On Writing Short Books
In an essay on the fiction of Jorge Luis Borges, Mario Vargas Llosa explains why it is that Borges writes short works. Borges, according to Vargas Llosa, despised the novel in its traditional form because it was so close to life, so mimetic, and therefore so imperfect. He wanted to transmute the clay of life into art. Vargas Llosa quotes Borges's foreword to "The Garden of Forking Paths," in which he writes: "The habit of writing long books, of extending to five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly stated in a few months' time, is a laborious and exhausting extravagance." Vargas Llosa does not agree with Borges, and cites Moby Dick, Don Quixote, and The Charterhouse of Parma as examples of the inadequacy of Borges's notion. However, he uses the quote to illustrate why Borges himself wrote the brief fiction he did.
The desire to write short rather than long books is articulated sharply by Italo Calvino in his 1995 collection of essays, Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Calvino maintains that we are bombarded by an overuse, and therefore a cheapening, of language. The writer's task now, he suggests, is to cut down on the verbiage and get down to clarity and the real beauty of a simple communicative act. The movement within modernism that we call minimalism is part of this line of thinking. Many writers insist that it takes greater care and skill to write shorter works than longer ones. It was Sir Walter Scott who said, when asked why he wrote such long novels, that he did not have time to make them shorter. Samuel Beckett provides us with another example of a kind of minimalism that has philosophical purpose. For Beckett, as Paul Auster reminds us, "less is more."
It is becoming a truism that there are too many words out there, and writers find the profusion of language intimidating. In a little essay called "Speaking of Writing: 'Spies with Music,'" Barry Hannah makes a point of wishing to do everything contrary to public expectation on account of the verbosity of modern times. He wants to read for things "incorrect" and to write short books. "I have gotten old enough," he tells us plainly,
to be a little bit humble about what is going on. One thing I have always realized is that I have written for an audience that knows as much as I do or more, and I am very conscious that there are too many words in the world. I work against the grain of the writer who is the conspicuous consumer of words. Like Ray Carver and some of the others attacked for "minimalism" now, I have always believed in compression and brevity. (207)
The assumption here is that short books, brief texts in book form, are somehow "incorrect" and go against the grain of the times. What is wanted now is the long book, the verbose tome, the panoramic performance, the epic, the historical. Brevity is often considered weak, a sign of failure.
This is a view that crops up in the fiction of A. S. Byatt, who is known for exceedingly long works--her amazing novel Possession, in particular. This novel is so long that it has room for almost everything, in a Bakhtinian sense, and could be seen as truly postmodern. Contradictorily, in her later novel The Biographer's Tale, Byatt's narrator, Phineas G. Nanson, a graduate student in literature, has had enough of "postmodernism" and becomes hungry for "facts" and the "real" instead. He uses his graduate course as an example of something weak and tiresome: "We'd been doing a lot of not-too-long texts written by women. And also quite a lot of Freud." He is tired of deconstructing everything and cannot, he admits, remember what they have been reading because "All the seminars, in fact, had a fatal family likeness. They were repetitive in the extreme." However, Byatt's Phineas is making the same apparent mistake as many others by equating the short--especially the short and fragmentary--book with deconstruction and postmodernism. This is not necessarily a leap one ought to make. It will also be seen that the idea of the short book as an art form practiced mainly by women writers is far from true.
Edmond Jabès talks about brevity in writing as a form of fragmentation in an interview with Paul Auster, in which he calls his Book of Questions a récit éclaté, a story in fragments. We cannot see the totality of things, he observes, and our vision is informed by the fragmentary nature of time itself. "Totality is an idea," he notes, "and it can be shown only through fragments." The nature of a book is in itself fragmented; we read in fragments and conceive in bits and pieces. "We know that we are in something immense," he notes, "but at each moment we can only see what is in front of us. . . . Totality is something we reconstitute for ourselves through all these fragments, because these fragments are what provides visibility." Like the eye of the fly, we see in parcels, each part small enough to absorb its idea. Only later, when all the fragments come together, does the larger picture emerge.
Similarly, Robert Kroetsch has written an interesting essay on the idea of the scrapbook, titled "D-Day and After: Remembering a Scrapbook I Cannot Find." Kroetsch tries to remember the most enduring images of the war years in Alberta and, in addition to the painted legs of women who could not get hold of stockings but had to paint them on, the most lasting impression he has is of the scrapbook. As children in school were made to create scrapbooks, Kroetsch tells of how he labored over his iconoclastic collage of newspaper articles, pictures, and memorabilia. Much later in life, he reminisces about what he was actually doing, which resembles what Jabès confesses he was doing when writing The Book of Questions. Kroetsch surmises that the people around him mainly wanted something intelligible to emerge from these scrapbooks. "They wanted someone to make an informing narrative of the confusion," he writes. "They wanted someone to put the fragments--the scraps--into order." For the makers of scrapbooks, however, the sense of participation emerged: "Scraps allowed us to participate in the story without being swallowed into invisibility."
There is a conviction both for Kroetsch and Jabès that narrative, like real life, becomes perceptible in fragments. Not only is there a need to tell stories in fragments, but there is an urge to make books that are, in themselves, only fragments of larger "books." Such very large books may never end, and perhaps the fragment--or the small story, the small book--is all. Kroetsch explains it this way:
Yet the idea of scrap implies a larger whole, an organized universe, an explanatory mythology, from which the scrap was taken or has fallen away. Or it might harbor that implication.
That doubt has informed a good deal of my notion of what writing is. What if the scraps are the story? Our lives on the prairies often went unrecorded; they survived as a collection of photographs in a shoe box, a scattering of stories told around a kitchen table. They survived as a scrapbook. (136)
Inside the fascination with scraps, Kroetsch notes, is the sense of living on the margin of "big" history. The "real" story is elsewhere, being fought on the fields of Europe, while those who wait at home are left with the "scraps," the leftovers of history. "Scraps are left over from the making of a book," he writes, "from the making of a cohering narrative, from the establishment of beginning, middle, and end." Paradoxically, however, there is no "real" narrative anywhere else, and the writer later recognizes that everyone feels like that, as if they are living only the leftovers of experience. There are, in other words, no "long, coherent books." Scraps and fragments can be books in themselves. Not only is the immediate environment experienced as the debris of something else, he implies, but in the speech act and the writing act, immediacy is experienced as a digression. The scrapbook for Kroetsch, therefore, also has in it "the notion of the interrupted story, or, more significantly, the digression."
Kroetsch approaches the idea of the novel as something that "can" be done without exhausting the writer, because it is not necessary to see or know everything at once, when talking about Margaret Laurence's long novel The Diviners. The novel starts off with Morag the novelist going to her typewriter to write a novel, only to find that her daughter Pique has run away from home and typed a good-bye note on the blank sheet of paper in the typewriter. Pique has written one paragraph. After receiving this paragraph, Morag writes a long novel responding to her daughter's departure. To Kroetsch, however, it is Pique's paragraph that is the real novel. Morag, instead, is really writing a long footnote, which could, as footnotes go, be without end. Everything the mother goes on to say has already been implied in the daughter's one-paragraph "novel."
What these comments by various writers suggest is that the short book, regardless of its overt "genre," tends toward the fragmented, the poetic, and the theoretical. One curious thing is that the intense, brief, intergeneric narrative is practiced more widely, more conspicuously, and with better results outside of North America than in. Take Françoise Sagan, Marguerite Duras and Colette, Tove Ditlevsen, and Anaïs Nin. Elizabeth Smart's By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept and Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea belong in this group, as does Clarice Lispector's The Stream of Life. Albert Camus's The Stranger (1942) is also an example of brevity, intensity, philosophical depth, and poetic style. Camus's narrative is a fascinating exploration of justice. Meursault, the protagonist, ends up committing a crime--namely, murdering a man on the beach--without exactly intending to do so. It could be seen as self-defense, or it could be seen as a manifestation of an illness he is not articulating. The symptoms of his illness are a great sensitivity to light, a peculiar fatigue and vertigo, an inability to register the importance of things (or an inability to feel). He has not slept or eaten well and has been drinking in the heat, so is probably dehydrated. He says himself that "by nature my physical needs often distorted my feelings."
The trial that follows is painfully unjust and the facts are distorted, but Meursault is not especially affected by what is happening to him, nor that he might be put to death. He discovers along the way the existential realities that characterize Camus's thought. He says about being in prison, when comparing it to freedom, that "you ended up getting used to everything." Similarly, he discovers, when speaking of the trial, that "Everything is true and yet nothing is true!" All is chance. His life-wisdom becomes the realization that "a familiar journey under a summer sky could as easily end in prison as in innocent sleep." Nothing really matters. Justice does not exist either, because "the qualities of an ordinary man could be used as damning evidence of guilt" just as easily as of innocence. The whole object of the exercise of telling this story is that there is nothing much one can say, so there is no reason to take a long time saying it. For Camus, therefore, brevity of narration is in itself a philosophical position.
A descendant of sorts of Camus, insofar as he writes of the same geography and the same climate and shows some of the same "symptoms" as Camus, is Abdelkebir Khatibi. Khatibi is also an academic, and his writing is permeated with philosophical and theoretical problems and discourses. His novelistic-essay on bilingualism, Love in Two Languages, offers a good example of the brief, intense narrative as it is practiced at its most extreme. The story here, about a North African Arab man and a French woman, concerns a love affair that is infused with all the problems of intercultural, bilingual, long-distance relationships. In other words, this is a "mixed marriage," and Khatibi contemplates in a peculiarly hystericized way most of the problems such a relationship has to offer.
What becomes evident is that the narrator has so much to say that, paradoxically, it seems futile to say any of it. This essayistic novel is packed with emotions, thoughts, speculations, observations, sensations, and is completely self-contradictory. That is also its point: such a love relationship is anything but unified and developmental. A regular novel of more than two hundred pages would suffer from the chaos of this type of story, told honestly and fearlessly. At one point the narrator exclaims something reminiscent of Camus: "He had a premonition that this disturbance [within himself] had caused him to gradually imagine everything, to invent it all out of his own obsessions." He begins to doubt his sense of reality, and perception itself is questioned. Like the narrator of The Stranger, Khatibi's protagonist suffers from fatigue, vertigo, blurred vision, and a sense of unreality. This may be due to the heat and light specific to North Africa, but the sense that simultaneously everything and nothing matters is evident in both books.
Khatibi, like Camus, has a vision of a "great freedom in distress," which characterizes the tone of the whole narrative. The narrator says of himself, which is also by extension about the narrative he is producing, that "He had made no progress in any direction. Thrashing around in one place, he had the impression that he was going to be done away with." He also realizes, like Camus's prisoner, that everything is very much like nothing. The more you say, the less gets said. "I write what I don't say to your face," he asserts. "Writing spares me any kind of revelation. Read, read some more, you'll never read enough." Therefore, there is no point in making this book longer. Enough experience is packed into the book already to make it possible to be read many times and experienced as a different book each time. The great metaphor in Love in Two Languages is the sea, which is an image for language itself. Khatibi dives into it many times and is carried by the current to the unknown. Also like Camus, he exclaims through the narrator the underlying philosophy of futility and injustice: "Guilty of nothing, under what law was I being convoked?" Regardless of what he does, he will suffer, because life itself is like that. In an epilogue, in fact, Khatibi writes of how his readers are mystified by the "genre" of his narrative. "If I were asked," he writes, "'Is your story a new nouveau roman? Or, better, a bi-novel new novel?' I'd reply that the novel never had any affection for me. We don't have the same history."
One of the principal characteristics of the short "novel" is that its genre is often in question. There is a difference between the novella and the short novel, and there is a difference between the latter and what might be seen as an extended short story. The intention here is not to dive into genre studies, but rather to place the short narrative that stands on its own as a book into the foreground and see some of its features. J. M. Coetzee's short novel Foe (1986) is a good example of what such a work can look like even when it appears to be just a regular novel. The narrative is told from the point of view of a Susan Barton, who has been shipwrecked and ended up on Robinson Crusoe's island, where she befriends both Crusoe and Friday. Crusoe dies and Barton and Friday are rescued, however, and end up in England looking for Foe. The protagonist's idea is to find the writer of Robinson Crusoe so he can write her story. She will be his muse and he will be the writer. Much of this "novel" is a discourse on writing instead of a story, and the real interest of the narrative lies in its discussion on writing and its inspirations. This book may be better viewed as a fictionalized discussion on writing than as a "novel."
Finally, there is one type of narrative that seems made for the short book, and that is the adult "fairy tale." In this category, one might place Alessandro Baricco's very short novel Silk (1998). Perhaps this is the most pointed example of the "genre" of the short novel, because it is truly short and narrated in very brief fragments. Some fragments are only half a paragraph, and the rest of the page is allowed to stay empty. The result is similar to what we get with poetry: the empty space becomes a large part of the narrative itself. We are asked to use it, and we get a chance to think about what we have read. The book is a "fairy tale" because it tells an unlikely story that is close enough to life as we know it to make us wish to suspend our imagination.
The story is about Hervé Joncour, a French silkworm merchant, who in the 1860s repeatedly goes to Japan to get larvae for the French silk industry. He has to travel beyond the known world, and the story has the characteristics of a dream as well as a fable. Baricco skips the details of the journey and only dwells on the more hypnotic and spellbinding aspects of the experience, which are amplified by the massive silences between chapters. The journey, as well as the silkworms themselves, become symbolic and acquire philosophical weight. The relationship between life and desire itself is also amplified, because inside the journey there is an erotic attraction that compels Joncour to continue doing what he does. The idea seems to be that we are driven in life by impulses not of our own making. Something larger than ourselves grips us, and we need to follow its course. If we do not, we have not existed. The short book that is full of space and ambiguity is therefore ideal for the intimate knowledge this idea encapsulates. To follow one's fate, to let go and allow the "sea" of destiny to take over (to refer to Khatibi's image), is an idea one ought not to take up before harsh philosophical scrutiny.
In Paulo Coelho's novel The Alchemist (1993), a populist adult "fairy tale," the shepherd Santiago discovers that "books are like caravans" the way camels are in the desert and the way wisdom is transferred from individual to individual. That books are dependent on each other becomes abundantly clear when observing the short book, which is often very intertextual in nature. This reliance on intertexts takes us back to Edmond Jabès: each book is only a fragment of the great library of humanity, just as Anne Morrow Lindbergh might say that each book thrown up to us is just a piece in the vast multitude of treasures harbored by the sea (by language itself). Even more (as Abdelkebir Khatibi shows), you can read one and then another and another book, but you will never have read enough because, at bottom, we cannot really say what we need to express: that is the import of the short book. The truth is always beyond us, and instead of packing our lives with words, we can draw back and say much less, but make each word count more and fill each word with the mystery and awe language deserves. The fragmentarily written book, the poetic narrative that resembles a fairy tale or a fable, the philosophical treatise, and the récit are all able to come together in what seems to be a format that suits the intergeneric nature of short books. For the poetic writer, this format can be ideal.
Sechelt, British Columbia
Auster, Paul. The Art of Hunger. New York: Penguin, 1997.
Byatt, A. S. The Biographer's Tale. London: Vintage, 2000.
Camus, Albert. The Outsider. Tr. Joseph Laredo. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2000.
Hannah, Barry. "Speaking of Writing: 'Spies with Music.'" In The Tales We Tell: Perspectives on the Short Story. Ed. Barbara Lounsberry et alia. London: Greenwood, 1998. 207-11.
Jabès, Edmond. The Book of Questions. Tr. Rosmarie Waldrop. 2 vols. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1976-77.
Khatibi, Abdelkebir. Love in Two Languages. Tr. Richard Howard. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990.
Kroetsch, Robert. A Likely Story. Red Deer, Alberta: Red Deer College Press, 1995.
Vargas Llosa, Mario. A Writer's Reality. Ed. Myron I. Lichtblau. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.
Kristjana Gunnars (b. 1948, Reykjavík, Iceland) has been a resident of Canada since 1969 and is currently Emeritus Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Alberta. The author of several books of poetry, two short-story collections, and five works of prose narrative, her work merges the genres of fiction and nonfiction, poetry, and essay. In this last category is Zero Hour, which describes the difficult period following her father’s death and was a finalist for Canada's Governor General's Award. The recipient of the Stephan G. Stephansson Award for poetry, the Georges Bugnet Award for fiction, and the McNally-Robinson Award for fiction, she also has edited two scholarly collections and translated two books from the Icelandic. Her forthcoming titles include a collection of essays, Stranger at the Door, and another collection of essays on the writing of Mavis Gallant.
“From the May-August 2004 issue of World Literature Today (78:2), pages 21-23. Copyright 2004 World Literature Today.”
Attention has been drawn to the similarity between the scrapbook and the diary or journal. It is the use of documents and the participatory nature of the scrapbook that makes it different in kind from the diary, a more private, exclusive act of writing.
Tom Stoppard once said in an interview on PBS television that one of the reasons he was a playwright rather than a novelist was that plays are short. A play, he said, can be written in three months if you write a page a day. A scene of a four-act play need take no more than half an hour. Thinking in those terms makes playwriting suddenly "doable."
James M. Cain's novel The Postman Always Rings Twice--about a wayfarer who ends up working at a gas station for a Greek and his young wife, who ends up collaborating with the wife to kill her husband, and undergoes a trial and sentencing for a crime that appears truly senseless--is another short novel that fits within this discussion. Cain's novel is, according to Camus himself, a direct inspiration for The Outsider. It is James Cain who created the American film noir genre of scriptwriting, and there is an interesting connection between the short, intense novel and noir cinema.