Friday, April 04, 2008

My Beef with Jhumpa

I went to see Jhumpa Lahiri read last night at the Coolidge Corner moving theater. She read from her new collection of stories, and then took questions. She seemed very reserved and nervous--clearly being in the spotlight isn't something she enjoys. But she answered the questions honestly and sincerely, and was even occassionally funny.

So what's my beef? I asked a question about what drew her back to short stories (her first book was stories, then she wrote a novel, and her new book is stories). She said a lot that I agreed with: that she hates how the literary world and readers look down upon stories as something less than novels, and how wonderful short stories can be both to write and to read.

But then she went on to say that she didn't think that reading or writing a short story was very different from reading or writing a novel. Huh? I would argue that they are totally different genres. Yes, you need many of the same elements in both, but there's only so much you can fit in a story. That's part of what I love about the best of them--they are jam packed just to the limits of how much emotion and change a reader can absorb a character going through in the space of 20 pages.

A novel, on the other hand, has layers and layers of things going on, and usually more characters jumping in and out of the spotlight. As a writer, I think the challenge of working on a novel would be to keep all those balls in the air and, when you set some down, to remember where you put them so you can go back to them when needed. And the challenge of writing a story is getting across, in a short amount of space, a change in your character that is both meaningful and realistic. That challenge exists for the novel writing, too, but she has much more room to move in and breath in.

As a reader, I find reading a short story to be a more powerful experience. I usually get a whole story in one sitting, and then have to absorb the entirety of it. Novel reading is more leisurely in that the whole emotional punch of the story is unwound throughout hundreds of pages (and tens of reading sessions). I love both experiences--the intensity of the short story and being mid-novel and being compelled to get back to the book so I can see what happens.

This is coming from someone who has only written stories. So what do I know? If you've written in both genres, let me know your thoughts! And if you read both genres, please comment to. Best Blogger Tips


woolies said...

I used to write - and publish - poetry. I was obsessed with getting the emotion, thought, across in the briefest and most powerful format.
short stories are too quick, over too soon, not enough time to fully develop the character, the story.
Give me a big fat juicy novel. mmmmm
great blog

Writer bug said...

Thanks for coming by Woolies. I can see what you mean about short stories, but I think when they're done well and they can move the reader, they're more powerful than a longer work just for accomplishing that in such a small space.

Repeater said...

This is coming from someone who's finished neither, but I can kind of see where she's coming from. You make really good points about the differences, but I think the basic similarity is that you're still sitting your butt in the chair every day & you're still editing and editing and editing and crying and crying. Maybe that's what she means. Lucky you seeing her! The beauty of living in the city (for a while longer)

January said...

I have written in neither genre but I agree with you that they are different genres. And the beauty of the short story is, like you say, that you can absorb the short story in one sitting.

"clearly being in the spotlight isn't something she enjoys." --Sometimes the best writers are not good readers.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you totally, WB. Short stories are an art form all unto themselves, and the masters - Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore, etc - have a very specific style and voice that may or may not translate well to longer form. Same goes for novelists who switch to short stories. One of the exciting things about Jhumpa is that she is able to work well with both mediums, although I do think short stories are her forte - there are few collections more perfect, from a technical and emotional standpoint, than Interpreter of Maladies, IMO!!

xx Gracie