame of reference and provides an imprint of the author's consciousness of that reality. The stylized reality that fiction presents comes from a writer's efforts to make order out of chaos. Thus, it is a critic's job to discover the patterns which come from a writer's subconscious filtration process.

The first thing to examine is the duality of the abstract and the concrete in poetic language. “Tenor” and “Vehicle” are terms for the two main components of a literary comparison. The Vehicle is the concrete component and the Tenor is the abstract component. You can see this in the following phrase from Willa Cather's “Paul's Case”: “The moment he turned into Cordelia Street he felt the waters close above his head." Paul's feeling is the Vehicle and the water is the Tenor. Cather is likening Paul's emotions to being submerged under water, which is not his literal experience in that moment. This is an effective comparison because the metaphor speaks to several aspects of Paul's experience; it is suffocating, heavy, overwhelming, and lethal. Cather, instead of dragging the reader through a series of dry emotional responses, condenses them into a graceful statement which gives the image of water more weight throughout the rest of the story.

This conceptualized image of water makes several more appearances in "Paul's Case", and studying what the water metaphors have in common gives the reader yet another layer of meaning. Every instance of conceptualized water seems to indicate that Paul is overwhelmed: “...what he wanted was to see, to be in the atmosphere, float on the wave of it, to be carried out, blue league after blue league, away from everything." In the moment before his death, Paul visualizes “...the blue of Adriatic water."

Dialogue is the most self-evident example of sylized reality; it is enhanced speech. The more apt the condensation is, the more it speaks to the truth of the story. We know here at Novelism, for example, that a character acts as a stylized person. Characters are often the most consistent hallmark of style. 

 Events can also be stylized: “...the lights in front of the concert hall were out, and that the rain was driving in sheets between him and the orange glow of the windows above him. There is was, what he wanted—tangibly before him, like the fairy world of a Christmas pantomime, but mocking spirits stood guard at the doors, and, as the rain beat in his face, Paul wondered whther he were destined always to shiver in the black night outside, looking up at it." A reality independent of artistry says that Paul is standing outside of a building. But because the event is stylized, it reveals Paul's primary conflict in the story and addresses the story's themes of limitation, desire, and inspired living.

Based on this study, the qualitative measure addresses the density of abstractions. What is called a short story, then, would be a work of fiction which is carried by its underlying themes more than the concrete events themselves. A novel, on the other hand, can achieve scope through literal interpretation and elements of catharsis, which I will address in a future post about the novel. If there is more space, the elements don't need to be as condensed. Reading a novel is breathing in a foggy room for several hours. Reading a short story is drinking a glass of water in one sitting. Just as the difference between liquid and gas can be scientifically measured, so the two genres can be measured based on qualitative standards.

A novel is more marketable than an anthology because it is a single, cohesive work. Consumers seeking an episodic form of entertainment use new media; if they are seeking scope, they might consider literature, and scope is one of the defining qualities of a novel. In “Marketing Your Short Story Collection,” Jack Smith explores the reasons why fiction writers have a much better chance of selling a novel than a book of short stories. Agents, publishing companies, and reviewers all tend to avoid short story collections because they can't be boiled down to a unified idea of theme. Promotion suffers as a result and book stores have a hard time knowing where to place short story collections, so they often don't carry them at all. According to Smith, though, the dedicated short story writer can find success by submitting their work to competitions. Submitting a collection guarantees that it will be read, so quality is always taken into account. Furthermore, an award on a short story collection boosts sales and leads to better promotion. You've hopefully gathered by now that advertising is a great point of study for a writer. 

While form and content may be organically linked, the condensation of language is what determines the literary quality of a story, and so it should not be defined by relative terms of quantity. What is called the “short story” is actually the literary story; it makes strong use of literary elements. Perhaps this potential definition proved problematic because it would invite critics to make judgement calls about what defines literature, and academics often tremble at the concept of such objective assessment. Furthermore, the qualitative, or, what I will now call the literary measure, suggests that Stazinski's potential hierarchy has some validity. The difference, though, would be that what we call “short stories” would have a higher place on the hierarchy for being more literary.

Writing a “short story” that is not literary would inevitably compromise its quality. Achieving concrete scope in a small space without any abstractions in layered language would make the story dry, rushed, and incomplete at best. So remember that when you are rewriting your "short story."  Here are two phrases which illustrate the difference between a literary and non literary text: (keep in mind, all texts are technically literary. Here, I mean "literary" in the fine art, high-falutin' sense). 

1) Eliot was on the roof.

2) Eliot did not want to jump.

Either of these lines could start a story. A discerning writer or critic can tell that the second line is more likely to be paired with a literary work. It appeals to Eliot's fear, and to a potential risk. The first phrase is, on its own, entirely concrete. It is telling the reader an idea as opposed to illustrating it. This could change; the clothing store could come to represent more throughout the story, it could be used as an abstract concept. This is why it's essential to look at the entire work at hand, examine it's parts, how they all relate to one another as well as how they stand on their own. (Ahem, Formalist criticism owns all). 

The fact that styles are unique to a work does not make them subjective; each work has its own internal logic, or lack therof. So, why is it that our understanding of genre is not governed by such studies? The deconstruction of an imprint of consciousness, the thousands of decisions that go to work in creating a style, is a job that few have been willing to undertake. It would mean acknowledging that writing literary fiction is a task so difficult that it requires an almost inhuman capacity for loyalty to one's own vision and purpose. The study would become, in effect, as much of a study on the human condition as the fiction itself. It would be a job left not only to literary critics, but to philosophers and neuroscientists alike. It would shatter the academic hierarchy. But most of all, it would be exceedingly difficult. A nearly impossible errand which, some may belive, is best left to the writers themselves. Still, the literary industry necessitates a change in terminology which is cohesive with the literary measure.

I will provide this change in terminology. I find the term "short story" to be woefully indequate. By means of Novelism., and as a way to be consistent with my water/fog metaphor, I dub the previosly named "short story" as "the Hydron." and, while we're at it, "Nimbus" now means novel. 

Novelism. has an upcoming page on this neo-lexicon (new dictionary), so people can easily learn which words mean what should I be successful and they come into common use.  As always, thanks for reading and have fun with your writing.  

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