In Defense Of Short Fiction (Not That I Need To Defend It, Because It's Awesome)


If you’ve been reading me for a while, chances are you know how much I love short fiction. For every novel I read, I read at least two collections or anthologies. (My current short fiction reads are Me and Daddy Listen to Bob Marley By Ann Pancake and Let Me Be Frank With You By Richard Ford.) Don’t get me wrong, I love novels, too. But to be blunt, after six or so years of book reviewing, the one thing I can tell you for certain is that at least (if not more…okay, it’s more, I’m just being overly generous with the 60% figure) 60% of the novels being released by the big 6 and the indies would make really fun, entertaining short stories, but as novels, they suck. I know, it’s a broad statement to make, but trust me, it’s true. Most novels are bloated and unnecessary and can’t carry the weight of 300+ pages.

And let’s face it, over the last 100+ years, fiction writers and the publishing industry have held the novel up as being the holy grail (although, I think the title of ‘holy grail’ now belongs to having your own television show) of creative pursuit. We’ve essentially trained our writers to believe that if you don’t finish a novel, you’re creatively incomplete. That your value as a writer is null and void because you haven’t sunk years into completing a single rambling narrative. But, seriously, I’m not here to run down novelists. It’s a tough job, and I’m not denying that, but maybe, just maybe, it’s time for a lot of writers to admit that they’re not novelists, and that they’re “just” short story writers. But more than anything else, it’s time for them to be okay with it.

Learning to Write Towards (and Accepting) Your Strengths

A couple of years ago I was talking with novelist Sara Gran. For one reason or another we started talking about our upbringings and our parents. Gran spoke about her mother and what a brilliant writer she was. The only problem with her mother, she said, was that she was never able to finish anything. She would get 25 or 30 pages into a novel and then lose interest. This got me thinking about writing toward your strengths and that maybe the reason why Gran’s mom was never able to finish writing a novel was because maybe her brain wasn’t wired to be a novelist?

I think of creativity as being a hard wired trait, and yes, it is something you can learn, but for the most part I think of being a writer or a painter as something akin to being born with blue eyes or curly hair. It’s something you’re born with and it’s just a matter of recognizing it and nurturing it. And like most genetic traits, I also think writers are hard wired to write certain types of narratives. Maybe you’re wired to be a poet or a songwriter? Or you have a real ear for dialogue and you’re suited to be a screenplay writer? So if you follow along with this logic, maybe some writers are simply meant to write short? Maybe they’re just better at catching small glimpses of life; sketches as opposed to a large canvas.

Most novels are bloated and unnecessary and can’t carry the weight of 300+ pages.

Probably the best example of mastery on the small scale is Joyce Carol Oates. I dig Oates, I absolutely love reading her short stories. I’ve read (I think) every collection she’s published, and go back to more than a few of them if I’m in need of creative inspiration. But I’ve only read two of Oates’ novels, and one of those is a novella. (By the way, if you haven’t read Zombie, pick it up ASAP. It’s an absolutely chilling read.) It’s not that I haven’t tried to read her novels—I’ve picked up and put down a pretty large chunk of her enormous body of work—it’s just that with her stories, there’s such a conservation of words. They’re exact and driven, where as with the novels … well, they’re just so meandering.

I can say the same thing of Karen Russell, Laird Barron, Nick Mamatas, Junot Diaz, Patti Abbott, and Dan Chaon. They’ve all written some flat out great novels, but when they sit down to write a short story, they’re creating magic (at least in my opinion); they’re creating something otherworldly, and they’re creating this magic because the short story is their sweet spot, and all of them have more or less acknowledged that the short story is where their strengths lie.

So what I’m mostly poking around at is this: The next time you open the bloated file that is your WIP and you start reading through it and you start to notice all the holes in the plot, or you start noticing that you added one character because you needed to plump up your manuscript or (BTW, please don’t do this) you’ve added an unnecessary love interest and now neither one of them makes any since to the narrative, and you find yourself doing nothing but getting frustrated, closing the file, and then opening a blank page to work on a short story, and you find yourself doing this day-after-day, chances are you’re a short story writer.

But Everyone Else Is Doing It!

Novelist and publisher Mark Rapacz wrote a pretty entertaining blog post back in August of 2014 titled, 10 CAREER-ENDING MISTAKES I MADE WHILE PUBLISHING MY FIRST NOVEL. When I first read it, I got a pretty big chuckle out of it largely because I think every writer has made the same mistakes Rapacz made while writing his first novel. On my second read through of the post, this line popped out for me:

…Everybody I knew had a novel to talk about. I wanted to join the fun because no one asks you what your story collection is about. Nobody cares about that.

Now I’m not trying to call Mark out about this statement, because he’s not alone in these feelings. Like any other profession, writing and publishing is chock full of peer pressure, either self-created or through flat out creative snobbery from your peers. Once again, it all comes back to conditioning. As narrative writers, we’ve been taught for decades that the paragon of creative truth and success is the novel; that every other form pales in comparison. It is, simply put, expected for you to write a novel or the cool kids are going to think you’re a giant dork who needs to be cornered in the bathroom and have your head dunked in a toilet and given a super swirly.

But this is what I have to say to the folks who say you absolutely have to write a novel to be taken seriously as a writer: *FART NOISE*. (If I could insert an audio file of a giant fart noise, I totally would.) Like peer pressure when it comes to booze or drugs or jumping off a bridge, it’s total bullshit based entirely on insecurities of the people putting the pressure on you, and much like adolescent peer pressure, if you just ignore it, you tend to stop caring about it, and then you can concentrate on the work that really matters to you.

Of course, there are always the folks who throw this line out at you: The only way to make real money in publishing is by writing a novel, and all I have to say to that is: BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!

Novels Are Where The Money Is At

Actually, no, novels aren’t where the money is at. In fact, there really isn’t all that much money in books no matter if they’re novels or collections. But, I will say this: never has there been a time in literary history where there have been as many paying short fiction markets out in the world. If you don’t believe me, take a look at a couple of Richard Thomas’ Storyville columns right here and here, or check out the dreaded Duotrope, or if you really don’t want to drop the dough on Duotrope, check out Sandra Seamans absolutely essential blog, My Little Corner. All of these resources are there to point you in the direction of where you can get paid for your short stories.

Now most of you are probably going to start whining a bit on how so many of the markets pay so little for short stories. But guess what, sunshine, most publishers aren’t paying you all that much for novels either. In fact, those 1-to-5 cents a word rates you’re seeing is about the same amount you’ll be paid if you find a publisher for your novel. (Or even less if you consider all the hours and rewrites that will be required.) It’ll be even less if you go with an indie publisher where all you’ll be doing is either splitting the take, or receiving a small advance for your work. The other great thing about being a short story writer is that you can always put together a collection and you can get paid twice for your work. As far as I’m concerned, that’s not that bad of a deal.

The Point Is, Do What You Love

And that’s exactly the point: you need to find the creative bend that you’re most comfortable with and run with it. If it’s writing short stories, write them and be proud of it. If you’re a novelist, do the same, but don’t look down on either art form, because both take time and skill to master. And also, don’t be afraid to challenge yourself, if you really want to write novel, do it, and then come back to short stories, because they’re not going anywhere, but the inspiration and courage to write a novel might not always be there. On a personal level, I’m soldiering away on a novel, and I have a couple of more ideas that might be able to fill up 300+ pages. But when it comes right down to it, I am first and foremost a short story writer, and damn proud of it.

Keith Rawson

Column by Keith Rawson

Keith Rawson is a little-known pulp writer whose short fiction, poetry, essays, reviews, and interviews have been widely published both online and in print. He is the author of the short story collection The Chaos We Know (SnubNose Press)and Co-Editor of the anthology Crime Factory: The First Shift. He lives in Southern Arizona with his wife and daughter.

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Josh Zancan's picture
Josh Zancan from Crofton, MD is reading East of Eden by John Steinbeck February 27, 2015 - 1:10pm

I know, it’s a broad statement to make, but trust me, it’s true. Most novels are bloated and unnecessary and can’t carry the weight of 300+ pages.

I've been feeling this way more and more recently.  Not so much that they should be short stories, neessarily, but at least novellas.  I just read Up in the Air, and oh man...300 pages, could have been 150, and that's just with big chunks cut, not to mention fine tuning. 

I remember Poe saying that no story should have anything in it that's unnecessary...that's something that's always stuck with me.  I think he was talking about short stories specifically, but I've always applied it to everything.  I always aim low for page/word count.  Helps keep me honest.  That way, I'm not like "No, I need to stretch this scene by 5,000 words to hit my mark."  I'm just wrapping up a story that I planned to be a long short story, about 20,000 words.  I just hit 45k (there are some things I need to trim, though), but I'm confident that 90% of it is necessary.

I don't even know why a writer would want to write more than they need.  I know some people like to write a lot, then sculpt it down, but I'm talking more like including scenes that they absolutely don't need.  If I start a scene, I know exactly what I'm trying to accomplish with it.  And if I start and then realize it's not accomplishing anything, it's cut, right there.  I've got better things to spend time on.

Steven Schwartz's picture
Steven Schwartz from Chicago is reading The Fever by Megan Abbott February 28, 2015 - 7:36pm

Trust me? What, you a politician now?  In any event, kidding aside, you are 100% correct.  Great column.  Everything I write is either a short story or a novella,  The books that are novels started as novellas and got stretched.  Even so nothing is very long as even my "novels" are 50K words at most.  Am currently reading Thorp's "Rainbow Drive".  Much as I liked this and "the Detective", at 400 pages the bloat is excessive.  Give me Sallis, Manchette, Simenon,Woodrelland Jim Thompson.

T.A. Wardrope's picture
T.A. Wardrope from Minneapolis, MN is reading Alone with the Horrors March 2, 2015 - 11:06pm

Speaking as a writer with a sizable tome under his belt I surprisingly I have to say I agree. Mostly. The fact is they are two different forms with two different sets of goals and problems. The problems come in to play when someone tries to write a short story into a novel or vice versa. I don't think it is even a matter of the story itself, it is the way you choose to look at the story. Satellite or microscope.

I find that I often get ideas in novel form. Large expansive stories that can cover a lot of ground and would probably require as many pages to chronicle. Sometimes I file them under novel ideas but sometimes it seems like it would be more interesting to dive down and get a really close look at what's going on in that world. 



Cath Murphy's picture
Cath Murphy from UK is reading Find out on the Unpr!ntable podcast March 30, 2015 - 1:34am

Cogently put Keith. I love short fiction, but I also get that in the wrong hands it can be a disaster - perhaps because early in our careers lots of us think it's going to be easier than writing a whole book? My view is that every story has a length that fits it perfectly. All you have to do is find that length and write the story with that in mind.