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The long and short of it: short story versus the novel

Sunday, 8 June 2014 - 4:55pm IST Updated: Monday, 9 June 2014 - 9:55am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

I recently ran into an acquaintance who has an opinion on everything from the price of vegetables to President Obama’s approval ratings. Some of her insights can be amusing. Some would be better off if they were never aired in the open. After commenting on various crises the post post-modern world faces, she took up the topic of ‘short fiction’. Not that this is as pressing a matter as the current state of lawlessness in Uttar Pradesh or the power cuts that make our days and nights a living hell in summer. Not that the country is spending sleepless nights over the fate of short fiction or the brave few who write it. As I mentioned, this acquaintance of mine enjoys commenting on all matters under the sun. Priorities be damned!  

“The trouble with short fiction,” she said, scrunching up her nose as if something was rotten in the café where we were sitting. “It’s too short. You can’t sink your teeth into a short story like you can into a novel”
“If you ask me…”

Nobody was asking, still she carried on. The airconditioner on the wall hissed at us like yet another critic of the short story. “Readers start with short stories and move on to novels as soon as they mature,” smirked my acquaintance. “This is the truth.”

The truth must prevail. Unless you are a fat cat industrialist or a convicted felon who contested and won the elections despite a hefty chargesheet. 

“Once upon a time, they were great short fiction writers like Guy de Maupassant and Chekhov,” she said, pausing for a second to catch her breath after mouthing their names. “Those guys had a fan following. People loved to read them.” 

“We have Alice Munro,” I mumbled. I chant Munro’s name like a mantra when people start blaming me for my fondness for writing short stories. “She won the Nobel Prize, didn’t she?”

“Yes,” my acquaintance rolled her eyes. “But her stories are really long. They don’t stick to the measly word count of your typical short story.” 

“Don’t they say that the world’s attention span is getting shorter and shorter?” I asked, sipping on iced tea. The temperature outside soared; the sun burnt a nasty hole in the sky.  

“The Internet is eating into peoples’ concentration. TV too,” my acquaintance smiled a sad smile. “It’s the curse of our time…”

I jumped in to stop her from lecturing me on the many curses of our time. That conversation could wait. “In a world filled with people who are suffering from short attention spans, the short story should be king, no? It tells you a story in a few pages. It doesn’t make the same demands on your time as a novel that runs into hundreds of pages.”

“Short stories don’t sell,” my acquaintance said, taking on the brazen tone of a marketing whiz. “Everybody knows that.”

“Maybe that’s just a myth.”

My acquaintance choked on a mouthful of iced tea. “Ask any marketing guy!” she screamed. “Short stories are their worst nightmare.”

“What if they are getting it all wrong?”

 My acquaintance glared at me like I was a raving loon. “The market is always right,” she said, dismissing me with a wave.   
I rest my case.

A collection of the author’s short stories titled A Happy Place was published by Harper Collins in April 2014

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