It only takes a skim through Amazon Kindle books to confirm what most of us know, that short stories have become extremely popular. Recent increases in the sale of short story collections can only mean readers are happy with shorter work, can’t it? In this digital age, isn’t it natural to reach for the concise, flash fiction for example, that can be read from start to finish on the morning commute or in one Sunday sitting. As Sam Baker said in the Telegraph, “the short story finds itself the perfect fit for our attention spans and our mobile devices.” A shorter form momentarily satisfies a craving for what we cannot fit into our schedules; but can a short story or novella truly encapsulate the marvel of a fully-fledged novel?
If brevity is what makes the short form appealing, what are we supposed to make of the longer short story. At what point are they no longer short stories but novelettes or novellas, or as in the case of The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith a ‘novel in miniature’.
Ask Google ‘How long is a short story’ and a thousand blog posts will give you word counts and borders, so I won’t repeat them here. Yet read through the New Yorker, Granta or Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth and Danzy Senna’s You Are Free, and it’s easy to find short stories that easily run from five to twelve thousand words. Nonetheless, in the virtual community of writers and publishers, we continue to insist on word counts and page numbers.
I’d argue that if we choose not to get hung up on the number of pages, short fiction has just as much potential as novels. Short stories are where writers can truly experiment without committing themselves to the sixty thousand words that many insist make a novel. With a much looser structure than a novella, a short story is an excellent testing ground for different literary techniques – think George Saunders. We can discuss human morality in true Dickensian style (e.g. a Christmas Carol), or show off absurdist and satirical styles, such as Kafka’s Metamorphosis or The Death of a Government Clerk by Chekhov. The possibilities are endless.
Keeping an open mind on the word count debate, perhaps an extended short story could in fact achieve as much as a novel can? I, for one, would have enjoyed a shorter Lincoln in the Bardo.
Nonetheless we continue to insist on the novel. I suggest that’s because that’s where the money is made. Take for instance, Smith’s The Embassy of Cambodia, first published in the New Yorker, it received disappointing reviews from Amazon readers, who imagined they were paying for a ‘full-length’ novel.
I suppose my main argument for the longer short story is that it remains the most under-utilised literary format in publishing – it simply doesn’t fit in our classification system. While the publishing industry thinks it has defined and delineated every worthwhile genre, the biggest mystery – that of capturing the reader – still remains open for diversification. I believe the long short story provides relative brevity, yet offers the excitement and experimentation of short stories while still being free of the conventions of a novella.
While we understand that the financial returns on short books are small, the long short story requires less time and resources to writes and yet still creates a world the reader wants to explore.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have more opportunities for writers who toil away in the nebulous universe in-between short and long fiction by erasing maximum and minimum word counts in fiction submissions?