Sunday, 26 April 2009

Notes on Long and Short Fiction

This Wednesday night, at the Hexham Book Festival I have agreed to give a talk about ‘The Long and The Short of It’. I will read from my novel Sandie Shaw and The Millionth Marvell Cooker, and from my short story collection Knives to illustrate the differing challenges of writing long and writing short. Rather conveniently both of these books are just out this week.

I have to admit that, in the main, the focus in my writing has been towards long fiction, (sometimes very long fiction). I love writing my novels. But I have always written - and from time to time published - short stories.

Among serious and aspiring writers the short story is now very fashionable. As well as being a distinguished, discrete literary form in itself, the short story can be a showcase for writing talent. Beda Higgins' success in the recent Mslexia Short Story competition, for instance, has led her into discussions with an agent and a major publisher. These conversations, I feel, will veer towards talk of a novel...

Up until a year ago I was co-director, with Gillian Wales, of a national writing competition which ran for ten years. Our first winner was Jonathan Tulloch whose clever story Season Ticket later exploded into a novel and was then made into a film called Purely Belter. Another success in one of our competitions was Beda Higgins herself. It was very nice to see Beda at the launch of Knives last week.

Such showcasing of talent is surely one reason for the increasing popularity of short story competitions. However I have found that in the competition stakes the novel surely loses out. In our national competition we alternated each year between short stories and three-chapter novel samples. It was always extremely difficult to judge a novel with so little access to its essential architecture and true outcomes. In the light of such difficulty, judging a short story was a gem of a task: a short story is a whole thing in itself, its language, architecture and outcomes were visible to the judges.

Herein lies the charm of the short story. Like a poem, it is a prime example of economy - the right word in the right place implying multiple layers of meaning. A short story may present a whole life in a coherent slice of it; or it may present an encounter which defines two lives and their intersecting energies; or it may present us with bright fragments that we readers must make into our own whole thing. A short story can bring people and places to life with a few strokes of a pen. It can show us tragedy, comedy, misery or irony with a single allusion or a clever metaphor. It may reflect our lives back to us or take us into strange new interior or exterior worlds.

Short stories are like those scrunched up Japanese paper flowers I loved as a child. Tight, rolled up nuggets when dry, when you put them into liquid they would open up into technicolour glory. For me, the reader's imagination is that liquid. We writers give the readers our tight flowers and they open up and blossom in unexpected and unique ways to deliver the story.

Perhaps, word for word, the short story has more screwed up power than the novel - that more languorous form which twists and turns in our minds like a great bolt of silk. A novel demands of the reader diligence, and a certain indulgence so that our story can unfold and take a proper shape. We invite our readers to live with us through time and space. We make them wait for our explanations, our outcomes, our illuminations. With them we celebrate our resolutions, our epiphanies.

Readers, of course, are quite capable of enjoying and responding to both our long and short writing. I only hope they don't just prejudge these two distinct forms as a fast read or a slow read. Each form brings with it, its own literary enjoyment.

As a writer and a fan of both literary forms I have more usually leaned towards the luxuriant expanse of the novel. I love playing with the multi-layers, inventing a large cast of players, and relishing the sheer literary manipulation of a large idea. But an equally pleasurable challenge is the encapsulation of a hot idea in the short story form. For certain inspirational notions the pure form of the short story is the only way to tell it.

So here you have it: ‘The Long and the Short of It’, two different but – I trust - equally exciting reading experiences for my readers. If you are one of them, I hope you enjoy both Sandie… and Knives, equally but in different ways.
What do you think?

Wendy <


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