The short and the long of it

Social discussions about reading seem to follow a predictable pattern: “I have lots of books. I used to read a great deal, but now I just do not have the time. I wish I read more. etc.”

“Short stories?” I say, ” if you are short on time, maybe that’s the answer.”

I then see the the kind of expression that suggests someone in the room has scented the air with an the remnants of last night’s curry.

In our ever tightening lifestyles, one might consider short stories to be the ideal reading matter. A complete story, start to finish, could be consumed on a single train journey to work. One could eat-up a story over lunch, or even during a coffee break. Sounds ideal, yet the popularity of short stories is reportedly in decline.

Temporary immersion

The most consistent reaction I receive from my short stories is how the reader wants more. More about the location they have just discovered, or about the characters they have just been introduced to. They want more back-story, they want to understand why and how the story, the characters, the situation came to be.

Did I fail to provide enough information within those limited words? More questioning reveals not. Readers talk of developing an attachment to a character and wanting to spend more time with them than the short story allows. They want to explore the environment further, learn more, discover more. They have engaged with the story enough that they remain hungry.

Despite this being, I believe, a compliment on the writing, it still leaves the reader with a sense of dissatisfaction.

The explosion of the series

This dissatisfaction goes some way to explain the surge in popularity of series works. Despite spare time becoming as rare as a banana in a trench-coat, readers flock to series novels where their emotional investment in the world and characters can be supported over several books, several months, even years of reading.

Any sense of dissatisfaction at the end of a series work will soon be resolved by the next instalment. Readers experience the tension of a cliff-hanger, in the sure knowledge they can soon read the continuing story. (I wonder if this is a control-instinct, a subconscious thirst to feel in control by knowing where to find the story’s resolution..?)

Series works provide a safe haven for their attention, where familiarity breeds comfort and trust. Readers trust the characters, and trust the author. This is low risk escapism, and in a world where each day hurls boulders of obstacles in one’s path, such trust might prove the key to a reader’s investment in both time and money.

Or might this be nothing more than a the structure of television series and soaps becoming so ingrained into our psyche that we struggle with one-off, isolated tales?

The best of both

When I developed the TableRappers series of stories, I had no direct knowledge of this diminishing interest in individual short stories. I did, however, have a sense that the combination of short and longer pieces might prove the ideal vehicle to thoroughly explore my characters, while giving readers both preference and variety.

The series of novels are interspersed with a series of shorter stories – some independent and stand-alone, others with threads amongst the novels, other short stories, and even genuine history. The short stories will help maintain interest in the inevitable spaces between the novels. As a writer, they allow me to explore ideas that are simply not expansive enough for a full novel.

I am interested to see, over the coming years, whether one format might prove to be more popular: the novels or the short stories.

2 Comments

  1. Pete
    November 29, 2011
    Reply

    Initial thoughts as a reader: there’s less time and commitment, and therefore less of a barrier to entry, to short stories. Perhaps a short story should be viewed as an elevator pitch of sorts – rather than an excerpt of a larger work. A substantial work or series can seem impenetrable at first, and guiding a reader into where they may wish to start would certainly be appreciated in some quarters.

    • Neil Dixon
      November 29, 2011
      Reply

      Yes, exactly what I would have presumed. But it seems not to be the case out in the wild.
      People seem to want that long term commitment. Maybe that’s an element, too, that series works demonstrate a level of commitment by the author that the reader finds more comfortable and satisfying?

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