Gerard Woodward on the “sagging, ungainly corpses” of bad short stories

Gerard Woodward has picked up the thread of our conversation and provides us with his response to Vanessa Gebbie‘s question “Is the short story training ground for the novel?” It is an interesting juxtaposition to Dennis McFadden‘s answer earlier.

Gerard: I have a playwright friend who says he gets very annoyed when people apply to do his course so that they can ‘improve their dialogue’ in their novels. I can imagine this would be very annoying, just as much as if the opposite happened, and someone took one of my novel-writing courses in order to improve their writing of stage directions. The point he was making, of course, is that dialogue works very differently in dramatic work, and that it is a big mistake to think writing a play will help you with your novel – a category error, almost. I don’t know enough about writing plays (in fact I don’t know anything about writing plays) to know if he’s right. It couldn’t do any harm, you might be thinking – any writing in any form will help whatever you’re doing, it’s bound to feed in some interesting stuff – but maybe not. Maybe it wouldn’t be any help at all, maybe it would even do some damage. If you learnt how to write successful dialogue for a stage play, and then applied that same technique to a novel – well, think about it, a novel full of stage play dialogue – what would that be like? Maybe a bit like a Roddy Doyle novel? I don’t know.

Anyway, I take my friend’s point, and I feel similarly with regard to the short story and the novel. I think it is a big mistake to think of the short story as a practice ground for the novel, a stepping stone towards the longer form. This is because the two forms tend to work along opposite lines of force to achieve their effects. The novel is all about filling big narrative spaces, while the short story is all about suggesting those spaces and using the restrictions of space and time to powerful effect. Short stories written with the same blithe disregard for the boundaries of narrative as a novel are usually very sorry-looking things, and many British anthologies are littered with their sagging, ungainly corpses, often begotten by distinguished novelists.

Of course, a short story may sometimes become so gravid with character, plot and theme that it mutates into the larger thing, by which time it will have spawned a family of sub plots and sub characters, and will fill its space with ease, but this doesn’t mean that the two forms are easily interchangeable. As I said earlier, they are more like opposites. Short stories are not just truncated or abbreviated or compressed novels, they are more like the opposite of novels, they are inverted, or reversed or exploded novels. Their power is delivered in an entirely different way.

If you are using the short story as a training ground for writing a novel, both forms will tend to suffer. You will write weak short stories because you will have little respect for the form (because you will simply be seeing it as a prototype of something else) and you will write weak novels because they won’t have the bulk and meatiness necessary for the panoramic scale of a novel. Write both forms by all means, but don’t treat one as the poor cousin of the other, they both need distinctive approaches and different sets of skills.

On the other hand, they do share much. In America there is a great tradition of the collection of linked short stories – as I mentioned in one of my earlier posts. The series of connected stories, or the novel-in-stories, has emerged as a form in itself. But it is a very different thing from a novel. It is interesting how publishers these days often try and present a collection of short stories as though it is a novel, and it’s not until you begin reading it that you realise it is in fact a short story collection. Then, even if you are a fan of the short story, you can’t help feeling a little bit cheated.

I’ll finish with a quote from an article on the novel versus the short story that has just popped up on The Guardian’s blog pages – “The short story is fundamentally different from the novel; not better, just different.” As Richard Ford once told the Paris Review, recalling arguments with Raymond Carver about the story versus the novel, “Forms of literature don’t compete. They don’t have to compete. We can have it all.” Which sums it up nicely. The rest of Guardian article, which ties in to a lot of the issues that have been raised in this debate, can be found here