Professor Writes about E-books and Short Fiction

This article originally appeared on the website, Professor and author Daniel Pearlman is the writer of this article and is a new member of the New England Horrror Writers’ organization.

The e-book is the latest and best hope for the commercial viability of short fiction by Daniel Pearlman

Daniel Pearlman

“Daniel Pearlman‘s writing presents us with a rare multiplicity of unique voices. His unforgettable characters continue to whisper in the reader’s ear long after the final page is turned,” said Paul Di Filippo.

Novels can have pauses, faults: a long story wins by points. A novelette, as Julio Cortazar wrote, needs to win by knock-out. Do you agree?

I generally agree. Few readers read novels with the expectation that a dramatic climax will repay them for the time, often portioned out over several days, they invest in reading them. Readers of novels expect to be “repaid” continuously, with several dramatic high points making the long haul worth it–each such high point followed by the “pause” you mention, though I don’t see why your question seems to equate “pauses” with “faults,” like passages that are boring. Pauses should simply be the re-commencement of the narration at a necessarily slower pace if the novel is to build up toward a new high point. In contrast, the shorter form is naturally designed to build up to the one high point only, Poe’s “single effect,” the knock-out Cortazar mentions–and that takes special dramatic skill, a ruthless focus of attention, that many writers, known primarily as novelists, do not have the capacity for, or the interest in, pursuing. Many novels succeed without a knockout ending, but a short story simply fails of its purpose without one.

Is there a literary bias against the short form of fiction?

There may be a market bias. Short stories of literary merit demand a great deal more of mental focus on the part of the reader than do most novels. Novels draw the reader into a narrative dream that relaxes the intellectually critical faculties. Reading a short story demands constantly being on the alert for the “point.” Reading a novel relieves you of that tension until perhaps you reach the ending. Reading a short story also demands close attention to language–to metaphor, irony, etc.–the kind of attention to language that you would give to poetry. Few novels demand such attention.

In any case, I don’t see any “literary” bias against short fiction. On the contrary, the classics of short fiction receive enormous literary-critical attention. Unfortunately, the market tells us that novels sell well compared to collections of short fiction. My hope is that someday, perhaps via the e-book, writers of excellent literary short fiction will be able to make nearly as good a living as do many writers of merely mediocre novels. Nowadays writers of excellent short fiction are taught to think that short forms are merely exercises preceding truly meaningful accomplishment by way of novels. How many writers have been warped, I wonder, by such market prejudices?

Plot, setting, ideas. What are in your opinion the perfect ingredients of a novelette/novella?

The novella is a really tough form to do well. You don’t have the leisure, as writer, to develop sub-plots and more than one or two main characters, and yet the reader demands a sense of fullness in the development of the main characters and setting, so that the novella has to provide some of the primary rewards of reading a novel–and still provide the climactic “single effect” demanded of the shorter form. It’s too bad that market conditions discourage the production of novellas, but I hope that the rising popularity of e-books will create a greater opportunity for their publication. The e-book is the latest and best hope for the commercial viability of short fiction.

Would you suggest 3 must-read novelettes/novellas?

There are just too many to choose from. But what jump out at me right away are Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” and Leo Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.”


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