Armchair BEA: Novellas and short stories

book heart armchairbeaDay 3 of Armchair Book Expo America (BEA) and the attention turns today to novellas and short stories. 

I don’t read that many works of fiction that are short. This year was the first time I’d ever read any Alice Munro for example and that was only because it was the book club selection for that month.

It isn’t that I have a specific aversion to short stories, or that i think they are the poorer cousin of the novel because I don’t. Having tried a bit of fiction writing myself I can appreciate that it is often harder to create a convincing picture of the world and a convincing set of characters when you have less than 5,000 words in which to do so than in a novel  where the word count could reach as much as 100,000.

i think my issue is that if the author is particularly successful at creating this believable fictitious world then I feel cheated when it comes to an end too soon. It’s a bit like when you were young and you were packed off to bed just when the interesting programs came on the TV.  It’s simply not fair!

For me the outstanding short story I’ve read in recent years is Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Written right at the end of the nineteenth century this was a work that stunned readers because of the way it challenged the idea that marriage and motherhood gave women all the fulfilment they needed in life.  It’s a story of Edna Pontellier, a woman in Louisiana who rejects the domestic role and instead embarks on a quest for freedom, with the huge personal sacrifice that entails.

Chopin herself paid a hefty price for having published this story. Faced with criticism that it would encourage young people to have ‘unholy imaginations and unclean desires’ she printed an apology for her heroine’s behaviour. Then the story simply disappeared. It wasn’t rediscovered until the 1960s as a result of the women’s movement which saw it as an example of early feminist writing. Critical opinion now considers Chopin to be a writer whose work can be compared with Gustav Flaubert and Guy de Maupassant.

What I loved about this story was the psychological complexity of Edna’s character and the enigmatic nature of the narrative (Chopin uses many metaphors drawn from nature in this book). It’s so enigmatic that there is a question mark about the nature of the ending. I shall say no more in case I spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it.

 

 

About BookerTalk

After a day at the coal face of corporate communications, what better way to wind down than by sticking my nose into a good book. My tastes are eclectic. I find it easier to say what kind of books I don't especially like - gothic, science fiction and science fantasy do absolutely nothing for me. It doesn't mean I will never read them, because I am trying to broaden my reading horizons - that's the idea behind my challenge to read books from each country touched by the Equator or the Prime Meridian. Regardless of the author or country, the acid test of a good book for me is whether the characters are engaging, the plot realistic and the setting evocative. If I make it to 100 pages then I know I'll finish it.

Posted on May 28, 2014, in Armchair BEA and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 20 Comments.

  1. Just imagine that all Alice Munro stories are set in the same fictitious world. All Chekhov stories are set in Chekhov World. All Maupassant stories are set in Maupassant World. Problem solved. Now you have single Chekhov book that is thousands of pages long waiting for you.

    • Ah that’s the secret I’ve been missing all these years. I do have Maupassant on my shelf and he’s been sitting there for five years now so I suppose it’s time to dust him off. Poor guy.

  2. I do really love The Awakening – it feels so complete and fulsome in my mind that I often forget it is a novella! I feel the same way about The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson, which I think is just the perfect example of a novella. Such a gorgeous story. I tend to lean more toward the novella than the short story for a lot of the reasons you give here, actually!

  3. I struggle with shorts too, though I enjoy them the few times I have read any. I haven’t read any of Chopin’s work though they come highly recommended. I need to bump them up on my TBR.

  4. I had lots of “story collection” books in my school library that never circulated until I retained them as general fiction. The only really popular collections are of scary stories. I guess I don’t read many because I don’t have students asking for them. Did love The Awakening, though!

  5. I also don’t read many short stories, but I like when I’ve studied them in classes, like The Awakening. A good short story can generate a discussion that feels both deep and complete, when it seems like you only hit the surface with longer source material.

  6. I’ve never read The Awakening. Thanks for recommending it.

  7. I enjoyed this post. I really loved The Awakening last year, though I wouldn’t necessarily call it a short story. My copy was over one hundred pages. In looking back at my post about it (http://bibliophilica.wordpress.com/2013/10/19/the-awakening-by-kate-chopin/#comments) I even called it a novel, which can’t be right either. Is it a novella? I don’t know what the conventions are for categorizing shorter works.

    In general, I’ve become a huge fan of reading short stories, even if some of them leave me feeling like your excellent analogy of a child being sent to bed and missing the rest of the fun. I began reading more of them for the practical reason of they kept me reading “at least something” when my reading time was limited. Reading at least one a week grew into a full blown habit for me which, in the past few years, I’ve also shared on my blog as my “Deal Me In” challenge.

    • Just read your post Jay – i loved the comment “One might think that a reader like myself, a middle-aged man, might not have much to gain by reading works like “The Awakening.” I bet there are not many men who would jump at reading this text regardless of their age so good on you for doing so. It’s their loss!
      Ah that thorny question of definitions. I took the description from the fact my copy is in an Oxford University Press edition called The Awakening and other short stories. But heck, they could be wrong couldn’t they. According to Wikipedia a short story has <7,500 words, a novella comes in 17,500 to 40,000 words and a novel is upwards of 40,000. Without counting The Awakening I'd say you're right that it's more than 7,500.

  8. What you said about feeling cheated when a good short story ends is why I prefer novels (series, really), but there are some short stories I enjoy, and I definitely enjoy novellas that delve further into worlds established in novels.

    She had to apologize for her story? Ugh. I’m really curious to read that one. Early feminist lit is fascinating.

  9. I haven’t really read many short stories. I tend to prefer series because I have a hard time letting go of a world that I love. But I don’t hate short stories.
    I do think I might read some novellas in the future, but mostly ones that are part of a book series that I am reading.
    Thank you for stopping by my blog!

  10. I agree with you, if novella is good you are sad because it’s so short. If it’s bad you are angry for wasting your time. I usually don’t read novellas if they are not part of the series. I used to skip these too, but authors started writing about important events in them – they are tricky like that.

  11. Oh, great recommendation. The Awakening is an awesome book.

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