Tata Literature Live!

Poor Cousins: Why Do Short Stories Get Short Shrift?

Nirbhay Kanoria

November 24, 2017

This article is part of our special coverage of Tata Lit Live!, a Bombay-based lit fest held between November 16, 2017, and November 19, 2017.

The concluding session of Tata Literature Live! boasted an impressive panel consisting of Francine Prose (author of Reading Like A Writer and former president of America PEN), Mahesh Rao (author of The Smoke Is Rising), and Tejaswini Apte-Rahm (author of These Circuses That Sweep Through The Landscape), chaired by the equally impressive Chandrahas Choudhury (author of Arzee the Dwarf).

The focus of the session was to understand why short stories are not considered as elevated a writing form as novels, and how they are often looked down upon in the literary world. The session was full of lively discussion and some very inspiring quotes as well. As an aspiring short story writer myself, I found it especially enjoyable.

I wrote 4 novels before I wrote short stories because a short story seemed so hard. –Francine Prose

I was quite surprised to hear Francine say this as I had always assumed that the length of a novel would make it harder to write. Novels usually have a longer storyline, often more characters, and there is almost a requirement to describe each scene in greater detail. However, all three panellists thought short stories were harder to write due to the need to compress a large amount of information over just a few pages and not 200-300 pages.

You just write, and hope someone buys it. –Mahesh Rao

The conversation then veered to publishers being dismissive of short stories, claiming that there isn’t a market for the same. This was quite disheartening to hear. I have never not purchased a book because it is a collection of short stories and not a novel. There are times you want to sink your teeth into a juicy novel, and there are times you want to appreciate a short but tightly woven story. It really comes down to your mood at the time.

There is an acceptance that poetry can be a stand-alone form, which is not there for short stories… A short story writer is always asked “so when are you writing a novel”, but a poet is never asked this. –Mahesh Rao

Rao’s comment rings true. Whenever I am introduced to a short story writer, or someone talks about a short story author to me, it is often done so with a slight snigger. I wonder if these people realise that one of the greatest authors in history, Anton Chekhov, has only written one novel (The Shooting Party), but many short stories.

An audience member asked the panellists to recommend some contemporary short story writers and Prose rattled off a long list, including Jennifer Egan and Sarah Hall. On being asked, Apte-Rahm immediately cited Roald Dahl as her inspiration. Although more famous for his children’s books, Dahl has a superbly funny but macabre mind, and coincidentally his Switch Bitch was one of the first collections of short stories that I ever read and the one that got me hooked onto this form.

When I started writing I didn’t think I was writing a short story; I just wrote and the story ended where it needed to end. –Tejaswini Apte-Rahm

This point resonated with me immediately. There are many schools which train writers to have a detailed plot outline but I personally prescribe to Apte-Rahm’s style. I begin writing and the story then takes its own course. Whether the story ends on page 10 or on page 200 depends on what the story demands, and not whether it needs to be classified as a short story or a novella or a novel. Given that such categorization is made by publishers and not authors, I wonder why short stories are considered any lesser than novels.

Many readers scoff at those who mainly enjoy short stories, and don’t consider them to be ‘true readers’. I have enjoyed short stories my entire life and not thought of them as any less ‘intellectual’ or ‘intelligent’. I’ve found the plots just as intricate as those in a novel, even though they unfold over fewer pages.

One would think that in today’s world of instant gratification, short stories would, in fact, get more acceptance, but publishers do not seem to have the same view. Apte-Rahm explained that short stories need to be read with more care than a novel because there is, often, as much going on in a short story as in a novel. She went on to say “In a novel you need sub-plots, in a short story you need sub-currents”. But sub-currents do not imply in any way that a short story is any lesser than a novel; if at all, it is more delicate and more intricately woven, with a finer sense of perception required to understand and appreciate it.

(On writing) It is all torture, its just different levels of torture. –Mahesh Rao

This incredibly enjoyable session can be summed up by Rao’s statement, said in jest but with an underlying poignant truth. Writing is really exposing part of your soul to the world, its forcing you to look into yourself and present your innermost thoughts to an often-cruel audience, and when one is doing that it really doesn’t matter if one is creating a short story or a novel, as they are but two sides of the same coin.

Do you think short stories are less intellectual than novels? Would you not read/purchase a book because it is a collection of short stories and not a novel? Which are some of your favourite short stories? Share with us in the comments below.

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Nirbhay Kanoria

Nirbhay Kanoria

As a young boy, Nirbhay had the annoying habit of waking up at 5 a.m. Since television was a big no-no, he had no choice but to read to entertain himself and that is how his love affair with books began. A true-blue Piscean, books paved the path to his fantasy worlds- worlds he’d often rather stay in. Nirbhay is the co-founder and publisher of The Curious Reader.

You can read his articles, here.