Novel vs. Short Story

by Zafar Anjum

Personally, I have always been a fan of short stories. I like my Carver and Chekhov better than Hemingway and Updike but no doubt all of them are oh so good.

There is no special enmity towards novels though. Mark it down to my laziness and short attention span. Big, fat novels scare me. So, I am always drawn to short stories. But in the last few years, a writer was not supposed to have made it unless he had done a couple of novels before his short stories could be taken seriously, even though veterans like Naipaul had declared the form (novel) to be dead.

Recently, there was this news that non-fiction was beating fiction (read novels) in the book shops. I was not surprised to hear this. I had been noticing the trend. After all, we are living in the age of reality TV and 24-hour news channels. How could they not succeed when there was hunger in people to know the real-life stories around them?

The latest news is that the short story form is being given a new lease of life by The Spectator in the UK and by in the US by constituting awards and making them especially available in digital formats (in the case of the latter).

“Alex Linklater, deputy editor of Prospect magazine, spoke out today in support of the short story. “The novel is a capacious old whore: everyone has a go at her, but she rarely emits so much as a groan for their efforts,” he said. “The short story, on the other hand, is a nimble goddess: she selects her suitors fastidiously and sings like a dove when they succeed. The British literary bordello is heaving with flabby novels; it’s time to give back some love to the story.”

No body will complain but the fact is a lot of people have been writing hundreds of thousands of short stories on the web. There are a large number of e-zines on the web already promoting short stories, and honestly, they are doing it without any hope of earning profits or increasing their bottomlines.

So, what will happen after constituting the new awards and opening new platforms? More established writers will now get a chance to get their stories published there. You will see the same old literary mafia over there, with an occasional lucky chik or lad getting the crowning glory for the sake of credibility. Skeptical, uh? Yes, I am. I always am. Look what is doing: “Authors on board for the launch include Audrey Niffenegger (author of the bestseller The Time Traveller’s Wife), with a short story about a man with a celestial infection, crime writer James Lee Burke with a coming-of-age-drama and Richard Rhodes with an essay on the birds of the Pacific.”

Coming back to the topic of novels, does everyone has a novel inside them? Tim Clare ponders over this question here. Tim thinks no. Publishers need to be selective and most of them are fair to the new talents. So, everything is all right in the publishing world except that there are publishers like MacMillan who are promoting writers who are evidently less talented through special programmes.

Tim says:

“Every industry needs quality control. One thing that differentiates the publishing world from, say, the medical world, is that stitching an abdominal suture requires specific qualifications, whereas writing a novel calls for skills which, though far less quantifiable, are absolutely necessary for success. Just because hospitals lack the resources to field hundreds of requests a week from people wanting to perform open-heart surgery, it does not follow that the medical world is some kind of shadowy clique.

Queuing is what made our nation great. If anything, the British publishing industry is too open to new writers at the expense of skilled stalwarts. Cheap as chips enterprises such as the Macmillan New Writing imprint saturate the market and harm the prestige of publication. Picking authors before they’re ripe represents a bad deal for all concerned. Instead of promoting an attitude of “everyone has won and all shall have prizes”, the industry needs to remind people that brilliant writing is very, very hard, that there are many dragons to be fought on the way to publication, and that perishing in the battle is no shame.”

So, all writers will have to stand in the queue, waiting for their chance, telling themselves until they die: “perishing in the battle is no shame…perishing in the battle is no shame…perishing in the battle is no shame…”


August 25, 2005

Zafar Anjum is the founder editor of He lives in Singapore. Visit his website to see more of his writings.