Scott Williams's picture
Scott Williams from Brooklyn, NY is reading 11/23/63 December 29, 2011 - 2:05pm

Has anybody else ever had this problem? You're reading a big, juicy novel. Hundreds of pages fly by. You finish it up in a week, maybe, for a really big book (I'm looking at you Reamde) and you're eager for more. 

But maybe you want to give yourself a break, and so you pick up a book of short stories, thinking that you'll breeze through them. So you start reading the first story and you find yourself impatient.  Maybe you skip parts.  Maybe you start leafing through the book to find out how many pages this story is (60 pages! Jesus, buddy, what are you, Tolstoy?).  And you put the book down, eventually returning it to the library (or the shelf if you're less thrifty), unread, only to pick up that brick of a new Stephen King and dig in like it's your last meal.

What does everybody else think? Am I the only one who thinks short stories are occasionally more challenging to read?

.'s picture
. December 29, 2011 - 3:48pm

Stephen King put it this way: Short stories are a small pop kiss instead of a make-out session in the dark like novels. People don't like to read short stories because they are f**king lazy. They want the make-out session. 

Terrible paraphrase, I know but I think he said this in On Writing.

I do find short story collections to be a bit more challenging but really it's completely subjective. I love novels and short stories. If I didn't love short stories I wouldn't last in the workshop. My only problem is, as you said, when they 60 freakin pages long. It's exhausting but I don't read much short story collections by single authors as I do anthologies so I'm usually sucked into the story no matter the length. 

aliensoul77's picture
aliensoul77 from a cold distant star is reading the writing on the wall. December 29, 2011 - 10:27pm

The appeal of an anthology is that you can skip which stories you don't like as a reader and move on to another.  If you have a book of short stories by one author, you really have to love that author or you will find yourself getting bored with the few duds that they may have squeezed in there.  I rarely have found a short story collection by a single author where I loved every single story.  It is like a music album.  How many albums can you say that you loved EVERY FREAKING SONG on it?  Only a handful probably unless you enjoy mindless beats of dance music or something.  That being said, if an anthology has a theme for instance, you have to be really into the overall theme to appreciate the short stories (like zombies, vampires, dragons, blowjobs).  I am having this challenge right now putting together an anthology of writers, it is critical that the stories have a rhythm and are even laid out in a specific order like an album.  You don't want fast fast fast songs and then slow slow slow songs.  You want fast, slow, fast, slow, medium beat, power ballad. 

As for the world of Stephen King, I used to consume his 1000 page novels in high school in a week but then I realized I was reading them just for the story. As a writer sometimes I like to read more carefully and slowly now, I read for the prose style and the story, so short stories really help me study prose writing. Now I find Stephen King's writing actually to be very overwritten and his style is very broad. I don't like all the pop culture references or the overdescription and it feels like he drags out things that could have been explained in 50 pages for 200 pages. As I get older I prefer more concise writing but that's just me. I think most mainstream writers do write in a very dumbed down way to appeal to the masses (Patterson, Koontz, Grafton, formuliac writers).  Don't get me wrong, I love King's "ideas" but I don't think he is that great of a writer--prose wise.  It's like enjoying a gory movie, I may enjoy it but do I think it's high art?  Not really.  Now I sound like a snob but I'm not, I swear.

avery of the dead's picture
avery of the dead from Kentucky is reading Cipher Sisters December 30, 2011 - 6:14am

"I was reading them just for the story. As a writer sometimes I like to read more carefully and slowly now, I read for the prose style and the story, so short stories really help me study prose writing."

You know what Stephen King said about this...or rather Ted Brautigan...."Read sometimes for the story, Bobby. Don't be like the book snobs who won't do that. Read sometimes for the words - the language. Don't be like the play-it-safers that won't do that. But when you find a book that has both a good story and good words, treasure that book."

Arkadia's picture
Arkadia from Australia is reading Selected Poems by W.H. Auden December 30, 2011 - 10:23am

I adore short stories, possibly more than novels, but I'll agree that sometimes they can be more difficult to read. It always seems harder to slog through a bad short story than a bad novel. I have no idea why that would be the case.

Generally though, I go through short stories a lot faster than a novel. I love to taste all the different flavors, I choke them down fast as I can and move onto the next course. Short story anthologies are really very exciting.

ReneeAPickup's picture
Class Facilitator
ReneeAPickup from Southern California is reading Wanderers by Chuck Wendig December 30, 2011 - 12:10pm

I do this, too. I am an impatient reader with shorts, and it bothers me. It is a fault, and probably the reason I have such a hard time writing short pieces. The workshop is helping me in this area--I am finally learning to love a good short story.

ReneeAPickup's picture
Class Facilitator
ReneeAPickup from Southern California is reading Wanderers by Chuck Wendig December 30, 2011 - 12:14pm

And Danny, it pains me to say, but I agree about King. I am a huge fan, and probably always will be--but I do scan pages at a time trying to get through the descriptions. I love his characters though, and more and more, I am finding I care much less about what he has to say and more about who he is using to say it. I think King gets the short end some time from literary types, because he IS talented--he tells a great story and he builds amazing characters, but it does get mucked up some times. A great example is The Dark Tower series--there was an entire book in there that I was just trying to fucking GET THROUGH. I love those books more than i can describe, but if I hadn't been invested in Eddie Dean--I would have given up in that fourth book (which he wasn't even in).

Brandon's picture
Brandon from KCMO is reading Made to Break December 30, 2011 - 2:00pm

Alien makes a good point with the song analogy.  Even my favorite albums have three or four stinkers.

Collections are easy to fuck up I think:

If you're too consistent, the reader feels like they're reading the same story over and over.  This is the principle complaint with Haunted.  The stories are all supposed to be written by different characters but they're all in his traditional style, and held together not-very-well with that whole writers' retreat storyline.  That can be a real bummer for someone who was expecting a variety.  Same thing with Knockemstiff.  Wasn't a fan of it, but when I read The Devil All the Time I loved it.  The material simply worked better as a novel. 

Then there's the inverse where you're doing sci-fi realism one story, erotica the next, and then that's followed by traditional literary.  Too much variance can kill a collection too.  Those are the ones where if I'm not hooked within the first page or so, I'll move on to the next flavor and see if I like that one.

I tend to lean towards that 70/30 ratio:

Aroud 70% should be your bread-and-butter style.  The other 30% can be your curveballs, experimentation, stuff you'd never do in a novel but want to try out in the short form.  Pygmy, for instance, probably would have been better received as a short rather than it's own novel.  I liked Pygmy okay, but I recognize how much others hate it.   

aliensoul77's picture
aliensoul77 from a cold distant star is reading the writing on the wall. December 30, 2011 - 1:54pm

@Renee--I have to agree, Book four was my least favorite. That being said, I read the five page excerpt from the new dark tower novel coming in April and nearly had a nerdgasm. I realized how much I missed those characters before King slaughtered them. I was always more interested in his ka-tet than Roland's past.

Utah's picture
Moderator
Utah from Fort Worth, TX is reading Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry December 30, 2011 - 2:06pm

I'll throw this word out there just to raise eyebrows:  hypnotism.  It's easier to plow through 1000 pages of novel than 250 pages of short story because of hypnotism.  Every time you start reading a story, short or novel-length, your mind puts up an ititial rejection-field to it, primarily because a mind's knee-jerk reaction (at least, my mind has knees and does Muy Thai) to anything is to be lazy.  At the beginning of a story, your mind has to get off its ass (yep, one of those as well) and scramble to acclimate to this universe created by the writer.  It has to get used to phrasing, to imagery choices, etc.  And essentially, once your mind reaches a point where it understands where everything fits with the way the writer writes, then it can relax and just enjoy the ride.  It enters a trance state.  It's allowed to be lazy again.

With a novel, your mind can get to this state and then do what it loves a small fraction of the way into the work.  It spends the majority of the book coasting in a hypnotic daze.  With short stories, that luxury doesn't exist because as soon as your brain figures out those soothing cadences the story ends.  You turn the page and start reading another story, but your mind rejects it again because it has no idea what images it's supposed to be decoding.  It has to start everything fresh.  So it tries to flip you the bird and get you to shut the book.

Consider this as well:  this also explains why I will pick up a book by Stephen King and be over my initial discomfort in no time.  I've read so much of his stuff that I already know what the rythms are in his writing.  I decode his images quickly because I've seen how he builds things.  On the other hand, when I start reading Jose Saramago next month, it will take appreciably longer to reach that point of comfort because I've never read him before and so he has never had a chance to hypnotize me.

Nick Wilczynski's picture
Nick Wilczynski from Greensboro, NC is reading A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin December 30, 2011 - 2:54pm

Well, I kind of see what you are saying. I read all of Infinite Jest, for instance, but with Oblivion (a David Foster Wallace short story collection) there are still some short stories that I just didn't make it past the first few pages.

But on the other hand, I like Another Pioneer more than I like Infinite Jest. It's a close run race, but when a short story works, it works better. A well written and crafted short story will take Occam's Razor and slice any novel right in the jugular.

I love short stories, I love writing them. I love reading even the bad ones. Commercially it is a strange genre, but then again the broadly held commercial understanding of most literature always feel a little behind the curve. Not to say I have a better business model, just to say that there are few effective business models to be had period.

Now, it is possible that the way these stories are built has to do with the problems of commodification, in which case you need to ask yourself, what specifically don't you like about them, and what would you do better? Build a better mousetrap. Sure, the mice will eventually wise up and stop messing with the new model, but isn't that the point, at least from a literary perspective? The better mousetrap (short story) is just a tool for building a better mouse (reader).

And now we wander deeper into mixed metaphors and confusion. 

-

Allow me to close with this thought:

Flash Fiction.

ReneeAPickup's picture
Class Facilitator
ReneeAPickup from Southern California is reading Wanderers by Chuck Wendig December 30, 2011 - 4:10pm

I do love flash, but probably because it caters to the short attention span I am willing to give a short story. I don't know. My comfort zone in reading is novels, my comfort zone with writing is novella length...everything else is breaking out of that warm, fuzzy place.

Nick's picture
Nick from Toronto is reading Adjustment Day December 30, 2011 - 4:20pm

I think Pygmy is underrated. Inventing a dialect is about as much variety or experimentation as you can ask of a writer, and the story did the trick. I wonder what the Pygymy haters think of Damned.

Nick Wilczynski's picture
Nick Wilczynski from Greensboro, NC is reading A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin December 30, 2011 - 4:59pm

So far, I'm a little disappointed, but as a Pygmy hater I'm withholding judgement until I finish it. I'll give it the same shot as I gave snuff.

But some writers are just subject to diminishing returns.

aliensoul77's picture
aliensoul77 from a cold distant star is reading the writing on the wall. December 30, 2011 - 5:21pm

Writing books that are all dialect based or written in a distorted voice on purpose because the narrator is uneducated or foreign are hard to read.  Even reading Clockwork Orange with the droogs is confusing at first because it's a future slang that doesn't exist.  I think short stories are awesome though, they used to be a highly valued art form.  I'll be honest, I don't know what the mainstream literary community likes or wants anymore.  It seems like if you write about some controversial subject like being Muslim in America, you get published or some sappy lovefest about a magic mailbox that delivers love letters across time.  I don't think the public knows what it wants anymore except cookbooks and get rich quick schemes and book of political diatribe.  Maybe Ann Coulter should write a book about baking cookies with razorblades to kill liberals and stealing social security funds from the disabled. Or a Catholic priest could write a book in favor of NAMBLA.

aliensoul77's picture
aliensoul77 from a cold distant star is reading the writing on the wall. December 30, 2011 - 5:24pm

My favorite short story writers are as follows:  Flannery O'Connor, Shirley Jackson, Clive Barker, Joyce Carol Oates, Harlan Ellison and some of Stephen King's stuff.

Nick Wilczynski's picture
Nick Wilczynski from Greensboro, NC is reading A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin December 30, 2011 - 6:13pm

No Amy Hempel?

Harvest is better than most novels.

PopeyeDoyle's picture
PopeyeDoyle from Rio Grande Valley, TX is reading Chronology of Water December 30, 2011 - 6:15pm

Plus 1 on the Amy Hempel.  Also, what about Borges and Carver?

aliensoul77's picture
aliensoul77 from a cold distant star is reading the writing on the wall. December 30, 2011 - 9:01pm

Don't castrate me but I'm iffy on Hempel.  I wasn't that impressed by what I read, I'll give her another chance.  Carver is good, haven't read a lot of Borges shorts.

 

My goal for my next short story I write will be to write all show and no tell since apparently that's what everyone is aspiring to but I still think it's okay to tell a little bit and I like flashbacks.  It pisses me off when I'm told I can't have flashbacks or tell anything or say how a character feels.  Isn't it better to just say, "Lila hated him since she was a little girl because of his terrorist acts upon her dolls.  This strange vendetta carried over into adulthood even though he had apologized numerous times." (Technically I'm showing you a reason why) or should I have to always show it by saying, "Lila fidgeted uncomfortably when Damien entered the room, thoughts of mangled dolls in her mind soaking in toilet water and his seven year old face smirking at her."  I'm not sure which is better technically.  I guess number two because it's more vivid.  What do you think?

avery of the dead's picture
avery of the dead from Kentucky is reading Cipher Sisters December 30, 2011 - 9:10pm

I tell a lot.  And I don't consider it a good thing, but I'm aware I'm doing it now.  I write something and I laugh manically and think "bryanhowie is going to HATE this!" 

But in general I think showing is more vivid.  We want the reader to feel what the girl feels.  And saying she feels angry doesn't make me feel angry. 

There are times when showing is fine, in my opinion.  But if you are going to show and not tell, it better be a really good sentence - know what I mean? 

mutterhals's picture
mutterhals from Pittsburgh December 30, 2011 - 9:23pm

I find that I can't get into short story collections as much. For instance, I bought a Roald Dahl short story chumpie and I kept wishing it was longer and more cohesive, even though I fucking adored what and how he wrote. Through that I found that I prefered novels. And I'll add, after having read the rest of the responses, I hate flash fiction with the intensity of one thousand blazing suns. Write drunk, edit sober, as Hem said.

Lerxt In Wonderland's picture
Lerxt In Wonderland from Iowa is reading Brave New World + The Tempest January 12, 2012 - 4:59pm

I have always thought that short stories are more reader oriented and novellas and beyond are writer oriented. The short story allows the reader to fill in the gaps, to expand on the writer's ideas while the novel allows the author to do so. To take this further, think of a poem; the reader has to extract out the meaning of those artfully chosen words placed carefully in the context of line and stanza, meter and rhyme. Each word, each line is saturated with meaning and it is therefore the job of the reader to decode one of possibly several different meanings and interpretations in that one line/stanza/poem.

The next step up this ladder is the short story (or the essay) where the writer has more freedom to flush out certain ideas and concepts, yet doesn't have time to really wax prosaically or philosophically, instead letting the reader perform this task. An example that comes to mind here is the short story "Seed Stock" by Frank Herbert and his series Dune. You can read the former and get a brief glimpse of the grand scope of the latter, at least in terms of his concept of human evolution. The short story (in short...) is a readers format, something to read in one sitting and a way of playing literary connect-the-dots.

The novel, and by extension the series, is the writers playground, or to use my preferred metaphor, the writer's warehouse that can be stocked full of just about anything, for better or for worse. The novel can bring out a writer's true vision and depth of narrative, but can just as easily provide a pitfall of plot holes, over written character monologues and just plain and simple bad prose. As much as I love some EAP or H.P. Lovecraft tales, I shudder to think about a 1,000 page novel by either of them; their realm of power is the short story, with less than a handful of novella length works between the two. This, in my opinion, is because they understood that the connections made in the reader's imagination can far exceed anything a writer could describe in depth in a longer work.

 

Nick Wilczynski's picture
Nick Wilczynski from Greensboro, NC is reading A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin January 12, 2012 - 5:40pm

Was that your first post?

That's a hell of a first post.

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words January 12, 2012 - 10:38pm

I don't read much in the way of short stories (except when I was reviewing them in the workshop) - aside from Stephen King's some decades ago, and the occasional early works from novelists I've come to appreciate, I prefer longer works of fiction.

Same goes for music, mind you. I've listened to enough 3 minute songs, that I'd rather listen to orchestrated or electronic music for 3 hours. I enjoy a nice long narrative.

It's not to say I haven't found short stories I like - particularly David Foster Wallace's (some more than others), and short stories contained within a larger narrative frame (like Damned or the Decameron).

That said, I sometimes find the short story a challenge for the same reason Utah mentioned - it takes a certain number of words or pages for the mind to adjust to the world of the narrative, and once I'm there, I'd like to spend some time exploring it.

 

Ben's picture
Ben from Australia is reading My Booky Wook by Russell Brand January 12, 2012 - 11:04pm

Isn't it better to just say, "Lila hated him since she was a little girl because of his terrorist acts upon her dolls.  This strange vendetta carried over into adulthood even though he had apologized numerous times." (Technically I'm showing you a reason why) or should I have to always show it by saying, "Lila fidgeted uncomfortably when Damien entered the room, thoughts of mangled dolls in her mind soaking in toilet water and his seven year old face smirking at her."  I'm not sure which is better technically.  I guess number two because it's more vivid.  What do you think?

Why do you have to reveal that all in one go?  You have the opportunity to create tension by saying that Lila fidgeted uncomfortably when Damien entered the room, but without revealing why until later.  I think that's half the reason why people get bent out of shape about being told "show, don't tell", because they don't understand it.  I was no different - but Chuck's thought verb essay was a real eye-opener for me.  However, I don't recall it addressing timing considerations with unpacking the details - but there's certainly no reason you have to do it all at once.  Personally, I think the writing's much better when details are teased out slowly, because it keeps the reader turning the pages.  Although, there is context to consider, of course.

For what it's worth, if you want to tell occasionally - that's fine, but you're better off using dialogue to do it.  Dialogue allows you to take some shortcuts because people don't speak in long-winded descriptions.  So, in the example you've got above, you could introduce an exchange whereby Damien asks Lila why she's looking at him like that, and she says that she's hated him since she was a little girl because he mangled her dolls, to which he can then remind her he's apologised plenty of times.  Yes, it's still longer than a simple one sentence tell that you've suggested, but I'd argue that it's better written...  As a writer, you're gently guiding the reader through the story, rather than ramming it down their throat.

That's my two cents, anyway.