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Are Short Stories More Challenging to Write Than Novels?

20/04/2016 16:38

A stupid question, you may think, but ask a group of well-known writers of both short stories and novels which is the more difficult form, as I did recently, and you get some interesting answers.

The writers we asked are all either past judges or shortlistees for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award, the world's richest (£30,000) prize for a single story (www.shortstoryaward.co.uk). And they've all got experience of both forms, which gives them an interesting perspective on the challenges and pleasures of each.

For many of them, as Joe Dunthorne says, "The novel is in some ways more forgiving because you have to accept there will be flaws. At some point in a 300-page book it will be necessary to include a dull, pragmatic sentence, maybe even a dull, pragmatic paragraph or chapter. But in a short story there's at least the prospect - however slight - that you could create something flawless... Donald Barthelme has a number of perfect stories. The taunting possibility of perfection is a wonderful dream."

That idea of rigour is picked up by the Booker-shortlisted novelist and short story writer Sarah Hall: "They are testing to writers in different ways. Novels can be more accommodating, freeform, forgiving even, but they require stamina to write, a kind of insane longevity. Short stories need to be nailed, formally, especially in the edit, in the way a poem might."

For Tamima Anam, there is only one winner in the debate: "The short story, for me, is the far more challenging form. Everything is compressed, heightened. The flaws become major fault-lines, and the twists, the turns in plot, tone, must be done with subtlety and great skill. I fear I will never quite understand it, yet I find the attempt deeply satisfying. As for what is most rewarding, the short story is definitely where you go for the best time to impact ratio; however, I do often enjoy the long, slow, immersive experience of reading a novel."

As well as the obvious, it requires "stamina" to write a novel, explains CK Stead, "but the short story requires subtlety, nuance and economy, which the novel can survive, not without, but with less of... A good short story can give the kind of inner satisfaction which the writer craves (should crave) more than anything. In that, the story is more like a poem."

Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li talks about "the joy of finishing a short story, and the joy of reading and rereading a story - one could say the same thing about a novel, but there is something purer about stories." And despite the pressure for every word in a short story to work, Mark Haddon also talks about the strange freedom a short story gives him - "more freedom than a novel," he thinks. "After all, a failed short story is much less painful than a failed novel."

And if you looking for examples of what the writers are talking about, some of them are happy to supply them. Yiyun Li says that "William Trevor's 'Piano Tuner's Wives' is probably one of my all-time favourites", while CK Stead plumps for "Along Rideout Road that Summer" by the fellow New Zealand writer Maurice Duggan. Tahmina Anam is drawn to "Train", from Alice Munro's collection Dear Life, and Toby Litt favours "Henry James's 'The Beast in the Jungle'. But Jennifer Egan's 'The Stylist' is the one I reread most often".

If I had a favourite myself, I would have to plump for "The Dead" by James Joyce - obvious, perhaps, and some might say it's more of a novella than a short story. But its atmosphere is intense, its subject profound, the emotions it summons up are strong - and there is barely a word out of place in the whole thing.

Andrew Holgate is the Literary Editor of The Sunday Times. The winner of the 2016 Sunday Times EFG Short Story award is announced on Friday, April 22. See www.shortstoryaward.co.uk for details / @efgint @ShortStoryAward

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