With a Candle

From the introduction to Best Shorts, a children’s book of short stories edited by Avi with Carolyn Shute:

In a novel we reveal life by bonfire; a short story allows us to look at life with a candle.

It’s a lovely image, as metaphors can often be, but I don’t agree with it. To parse the thought like the science nerd I am, the metaphor suggests that words are lights. More words means more light. A novel blazes, a short story flickers.

I don’t think a short story’s length prevents it from seeing into life as a novel does. I remember reading David Foster Wallace’sThe Depressed Person.” The ending stabbed me to the core, forever changing the way I saw myself.

A novel does have time on its side, but time is not the same as light. Sometimes, the time that passes in the course of a novel blunts the stab of revelation that is the hallmark of the short story. When I think of deep and sprawling novels I’ve read–George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace–what they revealed to me was more subtle. They added to my life experience, as if I’d lived another life in addition to mine, but they didn’t necessarily interpret things for me. Where the short story rearranges perspective in a flash, the novel plumbs the depths, winding around truths and discovering contradictions.

I want to reverse Avi’s formulation. The novelist, maybe, is the one with the candle, bravely exploring the vast space of the unconscious with a tiny light. And none of this takes style into account. Sometime a read a story that sees straight into me, and sometimes I read a story that articulates some common confusion. Nonetheless, I’ll edit Avi’s sentence:

In a novel we reveal life by bonfire; a short story cracks life open with a bolt of lightning.

Feel free to suggest your own adjustments.


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