For me, University killed the novel. A love of literature got me doing a literature degree, and a literature degree did its best to kill my love of literature. For the most part, it succeeded, with a combination of deathly boring modules and a bunch of lecturers whose interest in the form extended purely to the technical side, taking an almost sexual interest in the forming of a sentence. It was as unsettling as it was dull, and it did a lot to make me feel all but nauseous at the thought of picking up another novel.
Of course, in time all wounds heal, but it’s only been a year so far, and the urge to read comes in fits and spurts. I might spend a week reading a book every day, and then go three months without a single word falling into my mind. More often, though, I just get the occasional day where I feel like reading something, meaning that any semblance of schedule or regularity is thrown out of the window. It’s not so much that I don’t enjoy novels, but they don’t fit into my daily life any more.
I read on the train, but I’m not travelling on the train every day. It’s fits and spurts, half an hour here, an hour there, and the whole thing falls apart if I try and read something with a continued narrative. Luckily, there’s a form out there that fits into that framework near perfectly, and that’s the short story. A dozen pages or so, and it’s over, making way for another snapshot of an idea. And the thing I’ve found out is that short stories, more often than not, are a whole load more interesting and satisfying than a novel.
It’s the nature of the novel to be verbose. Of course that word pulls in a lot of negative connotations, but it’s difficult to argue against; sure, there are some novels were not a word is wasted, but they’re more likely to be considered novellas, anyway. There’s a reason so much content of a book gets cut when you adapt it to a film; not only is the film maker limited by the running time, but so much just isn’t necessary to keep the narrative progressing.
Obviously the comparison to film, or even the relation to it, is clumsy and somewhat useless, but it’s worth pointing out that some of the most beloved films, especially in the world of adaptations, have been based off novellas and short stories, not novels. Shawshank Redemption, 2001 and Apocalypse Now, all based off short stories and novellas. It’s the focus they provide, the power of the singular idea that is allowed to permeate the whole thing. And, restricted as they are by the breadth of that idea, the story only lasts as long as is necessary.
At the moment I’m working my way through the complete collection of JG Ballard’s short stories, which are assembled in chronological order, and while being absolutely brilliant, it’s eminently interesting to see how his interests changed and wandered over the period they were written. I’m reading Terminal Beach at the moment, focused on a man-made island used for bomb testing, and the isolationism of the story’s protagonist. Written in 1964, it projects itself forward a few decades, to a time where he could refer to the Cold War as the ‘Pre-Third’, a phrase that is as darkly amusing as it is desolate. On my shelf rests a collection of stories by Kafka, and I’m working myself up to grabbing some of Poe’s.
It’s also a medium that interests me far more than attempting a novel. Short stories might be seen as the spare change of the literary world, with novels these great towering bank notes, but they work by nature of their malleability, slotting into whatever spare moment you require of it. Dipping into a novel is no mean feat; devouring a short story, however, is something even the most distracted of us can probably manage.