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Every short story writer is a failed poet

23 January 2013

Lawrence Block, in The Liar’s Companion:

Faulkner said somewhere that every short story writer is a failed poet, and every novelist a failed short story writer. I think I know what he’s getting at–we use more words to do what we could not manage with fewer. I wonder if he’s right.

There are novelists who cannot write decent short stories. There are short story writers who are utterly at sea when they attempt a novel. There are some who seem equally at home with either length.

I suppose you could say that every poet is a failure, too, that the truly successful wordsmith would be one who could reduce his whole message to the world, his entire primal cry, to a single short word.

And there are days when I have a good idea what the word is.

Lawrence Block

Posted by Bridget McKenna

Quotes, Writing Advice

12 Comments to “Every short story writer is a failed poet”

  1. I use that word a lot! Not in front of my daughter, though.

  2. Humph to Faulkner. Some of us began with the long form and never had the slightest interest in short stories.

  3. It’s my favorite word. It can be used as a noun, a verb, an adjective, an adverb or in its classic position of an expletive. Unfortunately, it gets a bad rap, but sometimes ‘darn’ just doesn’t cut it.

    As for writing lengths, it depends on my mood and the story I’m telling. I’ve written drabbles, flash, shorts, novellas and novels and their sequels. I’ve written poetry as well, though that somethings I tended towards more in my younger years.

    • *chuckle*

      I’ve written everything from a one-sentence image (I dunno if it counts as a story), to… well, it got cut down to a total of around 260K words. These things, they happen. Stories have their preferred sizes.

  4. People write in the format that best suits them.

    As for boiling things down, I really like that the author here points out that everything could be seen as failed unless it’s boiled down to one word.

    I never had the privilege of meeting Faulkner. But I have to wonder why he had such animosity toward short stories. Maybe he could have benefitted from some therapy to see if he and short stories could ever have a reconciliation.

  5. Of course, he’s utterly wrong. Most of my favorite authors (and my own pattern) is to do it all. So I’m a novelist. So? I write short stories. I’m a short story writer. So? I write poetry. Same but different.

  6. I started with poetry. (Except for that short story in junior high French. Written in French, mind you! SF in French is challenging!)

    Then made several stalled attempts at a novel.

    It was only after the first novel (completed) that I attempted short stories with real commitment. I was convinced I was not a short story writer. What a surprise! Short story writing is a blast!

    I’m with Liana. Many of us do it all.

    (My last rush of poetry was 15 years ago, but I’ll get back to it.)

  7. The story should determine the length – some need only ten words and others need one hundred thousand words. For any story, the trick is to know when you’ve used too many words and when you’ve used too few.

  8. I’m not sure I agree that everything you say should be said in the least amount of words. We’re writers. We love words and sometimes using a lot to say something small sounds better. It’s a style thing. This is in my humble and flawed opinion, of course.

    • ‘My name is Bertie Wooster, and I’m an upper-class twit. My appalling stupidity keeps getting me into piffling crises, but my valet Jeeves is a genius and always fishes me out.’

      —The entire Jeeves & Wooster corpus, told in 32 words. Damn that failed poet P. G. Wodehouse for stringing it out to a dozen novels and umpteen short stories.

      But yanno, somehow it was more fun when he did it that way.

  9. Be free. Do as you wish in writing. Dylan Thomas, ee cummings, Ovid, Ogden Nash, Dorothy Parker, my pal Gabaldon, and so many more… short, long, medium. Doesnt matter. That it be tasty… there’s the ticket.

    Brevity for brevity’s sake is churlish instruction, not helpful. Even medical instructions are rather elaborate, meaning thorough… Remember when the Emperor in Amadeus told Mozart, Too many notes! Too many notes! and Mozart replied with a ‘what claptrap’ eye, asking the Emperor which notes ought be removed.

    The same. Like that. As Woelf said, “We’re writers. We love words… using a lot to say something small sounds better. It’s a style thing…”

    Right on.

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