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Hello, have just taken out a trial membership, looks like an interesting site.
I'd like to ask the members here what they think of short story competitions being judged by novelists, because it seems to me that they often pick very long stories that read like compressed novels.
I've just read the winner of last year's (Inter)National Short Story Prize and it covers thirty years. Whilst a good read it doesn't, to me, follow the short story form.
Whilst not wishing to be too prescriptive about it, it seems to me that if the short story is allowed to range almost as freely as a novel, the short story form will become corrupted, even lost. And unless the short story is preserved in (at its best) all its glittering, gem-like perfection (I'm a fan, had you guessed?!) it will morph into a short novel and be lost.
If short story competitions continue to be largely judged by novelists, they will continue to judge using the criteria for novel-writing, rather than short story writing. Patrick Gale, the judge of last year's Bridport, said the short story should 'pack the punch of a novel'. Surely it should pack the punch of a short story? Which is a very different kind of punch.
I'm not knocking novels or novelists (honest) and I know lots of novelists also write short stories and that there are probably only so many short story writers who don't write novels to call upon, but I'm anxious that the short story remain its own form with its own literary criteria.
I've put this under Ethical Issues because I really do think it an ethical matter that short story competitions are so often judged by novelists.
I'm really not an expert on short stories so I can't really comment on this, but just wanted to say welcome to the site! There are plenty of people on here who do have the expertise to answer this
Hi, and welcome to WW. Do have a nose round and explore, and if you get stuck just stand in the forum and shout.
|the short story form will become corrupted, even lost.|
I don't know that there is such a thing as a short story form, except judged in terms of wordcount which is obviously not really the point. Surely the only real criterion is perhaps Poe's original: that it can be read in a single sitting. It's a one-bite thing, when a novel is a many-bites thing.
Yes, some kinds and shapes of stories work better than others, but that's surely a matter of good versus bad. If a writer can tackle a tough call such as covering thirty years, and make it something compelling/exciting/fascinating/glowing/touching/cheering/thought-provoking happens on the page, then I think they're expanding and enlivening the form by doing (relatively) new things (if it is new, which I suspect it wouldn't be). Rose Tremain's story The Darkness of Wallis Simpson must cover more like sixty years, and it's excellent, and very much a short story, not a mini-novel.
I'm not sure how you do corrupt a form anyway - literary forms, to quote Roethke, are not a bowl to be filled but a seive to catch certain kinds of meaning.
On novelists judging, I should think that's because for all sorts of complex reasons novelists tend to have higher public profiles than short-fic-only writers. But many novelists write short fic too, of course. But it's incredibly hard to get short fic published - most publishers will only publish their novelists' collections to keep their most high profile authors happy, because a collection will sell about 10% of what a novel by the same author will, and because of those low sales will also damage the prospects of the next novel They certainly don't expect to make money.<Added>
Doh! Left the important bit out of that last paragraph. What I was trying to say is that the fact that a novelist isn't much known for their short fic doesn't mean they don't write it, and write it well.
Thank you, both.
Emma, I have to disagree that there is no difference between the short story and the novel besides word count or that the 'bites' of a novel are multiples of the short story 'bite'. They are very differently structured and have different purposes. Surprised that you don't see that.
As for novelists being higher profile, if the high profile short fiction writers (there are some!) were chosen more often, theirs and other short story writers' profiles, and the profile of the short story itself, would be raised. And the winning stories would show off the form and all it can do to best advantage. Besides, isn't expertise in the form more important than public profile?
I think many novelists look down on the short story, and as long as they dominate the judging or judging panels of short story competitions, this is unlikely to change and, therefore, the short story will continue to suffer its relative unpopularity. It's a bit like getting a dog handler to judge a cat show and disqualifying the cats that won't jump fences or bend in and out of those poles in the ground.
I read many 'short stories' that would clearly work better as novels, and I feel that the form is often hijacked by novelists and bent out of shape by them.
|that the 'bites' of a novel are multiples of the short story 'bite'.|
No, that wasn't quite what I was saying - a novel certainly isn't just a multiple set of stories; the structure (if the novel really is a novel, not just an over-long short story) is inevitably more complex than that - although there are always interesting hybrids, such as Hotel World.
What I was getting at was simply that the only useful definition I can think of for a short story which encompasses every kind of good story is Poe's, which is about the temporal experience of getting the whole story at a single read.
Whereas the reader's experience of a novel can't help but come in instalments because it's rare to be able to read a novel in, literally, one sitting - your bum gets sore
. True, it's not hard to read a novel in a day, but you do have to put the book down occasionally, if only to go to the loo. So there are breaks in your experience of the story, but the writer's not in control of when or how long those are, and to some extent the writing of a novel has to build it in a way which will keep on re-capturing the reader's interest.
But then, I never think that purity of anything creative is important or even desirable. Individual artists may be driven by it, and wonderful, but in the culture at large it too easily ends up with Academies (19th Century France, say) and institutionalising (the dominance of Boulez, say) and that kind of fossilising and narrow-mindedness.
I'm all for the messy, tolerant, wide-minded middle muddle where everyone tries everything and sees what works, and things change and grow and wax and wane and cross-fertilise and hybridise and evolve (fastest and most excitingly of all, of course, in the liminal areas between different environments) and variants within species become new species and develop and die and are re-born when someone goes digging in the archive, and whatever happens happens. Either people like it and read it, or they don't.
I agree with your general point, and you've helped me to see why perhaps it is that I don't go in for many short story competitions, at least not in this country. Too many of the winners of such competitions read to me like chunks of a novel. But if they're judged by novelists, then they're going to stand a good chance of winning, I guess.
I prefer to take my short story chances with the short fiction experts, who are the people publishing good quality short fiction magazines, anthologies, etc.
I was a novelist first, then moved to short fiction (although I still write novels, too). I've noticed that quite a few novelists think they understand short fiction but in fact they only understand it with a novelists' hat on. This isn't so much to do with structures, or conventions, or rules; I think it's more to do with the act of creation. To try an analogy: writing a symphony is a very different creative experience to writing a stand alone song. A symphony can evolve through a long period of small, related inspirations, connected to a theme, in which the composer spends a lot of time necessarily thinking about how the whole thing is going to hang together. But a single song can result from a single creative experience. Which doesn't mean the symphony route is harder, or more complex; just different.
In some ways, I find novels easier to write than short stories; and vice versa. To write a good short story, you have to be able to somehow give yourself over to a single, complete, experience. Which means at some point a leap into the dark, to trust your abilities; and of course to have built them in the first place.
One thing I do come across quite a lot, at least with the novelists I work with, is that they are often very reluctant to try short fiction. I sometimes advise it because I know it will help them become more versatile, more reactive to their creative impulses, and to simply give them more tools in their toolbox. I suppose part of the reluctance is simply that they prefer the long form. But perhaps part of it is also a fear of taking that single, creative leap which will either succeed or fail. And, much as this is probably just a personal view, I would say published novelists on the whole lack tend to lack versatility in style, whereas the good short story writers thrive on it.
Terry, I think you're spot on. It is too often the case that the short stories that 'read like chunks of a novel' win.
And you are also right in saying that novelists tend to think they understand the short story, but they really don't. The symphony/song analogy is a good one.
Emma, I like hybrid forms of creativity, for instance I prefer the Eagles to pure country music. But that's cross-pollination rather than the hijacking of form. The Eagles song and the old, 'pure' country song are both still songs. They differ in style rather than form. But 'the messy, tolerant, wide-minded middle muddle where everyone tries everything and sees what works' as you have it equates, it seems to me, to abandoning form altogether. Its akin to taking a symphony and trying to stuff its form into a song, a recipe for musical disaster. You end up with a middle eight that goes on forever, goes off in directions irrelevant to a song and bores the pants off the listener who is expecting something punchier. I think those listeners are not narrow-minded, they just know what the song can do when handled properly, not stretched beyond the limits of its effectiveness.
There is a difference of purpose between the novel and the short story. The short story, to my mind, works best when it pivots on a small moment which is full of meaning, and that end is usually best achieved with leaner writing than that which makes up the novel. When a short story encompasses many years and/or is written with big tracts of meandering prose, it loses a lot of its power.
Which brings me back to my main point. If novelists are allowed to dominate the judging of short story competitions, novel-like 'short stories' will continue to push real short stories aside like a cuckoo in the nest.
|When a short story encompasses many years and/or is written with big tracts of meandering prose, it loses a lot of its power.|
Totally agree about the second point - but then big tracts of meandering prose are a very bad idea in any piece of writing. As Cherys - short-writer supreme - said on here at some point, a really good short story is almost always built of the fleshing-out of a single moment of change for one character - or two characters at a push. (Though where does that put Boule de Suif, say? Or At The Bay?)
But I think the first point depends what you mean by "encompasses". Obviously you can't fit in a whole David-Copperfield-like life story into a short. But sometimes that single moment of change is predicated on a lot of life gone before, and that's the point of the change. In which case it's going to be a decidedly delicate job, evoking that length of unchanging years so we get the point of the change, without distorting the shape and balance of the story which focuses on that point of change. But I don't think it's something to be ruled out a priori - just something that's very hard to do well.
Alice Munro, for example, always seems to conjure up a very strong sense of how her characters got here, while the weight and substance of the story is absolutely in the present moment. I've just been reading Grace Paley, and she seems to me to be able to pull off the same trick. And the Gods of the form, Chekhov and Mansfield, do it in some stories, too - though others are the kind where you know nothing of where these people came from.
|ts akin to taking a symphony and trying to stuff its form into a song, a recipe for musical disaster. |
Yes - and then again no. For one thing, the medium there is so different, (whereas for both long and short fiction the medium is the same) - at least, the medium is different if you're thinking of a three-minute pop song, not Das Leid von der Erde... And pop/rock songs sound dreadful played by a symphony orchestra, and vice versa.
But you could stand up an interesting argument that the form of a three-minute pop-song is awfully like a miniature concerto - soloist, accompanied by an ensemble, and complete with a "middle eight" in the slow movement. And that's before you've considered the case of Bohemian Rhapsody....
I suppose what I think is that there's nothing absolute about the form of a short story. I just can't see that it has a defining nature as a sonnet has, or, indeed, a symphony, to be kept to strictly, or stretched, or broken. Yes, there are things which work better, and worse, there are things which the majority of truly great short stories do which are hard to not-do, and write one successfully - but that doesn't mean that trying to range away from those things shouldn't be allowed - and rewarded if it works.
As to novelists being judges - I write both, though I make no secret of being primarily a novelist. Thinking back to the stories which I've judged, the really good ones have been very much "of the moment", not mini-novels. I do recognise the phenomenon you're talking about, but in my limited experience it doesn't work, and doesn't win.
Putting my cards on the table, I guess I'm saying that there can sometimes in some novelists be a blind-spot where the short form is concerned. Because they write novels, they assume that means they have probably automatically covered the skills, knacks and versatility required for short fiction. In some cases, that may be true. But, speaking for myself, I would say the first 50 short stories I wrote tested me in ways that novels never really did; or at least, the process of working on one story for a long time didn't. The next 50 I wrote were more fluid, I think, because I had developed more flexibility to encompass a wider range of expression through fiction. That in turn means your creative opportunities increase, too: you take on more because you can reach to more. I think it's very hard to develop a similar flexibility and range through only writing a novel every year or two.
|But you could stand up an interesting argument that the form of a three-minute pop-song is awfully like a miniature concerto - soloist, accompanied by an ensemble, and complete with a "middle eight" in the slow movement. And that's before you've considered the case of Bohemian Rhapsody....|
I think this is true in many cases. But there are some pop songs that are nothing like symphonic. For example, 'God Only Knows' by Brian Wilson could be said to be symphonic - in fact, I think he called the songs on that album 'pocket symphonies'. Yet 'Surf's Up' by Wilson (and Van Dyke Parks) is nothing like symphonic; it's a complete feeling, although the emotions it causes are obscure, in which the form is quite linear. I honestly don't think there are many symphonic composers who could have produced something like that song. I know we're stretching this analogy rather a lot, but if a symphonic composer wanted to produce something as of-itself as Surf's Up, they would I believe have to go through a similar process to Wilson, i.e. writing hundreds of short songs until his versatility was so good he could capture something like that in an hour or so (which is apparently all the time it took him and Parks to write it).
A pretty good recent version of Surf's Up:
'For one thing, the medium there is so different, (whereas for both long and short fiction the medium is the same)'
Well, no, the medium for both song and symphony is music, for long and short fiction, words. I'm talking about how you arrange the notes, not the notes themselves. However, the analogy as you go on to expand it is becoming unwieldy and less useful, I think. Terry, and later myself, used it as a simple comparison which I still think stands.
'I suppose what I think is that there's nothing absolute about the form of a short story. I just can't see that it has a defining nature as a sonnet has, or, indeed, a symphony, to be kept to strictly, or stretched, or broken.'
Not as absolute as a sonnet, no, but it is a recognisable form just as a poem or a novel is a recognisable form and, therefore, there are things that are of the poem/short story/novel and there are things that are not. And anything that makes the thing less than it could be, should be excised. And the long rambles that clutter a lot of modern short stories should not be there. So it does, indeed, having a defining nature, which is not to say that defining nature should be a straitjacket on the form, but it should at least mark the boundary.
'Thinking back to the stories which I've judged, the really good ones have been very much "of the moment", not mini-novels. I do recognise the phenomenon you're talking about, but in my limited experience it doesn't work, and doesn't win.'
This is good to hear, I wish other judges who are primarily novelists would take a leaf out of your book. No pun intended.
It's a different set of skills, isn't it, Terry? Or, at least, the emphasis on each writing skill is somewhat different. It annoys me that many people still think that writing short stories is some kind of warm-up exercise for writing a novel.
This may sound strong, but I think the judging of short story competitions by novelist-judges encourages a sort of literary hegemony.
I've made hundreds of submissions to short fiction publications from which I've learned that while no single piece of editor's feed-back is definitive, of course, there are generally held views amongst them that indicate short fiction is a different beast to the long form. When I first started submitting, a common criticism I received was that my stories read more like the openings of novels. Which is not surprising, since that's what I'd written for many years.
To try to summarise what short fiction editors look for (with exceptions everywhere, of course), I'd say it's:
One main character with one problem/issue; one or two settings at most; the action to follow one event with an emotional peak/climax that resolves (or fails to resolve) the problem; ending with a degree of resolution. Within this basic one-piece structure, a skilled writer can of course concentrate more on say setting or character or emotion or theme. But editors will expect to detect that he has that essential grasp on the singular nature of a short story. They tend to be (as said) very acutely tuned to novelists 'slumming it'.
But I want to stress again that the difference between long and short form is more to do with the inner creative process the author uses. He needs to have the short form conventions so well worked in him that they're automatic. Then he can make that single leap to grab hold of a single idea/theme/emotion - then build it out from those conventions into something, hopefully, that's magical and memorable and complete.
And sorry to repeat, but my experience taught me that while I thought I understood the short form when writing novels, I really didn't. It took a lot of stories and a lot of struggling with the different requirements of short fiction to yank me out of what had become rather set views. In this respect, I agree with wordsmithereen's concern that quite a bit of short fiction, at least that which wins certain competitions, can be somewhat novelistic and perhaps best judged not by novelists but by short fiction writers.
Crossed with you. It annoys me, too. And you've encouraged me to be more bullish about this. I've worked very hard over the past six years or so to learn how to write good short fiction, and I know that it is definitely not a warm-up exercise for writing a novel. But it is often seen that way by people who believe novels are 'real' fiction, and I often feel subtly patronised by them to be honest.
Continuing in bullish mode, the publishing industry has had I believe a strong moderating influence on novelists, possibly more than they like to admit. These days, novelists are moderated even before they start writing - having to consider their publishers' needs, what the mysterious market requires, what genre to fit in with, etc. But with short fiction, it's still perfectly viable to write what the hell you like and find a good home for it. Which says that possibly it's short fiction writers who are more purely connected with their creativity than novelists. So perhaps short fiction writers should be judging novel competitions!
|the medium for both song and symphony is music,|
I wouldn't agree, in the sense that the material for a song and a symphony is musical notes in both cases, but the medium of a song is - say - a voice and a piano, capable of playing at the most 11 notes in two different timbres at once. Whereas the medium for a symphony is a 130 piece symphoney orchestra capable of playing perhaps 300 notes at once. One bar is enough to know that it's a completely different thing - it's a qualititively different medium, not just a bigger or longer set of sounds.
Whereas the material of both short and long fiction is words, and the medium for both is a series of words printed on a page whose only relationship is that series (unlike a poem, where layout mattersm you can re-typeset a story, and it's still the same story. If you change the instruments involved in a piece of music it becomes a different piece of music.) Show someone a page of prose fiction, and they wouldn't be able to tell which it had come from, except by reading the whole thing and perhaps making an educated guess if they have fairly sophisticated knowledge of both forms.
But I agree that you can only take the analogy so far.
And I do so see how infuriating it is for the hard-wired short fictioneers to have non-writers assume that they're all just practising for the "real writing". Writers for children suffer similarly. I'm as proud of the writing of my few good shorts as I am of the writing of my novels: the sheer sustained effort of writing a novel is a different kind of thing to be proud of. Some ideas just are short stories, aren't they: that's in their nature as others are clearly long stories, and others still are poems. You just know. No reason to rate one above the other.
I do use short fiction to explore bits of the novel-in-progress or what may end up as long fiction, but that's because my imagination works best by asking it to think in terms of Story, and so a self-contained bit of imagining comes out as a short. I don't expect those to come out satisfactory as I'd hope a short conceived as short would IYSWIM. It's process writing, if you like.
Mind you, I once took a really promising idea for a standalone short for a walk with me, to think it out, and halfway round the park I realised that it was inherently a novel. And once I'd realised that, I couldn't seem to shut it back down into the smaller form. Which was very annoying, as I'd been looking forward to a short project, and now it had to go to the back of the novel-queue.
|Mind you, I once took a really promising idea for a standalone short for a walk with me, to think it out, and halfway round the park I realised that it was inherently a novel. And once I'd realised that, I couldn't seem to shut it back down into the smaller form. Which was very annoying, as I'd been looking forward to a short project, and now it had to go to the back of the novel-queue.|
I've just junked an idea for a short story because it developed in my head beyond what any short story should attempt.
I'm a big fan of the old timers. I like a story that grabs you from the first line and doesn't let you go until the end. The old timers were good at that, their stories grab me in a way that many modern short stories fail to.
Have just read Irwin Shaw's 'The Girls in Their Summer Dresses' for the first time. It's mostly dialogue, something that usually sends me running for the hills, but it's gripping all the way through. The subject matter is very simple, it's the treatment that is so very masterly:
if you're interested.
This 21 message thread spans 2 pages: 2 > >
A lot of the 'old time' short story writers used (and still use) the basic seven-step method, which is something like:
1. CHARACTER in a
2. SETTING with a
(These to be set up in the first page or so.)
4. TRIES and
(Repeat if necessary.)
6. FINAL TRY/CLIMAX
(Finally succeeds or fails.)
I don't always follow this but it's in the back of my mind most of the time. And if a story is coming out a bit vague or unfocussed, I find this template is a good fall-back position to adopt.