Is Bigger Really Better?

Hello! I’m Kelley Armstrong, and I’ll be your guest blogger for the next three days 🙂 For more on me, check out the signature below my post…

I was answering questions for an interview last week, and one was about short stories. I said I started with short stories, and love the opportunity to do shorter fiction (novellas or short stories).

In September, Stephen King wrote an essay in the NYT Book Review on short fiction “What Ails the Short Story” For those who like short stories, it doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know . . . or suspect. The patient is sick, and not likely to recover any time soon.

One might think that the decline of short fiction seems odd in a world obsessed by time. Shouldn’t a book of twenty short stories be ideal? You can read one and put the book aside for later, without losing the story line as you would in a novel.

I think that’s too simplistic a view. Yes, we’re strapped for time. But entertainment seems to be the one arena where shorter isn’t always better. We’re happy to plunk ourselves in a movie theatre chair for three hours. We’re fine with six hundred page novels.

As an author, you’ll get more complaints if your book is short, and I don’t think that’s all about bang for your buck. A novel or a movie sweeps us away to another world and, if it’s a good one, we don’t want to leave it too quickly. We want to linger and savour.

Some ideas just aren’t novel length, so I love the flexibility of switching to novellas and short stories. I used to do an annual online fiction offering, primarily novellas, in e-serial form. One year I switched to a short story a month (which, let me tell you, is much tougher than a twelve chapter novella!)

The general consensus, though, was that while readers appreciated seeing dramatizations of backstory, they really preferred novellas. And, if they had their way, I’d make those into full-length novels.

When I ask why people don’t read short fiction, the most common answer is: “It’s too short. I get involved in the story and I want more.” Many will say that short fiction doesn’t emotionally engage them the way novels do.

Short stories are often more concerned with ideas than emotion, plot over character. Is the answer there, then? Do we crave emotional satisfaction over intellectual stimulation? Or, again, is that too simplistic?

Having said how much I love to read and write short stories, I have a horrible confession to make. I don’t read nearly as many short stories as I do novels, and it’s not for lack of material. Intellectually, I enjoy them. A well-written short story can move and stimulate me in ways novels don’t. But when I curl up, tired, at the end of the day, I want to lose myself in a story I’ve been enjoying for a while. I want a novel.

What about you? Do you read short stories? Novellas? Why or why not?

Kelley Armstrong is the NYT bestselling author of the urban fantasy series, The Otherworld. For info on her novels or to read sample chapters, check out her website at www.KelleyArmstrong.com.

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11 Comments

  1. Although I have read short stories. I prefer full novels to a short story. I enjoy getting the back story to the characters getting to know them and feel what they are feeling. Even in a society here everything seems to be a rush and a crunch for time, I find that with a good novel it gives me that chance, if just for a moment, to whisk my imagination away to find out what is happening to the lives of the characters in the book I’m reading. I’m visually stimulated in my imagination when reading a novel and can see in my mind what is happening. That’s when it is the most satisfying because it’s like being at the movies but better because I’m more involved. So when the writer takes the time to describe the characters, the surroundings, setting the stage so to say that’s when I’m hooked, and I will steal away that 15 minutes to 1/2 an hour a day to find out what happens next. An escape of this sort from my reality helps me to deal with the day to day stresses of everyday life.

  2. I read both short stories and novels, but I much prefer short stories because they make me think. The observation that “short stories are often more concerned with ideas than emotion” is very astute. I think the reader has to work harder with a short story because there’s not room for the writer to spell everything out, and I like that challenge. When I think of my favorite short story writers – Anton Chekhov, Ray Bradbury, Raymond Carver – I realize that their stories are engaging, entertaining, and transporting, but above all, they are thought-provoking. Their short stories often have the ability to change the way I look at the world, at least one little piece of it. Few novels do that.

    I hate to generalize or make sweeping statements, but I will go out on a limb here and say that I suspect one reason short stories are less popular is because many readers want an easy read, something that will take them away from their lives for a few hours without too much effort on their part. There’s nothing at all wrong with that, and I agree that novels tend to be more emotionally satisfying than short stories, but in a world where laziness and the easy way are a standard credo, it’s no wonder that fewer people want to work at reading.

    Thanks very much for this discussion, Kelley – it’s very interesting.

  3. I grew up reading short fiction and still enjoy it today. Unfortunatly, I believe it is going the way of the dinosaur. I enjoy diving into a great novel, but more often than not, I enjoy the quick escape a short story brings.

  4. I have to say that I’ve never really gotten into short stories and the reason is simple–I love characters. The standard novel length gives me time to get to know, and in some cases, love or hate, a character. In these days with so much remote connections (IM, email, etc.) it’s nice to get to know someone in depth. I feel in some cases that I’m developing a relationship with a character because I’m inside their head.

  5. Hi, Kelley, and welcome! I like reading great short stories, but feel jipped when they I get to the end and they’re not that good. For some reason, I don’t feel as jipped if I read a mediocre novel even though it takes me much longer. Not sure why that is. Maybe like Eedz said, it’s because I still had the satisfaction of getting to know some characters.

  6. Hi Kelley

    I love reading short stories but sometimes it is a challenge to find good ones.

    Occasionally, I try my hand at writing them too and I’ve noticed in my web site statistics that a lot of people read online short stories during the working day, perhaps in their lunch or coffee break.

    Radio was initially very unpopular with the advent of television but then came into it’s own when everybody got a radio in their car.

    Perhaps, for each type of media, it has to find it’s niche.

    Nice blog.

    Rob

  7. I don’t generally buy books of short stories but I do get them from my library. I too like to curl up and get whisked away. I enjoy losing myself in a book, looking at the clock and realizing that 3 hours have passed. Anthologies can help provide that experience but often they have only a few worthwhile stories and who wants to spend their time or money on the other ones? Many readers lack the time, money or interest to hunt up magazines and journals simply to read a short story. Therefore, to me, part of the problem lies in access to the short story.

    I agree that short stories do tend to be about ideas more than emotions, you have to work a little harder at them. I think that most American readers who pick up a fiction book are looking for an escape, and therefore a novel suits them better.

    Unfortunately, many fiction books are much longer these days, running 600-800 pages. The problem that I have with this trend is that most of those books are padding, they could be one half to two-thirds the length and be much improved.

  8. i’m definately a novel kinda gal…. especially fantasy. i love spending a few hours at barnes and noble searching for that perfect book. its nice to spend a few hours a day getting to know the characters, and putting myself into the story. a good novel is definately more appealing when my imagination plays it out and i’m constantly guessing what’s going to happen next. i have trouble getting into short stories, and even if its great story, a few pages later its over.

  9. […] Is Bigger Really Better (Do you read short stories, novellas, or novels?) […]

  10. hi kelley
    novels or short stories?
    i think both have pros and cons, such as short stories can just be a way of explaining parts of other stories when an author hasn’t been able to void a gap in a full length novel. i think this is an excellent idea in that it helps the reader to understand the characters and story line more. Also it can give an author a popular base on which to start a full length novel being aware that its already a popular idea and can there for be built on. I also enjoy the fact that it is just a short story and therefore u can read more stories with lots more characters in the space of where you could of just read one story , with one long story line in a novel.
    But also after reading what other people have said short stories don’t always give you enough time to enjoy the story and some times seem rushed, or you don’t get to enjoy the characters personalities and get to know them well.

    In novels I feel I get to know the all the characters almost like old friends, and feel I can relate to all there personality quirks. Also I feel that when im reading a a big 600 word novel I can truly escape this world, which is sometimes exactly what I need to do and im sure a lot can relate in a hectic lifestyle there is nothing better then to go in to a novel and read about someone else’ life and the problems they face.

    So I truly do love both short stories and big novels.

    It just depends on the amount of time you have to read

    tom

  11. Hey Kelley

    In my college fiction course, we are focusing our studies on Flash Fiction (for those who aren’t familiar with Flash Fiction, its a story thats often under 600 words……thats right….600 words)

    They are very challenging to write, as you have to get a complex idea across with just one scene.

    However, I don’t find them nearly as entertaining as novellas or novels. It takes me 2 minutes to get through 600 words, if that. I read one before class, and when it’s time to discuss the piece, I forget what happened in the story. It doesn’t mull around in my brain long enough to make a lasting impression.

    When I read a piece of fiction, I want it to have a lasting effect on me. I want to get to know a character. I don’t tend to sympathize with people I don’t know well. Most of all I want a sense of escapism. If I take a vacation from work, I want a whole week off, not just a day (or in the case of flash fiction, an lunch break 😉 )


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