This year, Lynn Coady’s Hellgoing took the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and Stéphanie Pelletier’s Quand les guêpes se taisent (“When the Wasps are Silent”) was awarded best work of French-language fiction in the Governor General Awards. What do both of these books have in common, besides their evident literary prowess?
They’re both short story collections.
The short story form (or novella) has had a harsh run in publishing. Only a few years ago, it was seen by many as the thing writers do when they’re not quite ready to work on a full-length novel yet. It was a pastime, something to not be taken too seriously. Even award-winning Alice Munro—who, incidentally, won the Novel Prize for Literature this year—has faced criticism for focusing on short stories. Agents and publishers have handled this neglected genre warily in the past, citing it as “hard to sell” and generally avoiding it. They weren’t the only ones.
Literary awards like the Man Booker Prize seemed not to favour this genre much either. This is never more apparent than in the one year when Kazuo Ishiguro — a regular on the Booker longlist — was mysteriously absent from the Booker Prize listing. That was the year his short story collection, Nocturnes, had garnered much attention.
While the Booker Prize remains fairly staunch in its favour toward full-length novels, other awards are seeing a turnaround, and it seems as if the short story form is set to make a powerful comeback.
Much of it may also have to do with the increasing prominence of tablets like the Kindle, Nook and iPad. The novella is particularly fitting for the fast-paced modern reader who has little time to finish a novel between lunch breaks and on commutes. It is almost a parallel reflection of how Twitter became so wildly popular after Facebook. Tweets are succinct and conveniently short, ideal for someone checking in on a time constraint.
Short stories, while succinct, are in no way less nuanced than a novel. The idea that novellas are something writers do when they\re having trouble handling a novel is incredibly misleading and ironic. In fact, a novella’s limited word count requires the kind of brevity most novelists can’t maintain. Mark Twain puts it plainly when he says, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”
More and more publishers are starting to see the potential of the novella form. They’ve yet to reach the ubiquity of mainstream fiction genre novels, but evidence seems to be indicating they’re not that far off. If this isn’t convincing, Inspire!, the 2014 Toronto International Book Fair, will be celebrating the short story form with a host of events: a contest, author panels and conferences.