The Oxford American
What’s the difference between a novel and a short story? In earlier posts, I’ve quoted answers from Eudora Welty and Orson Scott Card. Here’s a response from Allan Gurganus, author of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, in the Winter 2006 issue of The Oxford American:
“Like vocal music, stories consist wholly of what singers call ‘exposed notes.’ Meaning: If you go sharp, everybody’s going to hear. Novels are more forgiving; chapters can vary in quality. They can be assembled so a weaker unit gets propped between its betters.
“But, poem-like, everything in a short story must count, must show.”
I keep returning to the question “How does a novel differ from a short story?” in part because it helps to explain why works of fiction succeed or fail. Many novels try to do too little — their plots or ideas are so skimpy, they deserve no more than a short story. With the markets for stories dwindling, you see this problem more and more: for example, in Mitch Albom’s novels, which deal with simple ideas that might have worked better at a shorter length. More rarely, short stories try to do too much — their subjects are so large or diverse that they deserve a novel. A good question for book clubs to explore, when members dislike books, might be: Did the author choose the right form for this material?
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
Science fiction writer Orson Scott Card won the 2008 Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement from the American Library Association www.ala.org this week for his novels for teenagers, Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow. Here he talks about the difference between a novel and a short story:
“A novel isn’t a half-dozen short stories with the same characters. The seams invariably show. Why? Because a novel must have integrity. The novel, no matter how dense and wide-ranging it might be, must have a single cumulative effect to please the reader. Every minor climax must point toward the book’s final climax, must promise still better things to come …
“Ideally, a short story is an indivisible unit – every sentence in it points to the single climax that fulfills the entire work. One moment in the story controls all the rest. But in a novel, that single climax is replaced by many smaller climaxes, by many side trips or pauses to explore. If you keep shaping everything to point to that one climax, your reader will get sick of it after a hundred pages or so. It will feel monotonous. To keep the reader entertained (i.e., to keep him reading) you must give him many small moments of fulfillment along the way, brief rewards that promise something bigger later.”
Orson Scott Card www.hatrack.com in “To Make a Short Story Long …” in Legends of Literature: The Best Articles, Interviews, and Essays From the Archives of Writer’s Digest Magazine (Writer’s Digest Books, $19.99), edited by Phillip Sexton.