Sunday, 11 August 2013

Novelist Or Short Story-ist: Which One Are You (And Does It Matter)?

Ben Goldstein/Studio D (Esquire)
It's a question I've been asking myself lately.

I'm mid-way through my MFA at UCD now, and last semester I was privileged to be able to audit Eilis Ni Dhuibhne's Library of the Imagination short story course. We examined the history of the form through some of its best practitioners: Chekhov, Joyce, Carver, through post-modernism, Alice Munro, Kevin Barry, Claire Keegan, to name a few. But while there was some theory, there was more reading and still more practice, and always much discussion. It was a productive semester for me, and an opportunity to try out different styles and ideas.

It both fed into and distracted me from my work in progress, also my MFA thesis, which began life as a short story Auslanders; the plan was a short story collection. But ever since seeing Short Cuts, the Robert Altman movie based on Raymond Carver's stories, I loved the idea of linked short stories, so Auslanders extended into a linked short story collection. I have tried this before, but my characters blended into each others' lives and became my novel, Michaelangelos; the links were just too tempting. As with Michaelangelos, my linked stories have morphed into what is now a novel-in-stories.

It's this morph-point that interests me most. For me, it happened when the story I was working on went over the 10,000 word mark. It was self-contained, and something happened to someone, yet it didn't feel like a short story (or a novella); it was begging me to explore further some of the characters and ideas outside of the story itself, yet the story itself could not have merited novel-length.

It's not a complete coincidence that my reading this year includes the Booker short-listed The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan, which tells its relatively slight plot through more than twenty points of view —  poly-morphic novel, or novel-in-stories? — and A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. In both these books the individual stories, or some of them, at least, are self-contained, but in both there is a broader story — a novel. I changed nothing except my idea of what the work-in-progress is, yet everything about the writing changed, I think (hope) for the better. I felt freed up to write into the past, into the future, and in settings from Mexico to Canada, even though Chicago is at the centre of the book.

What are the differences for the writer in writing short stories and writing novels? Any thoughts, especially on the point where the two cross over, are welcome!


  1. I've always thought of myself as a long-distance runner than a sprinter, a novelist rather than a short-story writer. But as I struggle now on the second draft of my novel, I am beginning to wonder...

  2. Hi Marina, Sorry but just seeing your comment now. Hope the second draft is going better. It might just be the runner's wall...