Thursday, 28 August 2014

The novel and the short story compared

I find myself contemplating developing my writing in two different directions: the novel and the short story. I have applications pending for both the Word Factory's short story writing apprenticeship and the York Festival of Writing novel writers' workshop. Which leads me to wonder to what extent the two forms are compatible with each other. What in the end is the difference between writing novels and writing short stories?

The short story is memorably described on the Word Factory site as "an espresso shot" and in many ways this is the perfect analogy. Small and intense, an espresso packs all the power and flavour of a normal coffee into one small but satisfying cup. The effect can be fulfilling, exhilarating or even terrifying, giving rise in the susceptible to palpitations and a racing heartbeat. The aroma can be almost unbelievably complex- absorbed in an instant yet filling the senses for some time afterwards.

The term espresso covers a large variety of forms, from the half-cup favoured in Northern France to the bare teaspoon you get in Naples: from the satisfying completeness of a near-novella to the pithy force of the best flash fiction. There is also a place in the market for a huge variety of producers, from the globally successful high street chains to the obsessive ex-backpacker who imports beans green from a Peruvian village and roasts them by hand in the back of the shop: from the internationally renowned superstars of short fiction to the passionate amateur whose writing "reinvents the form" to such an extent as to be virtually unreadable. Here, mind you, the analogy fails somewhat, for whilst I would rather drink heated cat-piss than a Starbucks espresso I regard Alice Munro as not only one of the most successful but also one of the best short story writers around.

However all in all, the espresso remains the perfect metaphor for a short story. So what then of the novel? To equate a novel with a cup of filter coffee would be entirely unfair. A cup of filter coffee is, to coffee aficionados, no more than an espresso that has not been subjected to sufficient pressure to extract the flavour from the beans and has then been adulterated with half a pint of scalding water. Perhaps a closer analogy would be a bottle of wine- intoxicating, often complex in flavour and lasting a lot longer than a single espresso.

Doesn't quite catch it though, does it? For a start, a bottle of wine is all one thing, the first glass tasting identical to the last. And whilst it is possible to consume a bottle of wine alone, I have found that this is frowned on by the general public, particularly on the Tube in the morning rush hour. Most importantly though, however good a bottle of wine it is fundamentally unsubstantial. All you are left with the following day is a headache and a lingering sense of regret.

So another analogy then. Perhaps we need to broaden the range to incorporate food as well as drink. A full dinner is both more satisfying and more complex than a bottle of wine. Does that make it more like a novel? Well not really. Again, a large meal consumed alone speaks of nothing more than gluttony and leaves one feeling bloated and almost as regretful as a bottle of wine would. Furthermore, unless one is involved in a Mediterranean country wedding even the largest meal is not something one consumes over several days.

No, in the end the only true food-and-drink-based analogy I could find for the novel to set against the short-story-as-espresso was a rather odd one: a fruit tree. Fruit trees bear their bounty over many days, or even weeks. You can disregard them for a time, then go back and pick a few more fruits, or lie underneath and gorge yourself until time and the world disappears and there is only you and the tree. The fruits can be soft and luscious, like the pears on the tree in my garden: easy to pick and with soft and yielding flesh, or they can be as challenging and difficult as sloes. The blackthorn tree makes its fruits virtually inaccessible through an impenetrable tangle of dark, thorny branches and the sloes when picked are almost unpalatably bitter, setting the teeth on edge with their jarring force. Yet steeped in plenty of gin and left to marinate for a few weeks and their flavour is as subtle and complex as any you can find.

And in fact the two analogies speak to some extent of their mode of production too. Creating the perfect espresso takes experience, fine judgment and the ability to focus one's attention entirely on that one moment- that one cup. It is about juggling the interconnected factors of pressure, temperature and volume with the subtle blend of aromas in the coffee beans until what emerges into the cup is the pure and intense essence of the thing.

Growing a fruit tree is a much longer-scale thing. It involves intense effort, a considerable amount of patience and the willingness to prune ruthlessly when the tree is out of shape or fails to produce fruit. The tree grower is never entirely in control of the finished thing: can never fully know what fruits it will produce for those who visit it. All that he or she can do is to raise it in the best possible conditions, tend it carefully over a long period of time, then walk away and leave it for others to discover.

So there you go, I think. If a short story is a shot of espresso then a novel is a fruit tree. Obvious when you come to think about it.

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