Question of the Week: Novels vs. Short Fiction

Once upon a time, the way to publishing a novel was (usually) to make your bones as a short fiction writer first. Plenty of periodicals published short stories, and the very talented could even make a living at it.

These days, not so much. There are still some enormously talented writers of short fiction making a go of it, but most working writers agree that it’s novels that pay the bills (or, more often than not, don’t). And more and more writers go straight to writing novels without the “stepping stone” of short fiction, for which the market seems to have dwindled almost to nothing. Think of how many anthologies used to line the shelves 20 or 30 years ago, and look at them now. The circulation of the few remaining fiction periodicals is enough to make a lover of short fiction weep.

Yet opportunities and finances aside, most writers will tell you that short fiction and novels are different art forms. Some writers of short fiction can’t imagine sustaining a story for 100,000 words, while some novelists can’t manage to make a statement in 3,000.

I enjoy both forms, but they’re very different pleasures with very different challenges. For me, short fiction is much harder, yet when I finish a short story I feel has worked I feel a much higher rush. It’s also more difficult to accomplish certain feats of characterization or plot in a short period, and you’ve got to stick to one theme or emotion rather than many changing ones. For those, like me, who like large casts of characters, short fiction is not an option for those stories.

As a reader, do you seek out short fiction? Do you find it offers a different pleasure from novels?

As a writer, do you prefer one form or the other? If you write both, how do you find your work differs from one form to the other?


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6 thoughts on “Question of the Week: Novels vs. Short Fiction

  1. I love short fiction, but rarely seek it out any more. I consider the short story a good test of an author’s ability to deliver a message economically. My failure to read short stories despite my love of them may illustrate why the medium is in decline.

  2. In Your particular case the short stories connects the novels … this is both entertaining and exiting. I for one, follow your own reading list which gives the story line as a whole a new depth IMHO.

    I suppose it can also serve the purpose of letting a reader get a feeling of a particular writing style and content – appetizers that are either free or very cheap.

    I like both as a reader from a practical view as well: In particular in my everyday where novels take up more continues time than a short story – I can actually enjoy planning to read either depending on how much time I have for myself.

  3. I’ve read pleanty of short fiction, but I tend to prefer novels. The reason I do so is simple enough: I love well-written characters. I like getting to know them, reading their interactions with others, their thoughts etc. Characters are the base of every work of fiction: brilliant characters can save a mediocre plot but the opposite rarely happens. However, I do enjoy short fiction for several reasons: 1) it’s a great way to discover authors you’ve never heard of before, 2) it’s a great way to introduce yourself or your reader friends to a particular genre, 3) a great short story can be as profound as any novella and there are many writers whose short stories are thought-provoking or soul-shattering or both. Not to mention that many of the classics who wrote short stories are amazing for teaching students a foreign language (de Maupassant, Borges, Poe, Hawthorne; they are all amazing when read in the original language). Both are great and, in the end, I think it’s about what works best for the particular idea that the author has in mind.

  4. As a reader, I don’t seek out short fiction often. I have a couple of collections of short fiction that I use as filler/palette cleansers between novels, but I’ve never bought a magazine specifically for short stories. In fact, the only reason I’m motivated to read short fiction right now is because I’m reading the complete works of HP Lovecraft.

    As a writer, I prefer novel-length. But take that with a grain of salt, as I’ve only completed one novel and am only just starting on my second. I also have a number of unfinished short stories that I plan to complete, but my focus is on novel-length works.

  5. I have many books on my shelves that have gone unread,as I lack the time to read them. The short story is my means of getting my reader fix but I admire those who have such a command of words or who is willing to spend hours, if not years, to grind away the unnecessary. Still, it I desire to have pages to learn about how a character grows or falls.

    As a writer, I’m unable reign in my mind to focus on a handful of words to describe the images that float by so I prefer to write one book that leads to another. Call it lack of talent or an untamed, rambling imagination, I find 2,000 words too limiting for most stories I wish to tell.

  6. I agree, short fiction is indeed different from a novel. I recommend the reading of the excellent essay of Edgar Allan Poe on the matter, titled “The Philosophy of Composition”. I do enjoy reading short fiction, usually more than a novel IF the writer is a talented one. The way I see it, a short story is one shot at one particular emotion. If well done, it stays with you forever.

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