Some people prefer reading long novels over short stories. Some authors prefer writing short stories over longer works. And vice versa. I am reading Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck (1962), and to make things interesting I also read his short story “The Chrysanthemums” (1938). It is a given that twenty-four years can change an author’s writing style dramatically, but still, I think it is worthwhile to compare the two forms. I won’t go into too much detail because I probably don’t have many people in my audience who have read (and can remember) both of these works. The short story about the rancher’s wife, her passion for her flowers, and her conversation with the pots-and-pans fixer contains so many fine details, so exact in its sense of place, that the ordinariness of it becomes charged with importance. Not a lot happens, but everything is so super-charged that a pot of chrysanthemum shoots dumped at the side of the road is an act of violence. It’s not a happy story.
On the other hand, the longer tale, Travels with Charley, is full of anecdotes about Steinbeck’s travels around the United States. It lingers here and there, much as Steinbeck does in his beloved trailer home, Rocinante. There is still an attention to details, surprising turns of phrases that put the reader in the frame of mind that Steinbeck wants you to be in. I still feel this amazing love for words and telling stories. But that’s just where the difference lies. Travels with Charley is just as much about the love for words (which parallels his love for the nature he travels through) as it is about the outcome of his travels. The short story is too intense (and too short) to indulge in self-conscious writing. Steinbeck stays behind his words, not entering into them, just using them to pull taut the bow that releases swiftly at the end of the story. I can learn a lot about the author from both works of writing, but the longer one is easier to decipher. It reveals more.
From whom else have I read a long and a short? Tolstoy’s “Family Happiness” and War and Peace. The long (very long) work contains some of his philosophical turns of mind whereas the shorter work reveals a sentimental side. Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case” and My Antonia. Cather reveals more of her roots, where she came from, in the novel. Her short story is more noted for being skillful and well-written. The more I think about it, I believe short stories are meant for the story. Longer works might be tightly plotted or loosely drawn but their length gives them room to cast more light on the author. Or, to say it differently, the author reveals more autobiographical material in the longer works. I read a contemporary novel called The People of the Book by Gwendolyn Brooks. I didn’t know much about the author previously, but by the time I got through with the book (didn’t take me long; it’s addictive) I knew some things that are important to the author: Australia, Jewish history, art preservation, parent-child relationships. Do you see what I’m getting at… in a novel there’s more author participation. In a shorter work, the craft of the writing can take center stage.
I don’t prefer one over the other. I just like to read it all and then think about it:)