I’m going to get a bit academic on you here. Bear with me. The post is only 433 words (including the footnotes and the title), so I suppose I’ll not try your patience too greatly.
Like you, I am often amazed at the length and breadth of a novel. Take a book like “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr. What a sweeping achievement. The characters, the great sense of place, the language – as readers we are in awe that the author has written such a wonderful, super-long story.
But this is an illusion.
As practicing writers we know something about such a book that the average reader doesn’t realize. This novel is not a single super-long story. It is a collection of related short-stories that are strung together, crafted in such a way that they read within one massive arc.
In fact no novel is one long story. A novel is always a litter of small pieces joined together so that they stand as a whole.
It is for this reason that there is so much discussion (in writing circles, of course, not in the real world) about the blurred line between a collection of short stories and a novel. Take a look at “Jesus’ Son” by Dennis Johnson, or “Kentucky Straight” by Chris Offutt, or “American Salvage” by Bonnie Jo Campbell. These are commonly considered short story collections. However, the case can easily be made that these are novels. The stories in each carry a similar weight, the setting is in focus throughout, and the voice is distinctive*. We soon see that such distinctions serve the Marketing Department far more than the reader.
Here’s the take-away. Don’t get caught up in a tug-o-war with yourself or anyone else about whether you’re writing a novel or a collection of short-stories. Focus on the writing. Let the material on the page decide what it will be.
And if you’re really successful the Marketing Team will argue the point for you.
*The trend toward short chapters in long books – even the titling of each chapter – as Doerr has done, continues to fuel the fire of this distinction. Other than the character development spanning the entire book (although this is seen in “short-story collections” too – see Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”), this book is perhaps the best example I’ve seen recently of the blurring between these two genres from a traditional novel perspective.
Note: This post is again the result of a conversation with Ben H. Winters, at LePeeps, of 71st St. in Indianapolis, 10 March 2016.