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Short Stories vs. Novels: The Long and Short of It

As regular readers are aware, I’ve embarked on another reading project this year to read a short story a day. (Well, not really – that’s too much for me so I developed a points system where a longer novella counts more than a shorter novelette which counts more than a short story. Fred at The Eternal Golden Braid, on the other hand, is a reading maniac shooting for 600 pieces of short fiction – regardless of length – this year alone!)

One of the reasons I am doing this reading project is because I like variety. Short fiction in any format provides nice, quick sf jolts of varying flavors. There is usually no time to be bored and the stories rarely feel padded. With short fiction, I can fit many more science fictional ideas into my reading.

That said, the part of me that likes variety also likes to get lost in a good novel. The is a certain comfort once you are acquainted with a story’s setting. A good novel can be absorbing and entertaining and still provide the sense of wonder I enjoy from the quick hit of short fiction. A novel also allows time to get to know the characters and develop a relationship. Some characters are very likable, some are fun to hate.

There’s an interesting recent post from David Schwartz (which links to some other excellent posts on the subject from Jay Lake, Scott Westerfeld and others) that talks about some of the differences between long and short fiction. There are always exceptions, of course, but usually short stories are plot/idea-focused and books are more character focused. I find I like both types of stories for the variety they bring.

How about you? A recent SF Signal post about the creation of an award-nominee-based anthology leads me to believe that there is not much demand for short fiction; this regardless of the fact that there are a shelf-loads of annual anthologies published every year with even more new ones on the horizon. Someone must be buying them, right?

Do any other readers like variety? Is the short story a dying format? Do any of you read short stories on a regular basis?

About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

5 Comments on Short Stories vs. Novels: The Long and Short of It

  1. From short works, we sometimes get great novels. From short works we sometimes get great novelists.

    Sure, I like novels, and as you point out, getting lost in them. But if you get a good short story or three, you can have several “wows” in a day, whereas if you get a bad novel you say “urgh” after a considerable investment of time.

    I’ve read sixteen-odd books this year, mostly novels. I’m reading the shorts. By the end of the year, I should have read at least 30 novels, plus a pile of anthologies. Diversity is the spice of life.

  2. I often read short stories in between novels, as “breathers,” and sometimes to decide if I want to read or reread that author’s novels. The latter only works when I have both lengths from the same author, which with me usually means they’re in the classic category. I’ve been thinking of rereading some van Vogt novels, for example, and just found a paperback “Best of” collection (25 cents at a thrift shop, I love it), so I’ll reread Black Destroyer and The Rull and see if I’m in the mood for Slan or The Weapon Shops of Isher.

  3. joshua corning // July 9, 2006 at 6:16 pm //

    I have actually been investing more time in short form fiction and i have to say i like it becouse i don’t feel invested in the product…if the story does not catch my attention then i can simply drop it and go onto the next one while long form i feel obligated becouse i have invested in a book.

    Also many novels seemed to be filled with fill and would make much better short stories….or at least shorter books…this problem has cropped up with some of the more recent space operas…alastar reynolds and charles stross come to mind (who have both written some exellent short form fiction by the way). In fact the latter author’s singularity sky i actually stopped reaing simply becouse it had seemed that the plot and characters were forever in suspended animation…the story would simply flicker back and forth between the characters telling me the same thing about them over and over again. Very anoying

  4. I like both, for different reasons. However, the short novel lengths (novella and novelette) are my favorite. A short story is barely long enough to develop an idea, but the short novel allows time for things to unfold without beating it to death. Some of the finest science fiction (and other genres) were written in that length.

    I’m currently working my way through all of the Hugo, Nebula, and WFA award winning short pieces on my blog – SFFreader ( http://www.sffreader.com ), though I’m not approaching your speed with that. 🙂 I recently pledged to get two per week done.

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    SFFaudio – http://www.sffaudio.com

  5. darkraider // July 29, 2006 at 5:26 pm //

    I read more short SF than novels. There are various reasons for this. Firstly, short SF gives you more bang per page than novels do. The form has been particularly successful in SF. Secondly, time is limited and I tend to manage only late night reading sessions two or three times a week. It’s difficult to read a novel that way without losing your way, but you can read a short story or two in one session. Thirdly, it’s become a bit of a collecting interest. I buy as many as possible of the Year’s Bests and the Nebula series, and I’m miles behind in actually reading them.

    Personally, I’d welcome a series of award nominees. Or even just a single annual that collects all the short Hugo and Nebula winners, and the Sturgeon winner, together, along with some runners-up to make up the numbers. It’s incredible that no publisher has gone for such an obvious idea.

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