Standing up for the short novel

A lot of my favourite books are short. Very short.

  • Slaughterhouse five, Kurt Vonnegut
  • We have always lived in the castle, Shirley Jackson
  • Muminpappan och havet (Muminpapa at sea), Tove Jansson
  • The Powerbook, Jeanette Winterson

To name just a few. A lot of the books that I read for literature history were short. (A short novel is somewhere around 65,000 w0rds. That used to be the length of a novel but now, it’s the length of a short novel or a romance novel. most other genre and literary novels are a lot longer.)

The first ever book I read in English was Animal Farm. I’d read articles, bits of plays, chapters and comics but I hadn’t read a full book. So, I picked up Animal Farm. It’s a classic and I was 16. One the first page I underlined and looked up 12 words. Then I got bored with detailed understanding and went for the gist. A year later I we read The Great Gatsby for English. That was followed by The Human Factor by Graham Greene, Winnie the Pooh and several others. All short.

When I left Sweden to go to Scotland, the guys at work gave me a gift. My manager picked out two (short) books in English for me: Tidings by William Wharton and And the Ass Saw the Angel by Nick Cave. At the time, I knew Cave as a song and lyrics writer and I adored him. The book blew me away. It was rich, it was partially phonetic, it was Gothic, it was weird, it was endlessly strange and invigorating. I loved it. It took me a while to get around to reading Tidings but really enjoyed it when I did.

I have a new love story with the short novel. It’s not just because the longest novel I can write at the moment is a short one. It’s also because the longest novel I can read when I’m writing is a short one. I work. I write. I read before I fall asleep. I don’t get through that many pages anymore. It’s a depressing fact, but since I started taking my writing seriously, I read less. There are only so many hours in a day. Sigh.

The short novel, when it’s good, shows mastery of the form and focus of thought. In a long novel – the genre I write in produces novels of between 120,000 and 175,000 words – there’s room for long speeches, long descriptions, long battles, many characters and many asides. You can pad a little bit – not too much or your readers will notice, but you can. There’s no room for padding in flash fiction. There’s no room for padding in a short story. There’s little room for padding in a short novel. There is, no matter how much action, troupe movement and character development, a lot of room for padding in a long novel.

My goal is to write long novels. It has to be: the genre I write in is one of big tomes, it is not one of slim volumes, easy to carry in a back pocket or handbag. I’m working on how to find a balance. Writing what I want to write and at a length I can manage.

Yeah, that’s the wrong way around, isn’t it? Either I write something that fits a shorter form, or I get comfortable with longer stories. I’m working my way up to a longer story and I’m trying to write long without padding. It’s not a small challenge.