I'm honored that two Red Room writers next week will win my short story collections The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea and Months and Seasons as they write about the topic of short fiction. The topic is on my mind in another way as I'm working on a novel. Novels and short stories are very different, and my focus right now is on novels.
It's a huge challenge for a short story writer to move into being a novelist. My first novel, The Brightest Moon of the Century, started as a short story collection, but shortly after starting it, I realized how to turn it into a novel with a through-line. I started seeing it as a whole rather than a bunch of separate stories. Thanks to passion, obsession, and luck, it worked. It was a pleasure to see that The Brightest Moon of the Century made a few critics' lists of Top Ten Books of 2009.
With Lorrie Moore's new novel, A Gate at the Stairs, I see a lot of the reviews on Amazon are feeling that Moore isn't as tight in her novel as she is in her short fiction. The featured review by Robert Holland says the plot is tenuous and, "There were long (they seemed long anyway) stretches in the novel where I wanted to say ‘OK, I get the point! These people are callow and self-absorbed.'"
I've just started Moore's novel, so I can't comment on it yet. However, Moore is one of my absolute favorite authors. Some of her sentences, with their sardonic observations, have me laugh out loud, highlighting away. Another Amazon reader in defending Moore's novel says, "This narrator, eccentric 20-year-old Tassie, is not a person who shares her emotions. She deals with things by trying to maintain an emotional distance with humor."
My point in bringing up Moore's novel is that it's a huge challenge to write a novel, and it's an extra challenge for people who mostly write short stories. Thus, one of my own obsessions with my novel-in-progress is that the story line be tight. I don't see novels as a long short story but, rather, a more complex story that is compact, even if it's hundreds of pages long.
My friend Dana Crowell wrote me today on this subject without my mentioning it. She said, "I have been so disappointed by ‘established writers' who receive excellent reviews yet their novels lack story." She goes on to criticize Moore's novel as well as Barbara Kingsolver's novel, Lacuna. Dana said, "A novel is story with narrative drive, tension, and structure where arc is crucial to success. One cannot just go on a comic rant for pages on end. Kingsolver has reached a point where I fear she has nothing to say. Thus, she falls back on history and non-fiction to carry her books which now read like didactic history lessons without art or purpose. Her book is a potpourri of styles, a failed epistolary novel, that lacks voice, characterization, structure, and more."
I happen to be writing a mystery. I'm doing so because a) I ran out of personal experiences to exploit and b) I'm fascinated that the form requires a tight structure. I figure what I learn in writing a mystery will help me in all my future novels, no matter the genre. I love the challenge, too.
I look forward to seeing what Red Room writers love about short stories. Some of America's greatest writers, such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and more modern writers such as Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, T.C Boyle, and others can write tight short fiction as well as stunning novels. I want to do both. I'm not giving up short fiction.
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