'A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.'
'A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it...' Edgar Allan Poe said that. In a year where the BBC Short Story Award has gone international, short story collections are definitely not in short supply and literary journals are springing up online, more short stories are getting out into the public eye than ever before.
We wanted to know what this year's BBC International Short Story Award shortlist thought about all this and whether they agreed with Poe and whether they found writing short stories more challenging than writing longer pieces of fiction.
Adam Ross: No, it's not more challenging than writing a novel, it's just different. I don't agree with Poe that the mood need be single (see, for instance, Annie Proulx's masterpiece 'Brokeback Mountain') but I do think that the short story writer's struggle is identifying what's germane to the narrative and mercilessly excising anything that isn't. I cut six pages from the story 'When in Rome' during second-pass galleys. Didn't make the production team at Knopf happy, but it was the right thing to do.
Carrie Tiffany: The challenge is different. I don't think it's greater. All writing is difficult, if it wasn't it wouldn't be worth doing. I don't particularly like writing, but I like 'having written,' and with a short story the gratification is not at so great a distance.
Chris Womersley: They both have their challenges, naturally. I enjoy writing (if I possibly can) a few shorter works while engaged in writing a novel; sometimes a novel can feel interminable and finishing a short story gives one a sense of completion that might be hard to otherwise envisage.
Basically, short fiction is much less forgiving. Most of us will overlook the occasional misstep in a novel but one bad move in a short story and you lose your reader immediately. Every word needs to sit just so, simply because the space in which you're permitted to work is so contained.
Deborah Levy: All writing is challenging. I wrote and published my first collection of stories when I was in my 20's (Ophelia and The Great Idea) - so in a sense I cut my teeth as a writer by getting to grips with the formidable rigour of the short story. It would be true to say that short stories have inspired my fictions- for example John Cheever's 'The Swimmer' was the inspiration for my novel, Swimming Home. It is a bleak story told in a cunningly light-hearted tone… 'The day was beautiful and it seemed to him that a long swim might enlarge and celebrate its beauty'. I took note of the almost transcendental ways in which Cheever conceals and discreetly reveals the main characters circumstances and state of mind.
Henrietta Rose-Innes: For me, short stories are easier to conceptualise. I find it hard to hold the entire architecture of a novel in my mind. But the spaciousness of the novel can be quite luxurious, even forgiving. In a short story you have to pack a lot of complexity into a small space.
Writing a novel can be like building a grandfather clock.
Julian Gough: I know I'm meant to say yes here, but... no. Novels are murderous. Of course, short stories aren't easy either. I recently finished a short story that I'd been working on for two years. After 21 drafts, I still couldn't make the last paragraph work. I finally cracked it, on the 22nd draft. Horrible, but doable. But you try doing 22 drafts of a big novel…
I also don't agree with Edgar Allan Poe. Sure, a lot of good short stories do have a single mood, and each sentence does build toward it, but there are other approaches. I often like to have two strong, contrasting moods, and toggle between them. Especially in my recent stories, where I like to create a bright, hi-tech surface, with its own very modern mood, and then run a darker, more emotionally complex, human mood beneath it, that breaks through the shiny hi-tech surface sometimes. But both moods are important.
In fact, I like to set the two moods in combat, and see who wins. And sometimes a third mood arrives when the fight is over, kisses the winner, and picks the pockets of the loser. No, Edgar's talking through his trilby. There are no rules.
Krys Lee: They are both challenging forms, and I suspect each writer finds one easier than the other because they are so radically different. Short stories are economical in the way of poetry, but that's also a characteristic of the best novels. You do have more time in the novel to explore and bring all the storylines together than the short story form, which is always exerting pressure at each moment, but the novel's capaciousness can be equally formidable. The emotional intensity of the short story, however, is all its own.
Lucy Caldwell: They're incredibly, deceptively challenging. I attempted some short stories around the time that my first novel was published, making the fool's or the naif's error of thinking that because they were shorter they'd be easier than embarking on another novel. None of them worked: and it was really humbling to discover how technically difficult a short story really is. Kevin Barry recently, perfectly, described a short story as a high wire act. Novels are looser, he said, and you can get away with more, but a short story can fail with one misstep. I talked previously about the spell that a good story casts on you: there is a sort of magic to it, an alchemy. You can use all of your craft, and yet something doesn't catch, the mood Poe talks about is lost, and the story doesn't live. 'They smile and smile and smile at me,' Sylvia Plath says of her failed poems. 'And still the lungs won't fill and the heart won't start.'
But perhaps the other side of it is that you can do more, experiment more, with the form and style of a short story - or a short story collection - than you can with a novel. I'm really interested at the moment in what short stories can do that a novel can't, or can't so easily. You can write in the second person, or the first person plural, or entirely in lists, or imperatives, things that are harder to sustain over the course of a novel. I'm interested too in how you put together a collection, so that it's not just an assembly of disparate stories but uses the silences and gaps and interstices to mean something. Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and David Vann's Legend of a Suicide all exist partway between the short story collection and the novel, and that space, its possibilities, are fascinating.
Miroslav Penkov: I find it all very challenging. Now, I think that I have a better grasp of what a short story can and cannot do, of when it works and when it doesn't. This is maybe because I can hold an entire story in my mind and spin it forward, backward, from the middle. Novels on the other hand are not meant to be held in one's mind all at once. Novels terrify me - they demand a daily commitment of time and effort, a great endurance of mental, emotional and even physical strength (think of your poor back!). A mistake in chapter two might not become apparent until a dozen chapters later. You can scrap an entire story and a week later finish a first draft of another, but scrapping a novel - sure, you do it, but that's a year of your life, and often more. And yet, if truth be told I'm drawn more intimately to the novel; the novel is for me the battlefield on which my spirit and my heart are really tested.
But perhaps the question of difficulty is irrelevant. Perhaps the real question should be about ease - how do you make a story or a novel seem easy, effortless. Like the aforementioned Lady with the Little Dog. You read it and you are tricked into feeling that Chekhov must have written it in half a day and then moved on to write a play or two…
M J Hyland: My fiction isn't about immediate effect, the kind of effect that depends - sooner or later - on carefully crafted images, and signs, which signify a world, and quickly. I don't use a great deal of imagery, description, flashback, or any of the things that might help the author speed up the conjuring of a 'micro world', a world that must be seen and felt by the reader, in just a few pages.
I work principally with character and voice. I aim to produce a long, seeemingly artifice-free work, a story that creeps up behind you, that achieves its tragic impact by accretion of fact, and deed and words; by way of the things my main characters do, and say. That's what I aim to do, an approach that seems unsuited to the highly compressed mode.
But I hope to write more short stories. They are the reason I started to write in the first place. It's all Gogol and Chekhov's fault...
The winner will be announced on 2 October 2012, live on BBC Radio 4's Front Row