I’ve lost count of the number of times people have said to me – ‘You’re writing a short story? So when are you going to write a novel?’ As if short stories were merely a stepping stone to the higher art form of writing a novel. Short stories and novels are two completely different genres, requiring different (though overlapping) skill sets. I don’t think that either genre is in any way ‘better’ or ‘more challenging’ than the other.
What could the reason be for this puzzling hierarchy?
I suspect that part of the answer lies in the misconception that short stories are easier to write than a novel, because – well, simply because they are shorter. But there is a distinction to be made between a short story and ‘a story that is short’. A ‘story that is short’ can be a fable, folk tale, fairy tale, or even, for example, a short magazine piece recounting a personal experience. But a short story, as I see it, gives the reader an episode or phase of a character’s life that has implications for that character far beyond that particular episode or phase. In other words, a short story creates a before and an after, and that entire world must be constructed within a few pages. The short story writer does not have the luxury of the length of a novel to create that world – it must be done concisely, with no superfluous words or sentences. If a great novel is like a treasure chest, a great short story is like a perfectly cut jewel – and I love working with that kind of precision.
The other reason why I love short stories is that the short story genre provides a different kind of narrative experience, a differently textured experience, as compared to the novel. (When I say different, I simply mean different, not ‘better’). Life is not really experienced like a conventionally structured novel with a beginning, middle and end – though one can create this kind of narrative of one’s life with hindsight. Rather, I feel that we experience life as a series of fragments – where loose ends don’t always get tied up, and episodes in our lives don’t always achieve closure or may do so only years later. Short stories are uniquely placed to mirror that fragmentary experience of life.
So why are short story collections not as popular as novels?
At first glance, it seems strange because a story collection should be easier to access than a novel, particularly for readers who are pressed for time – each individual story does not need the same time commitment as a novel. However, I think it actually requires more effort to read a story collection than a novel – because when reading a novel, you enter the world, familiarise yourself with its characters, and get carried along with them for the next 200 or 300 pages. With short stories, you need to make that effort every time you begin reading a new story – you need to invest in new characters and new situations every few pages. I think this takes more effort and requires a different kind of commitment from the reader.
When writing my first book of short stories, These Circuses That Sweep Through the Landscape, published in December 2016, I was inspired by two writers: Roald Dahl (his adult short stories) and Doris Lessing. Both writers get to the dark heart of their characters in a few concise words – they use language with the precision of a knife edge. One of the most stunning short stories that have stayed with me for years is Lessing’s ‘The Grandmothers’ for its bold depiction of a taboo subject, told with moving compassion.
My advice to aspiring short story writers is to read widely within the short story genre – but also to read as widely as possible outside it – everything from poetry to novels to screenplays and celebrity interviews showcases diverse ways of seeing and living, not to mention the array of writing techniques to be learned from different genres.
About the author: Tejaswini Apte-Rahm is a full-time writer from Mumbai. She is the author of the short story collection “These Circuses That Sweep Through the Landscape” published by Aleph Book Company in December 2016. Tejaswini worked as an environmental researcher and writer for ten years. She was also a journalist in Mumbai, and has written on cinema, photography and environmental issues for Screen, The Times of India, Hindustan Times and The Asian Age. She studied in Singapore and the United Kingdom. In recent years she has lived in Serbia, Israel, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and Bangladesh, spending a year or two in each country.
Our latest book – Jukebox : A collection of stellar short stories by budding writers of India is now available. It is an outcome of Melonade – A nationwide writing competition by writersmelon.