Sunday, August 19, 2007

Never Mind the Width...

From a recent interview with Norman Mailer: ‘With a novel you have to be good for months at a time. With a short story you only have to be good for a week.’

If it wasn’t for nicely impish allusion to writing as an alternative to hellraising and carousing - as a form of distraction - this would of course be little more than a pretty obvious truism. Novels are longer: therefore they take longer to write, epic marathons to the brief sprints of short stories. But there’s a little more to it than that, of course. Writing a novel is a sustained act of imagination, sure, but as well as simple linear quantitative measurements there are crucial qualitative differences between writing a novel and writing a short story, too. For one thing, the imaginative act of writing a short story is more focused and sustained than that of writing a novel. Everything counts in a short story. A novel is roomy, able to contain all kinds of digressions and expansiveness. Short stories are what they are, no more, no less. And the best kind of short story (as mentioned a couple of entries ago) appears all at once, in the round: subject, theme, narrative and voice all in place, gliding out on its own melting. As far as I’m concerned, that doesn’t happen too often. But after I’ve trashed my way to the conclusion of a first draft, I usually know what’s gone wrong, what needs to be taken out and what is missing, and after that I have the whole thing in my head, like a three-dimensional model that can examined from any angle. All that remains to be done is pruning and polishing and tightening.

This happens with novels too, but at a much later stage, and it’s less global, more mechanical - it’s the point where I really have to get down to knitting everything together, when I know, for instance, that taking out a bit of exposition on page 23 will affect the long-delayed meeting of two characters on page 412. Novels by their very nature are imperfect. There’s always minor compromise somewhere in the structure, a few factual errors or contradictions, and in genre novels particularly there are sentences and paragraphs that exist only as bridges or exposition or explanation. Bits of plumbing or bracing left exposed. No matter how much you prune and compress, it’s impossible to submerge all information beneath the surface of the narrative.

But short stories, because they are shorter pieces of prose (although their narratives may encompass entire lifetimes), hold out the possibility of perfection. Maybe that’s why I haven’t given up on them, even though the economics of the short story market means that they are, for professional writers, luxury goods. The possibility of perfection. The satisfaction of fully realising an idea in just a few days, from first light to Fall. The knowledge that if you fail, it is not an important failure.

2 Comments:

Blogger Keith Ferrell said...

Of course while Mailer has written some extraordinary novellas -- "The Man Who Studied Yoga" best of all -- he's never been a short story writer, and hasn't written (or at least published)more than couple of dozen over the last sixty years.

He did write one of the great fantastic novels, Ancient Evenings of the previous century, a novel which continues to astonish. And his Castle in the Forest is astonishing in its own way. Not least of which is the intellectual and stylistic vigor and ambition flowing from an 84 year old writing hand. We should all be so vigorous when our 80s arrive.

August 23, 2007 10:19 PM  
Anonymous Paul McAuley said...

Oh, I'm not knocking Mailer at all. He's written at least two of the best books of the last century.

Anyhow, I'm hoping to be half as vigorous. I haven't the stamina for the full Mailer effect.

August 23, 2007 10:23 PM  

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