Should we all be writing short stories?

There are so many people who want to be published writers, and who believe that to do so one must start with short stories, that short story competitions have sprung up as plentifully as the literary festivals to which they are often attached. If you’re a writer primarily of short stories, this is a good world to be in. You write the stories you would write anyway, and there’s an increased chance of recognition. If you’re a writer of novels I reckon it’s better to keep well away. Here’s why.

Some myths that writers are fed:

  1. There is a ‘standard’ journey towards publication of your novel; and it starts with getting credits for short stories in literary magazines. These will distinguish your novel manuscript in an agent or publisher’s slush pile.
  2. Some magazines will pay for your stories. (Hemingway made a fortune selling stories to magazines.)
  3. Success as an author is about hard work more than talent. If you work hard at your short stories you have a chance of being successful on the first rung of the journey, and then you can learn the craft of the novel.

[Author puts beloved novel project aside to focus on writing and submitting short stories.]

Here are some facts about the literary marketplace which don’t generally get articulated so clearly:

  1. Literary magazines are inundated with writers seeking the publication credits that will distinguish them in an agent or publisher’s slush pile and your chance of publication as a short story writer in these magazines is therefore about as low as being pulled out of the agent slush pile.
  2. Literary magazines have a very small audience and are generally on the point of going bust; so they are very unlikely to pay you. (No-one since Hemingway has made a living selling short stories.)
  3. Short story competitions have emerged to take up the slack: anyone can enter and be read (no being rejected by the slush pile); and there’s a chance of glory at the end. But you have to pay.
  4. The chance of a novel being pulled out of the agent slush pile remains incredibly low, with or without the author having published short stories.
  5. Not every writer is best fitted to spend the writing time they squeeze out of an already-packed life on composing short stories.

Bring together the myths and the reality, and what you get is this: competition organisers are selling a dream that feeds off people’s desire to make that first step along the Writer Journey. There’s nothing wrong with that, no law against selling dreams. Plus, the literary festivals and independent publishers that tend to run these competitions are an increasingly important part of the literary ecosystem, and generally they need every pound they can make. But let’s be clear about where the benefit accrues; it is to the seller and not the buyer.

I’m as enticed by the narrative as anyone else. In 2015 I entered short story competitions run by Galley Beggar and Bare Fiction. I put two stories into each, paying total entry fees of £50. I entered with a quiet story that I’m proud of, and with one which I deliberately wrote to sound like a competition winner. Both tacks were fruitless in terms of glory, and invaluable in what I discovered: I should not be spending my limited writing time on short stories. They are simply not my genre.

I don’t read them, for a start. Actually, that’s not quite true: I do occasionally read them. I tend to buy Alice Munro’s collections as they come out, but Nobel Prize winners generally have something interesting about them. Also, parts of Jon McGregor’s collection This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You I love. But I’m not an avid reader: I have over the years had subscriptions to many of the literary magazines that host new short fiction, and all but my Granta subscription I have allowed to lapse. Truth told, I found them boring.

Nor is my instinct to write short stories. The short story folders on my laptop are near empty where the novel folders overflow with ideas. I cannot be the only aspiring writer for whom this is the case. And this is where competitions and the author narrative do writers a disservice: short stories are not the right outlet for everyone’s talents. To put it another way, there is no automatic transferability of imagination and writing skill from the short form of fiction to the long.

I was wondering why. This is where I came out. It’s a question of ideas, of structure, and of prose style.

Ideas

Short stories require an idea which can be fully elucidated in three thousand words, give or take. They suit the depiction of a single moment in time which stands for more than itself – the traditional Joycean ‘epiphany’. The majority of my ideas are necessarily ideas for novels. They are about long-term changes in character, require elucidation of the before, during and after, and are dependent on nuanced changes in narrative voice. I have yet to find a short story by even the greatest of writers that achieves that in three thousand words. (Do tell me if I’m wrong.)

Structure

Again, the structural opportunities offered by a short story are a function of its length. I think not in terms of detail, but in terms of architecture. It is always the arc of an idea that comes to me first rather than a scene or a character. An arc requires space. Multiple coexisting arcs, like the mutually reinforcing arches of a medieval cathedral, require more space. In the context of a short story such multiple arcs are clutter, a medieval-style duck house, if you like; in a novel they can be magnificent. If you think in terms of the arc and not in terms of character or scene, short stories are probably not for you.

Prose style

Oddly enough, my prose style suits short stories. I am generally fairly poetic in my fiction. I consider ‘you write beautifully’ as praise. I want my words to be multiply-freighted, to carry echoes of themselves. (I also want them to be straightforward; no floridity, please.) Short stories need to pack meaning into their words; such multiple-freighting is therefore a stylistic advantage to the short story writer.

So of ideas, structure and prose style, I have one out of the three. That does not make me best suited to be a short story writer.

Taking the train of thought further, I realised that nor am I a writer of long novels. Again, ideas, structure and prose style are key. My ideas tend to focus on a single character, which is not enough to sustain a long novel (I am no Proust or Knausgaard). In general I dislike the episodic plots of which sagas are made; so I lose on the structural point as well. Finally, my prose is to be read slowly for the resonances to work – and prose like that makes a long novel feel as though it lasts forever.

(At the other extreme I also don’t write poetry for publication. I don’t know how. Rhythm is critical to how my sentences function, and I repeat images with variations as a matter of course as part of the building of cathedral building. But the formal structures of poetry are not hard-wired into my brain, and I do not need or wish to be swaddled by them, so I have never bothered to acquire that wiring.)

I have ‘completed’ a grand total of two pieces of writing that I am proud of. One is The Storyteller, which weighs in at about sixty-eight thousand words. The other is a short story inspired by a particular story I was told by a friend. For both the length was instinctive – I did not in either case set out to write ‘a novel’ or ‘a short story’ and then pick my subject. My current novel-in-progress is likely to be a little longer than The Storyteller, but nowhere close to the territory of Franzen or Tartt or, in the UK publishing world, Jessie Burton. That means that practically all of my writing time and instinct has naturally fallen on the short novel length.

Unsurprisingly, that exactly reflects what I most enjoy reading. Golding. Early Murakami. Of contemporary UK (-ish) writers: Anakana Schofield; Jon McGregor; Cynan Jones. It’s not that I’m a lazy reader. I love Ulysses. I always have a piece of long non-fiction on the go. But shorter full-length fiction is quite simply my natural genre.

Let’s meander back to some generalisation: what does this say about the boom in short story writing and competitions?

I’d say this:

Focusing on short fiction is of course good for some writers, for whom that word count is the instinctive right length in terms of ideas, structure, style. These are the writers whose talents can be best recognised by winning a competition, and who in another climate might find no mainstream publication opportunities at all.

But it does not serve all writers to spend time in this genre.

Like most people, I have very limited time in which to write. I have a day job, a husband, friends, a need to look after my health. Short stories do not make the best use of my talents in that limited time. Unless a short and structurally-sound idea comes to me (and they very rarely do), I am best-served by sticking to novels. I therefore declare that I feel no guilt about my lack of a folder of short stories to throw at competitions. And if novels, of whatever length, are your habitat, then nor should you.

 

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