Short Stories vs. Never-Ending Sagas

Fantasy and Science Fiction, January 2011I just received the last issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction a few days ago and, as usual, literally devoured half of the stories. Albert Cowdrey is back, although, regrettably, not back into what he does best (SciFi! ah, for another Colonel Kohn story…) but rather into his usual, ever-darker supernatural horror anecdotes. Alan Dean Foster contributes another hilarious Mad Amos Malone Western-Fantasy story, and there are some intriguing pieces by Pat McEwen and Rick Norwood. Plus, Bill Pronzini and Barry Malzberg have written a “zombie humor” short story called “Paradise Last” (no typo there).

But I will not dwell on this particular issue of F&SF (here is a more detailed review if you are interested). What got me thinking is that I did not hesitate to put down the 1200-pages book I am currently reading and turn to the latest F&SF as it arrived. Why are short stories so attractive, even in this time of sequels, prequels, 12-parters, and the like? I enjoy overarching sagas as Peter Hamilton’s The Night Dawn Trilogy, Battlestar Galactica or the never-ending (one hopes) Nathan Never fumetti, but now and then it is time for some old-fashioned literary hit-and-runs.

I could easily elaborate on the virtues and  defects of each genre. Short stories develop intriguing ideas in a minimalistic format, hence reading a good collection of short stories delivers a fair amount of brain food in a reduced time span: a good trade-off. Sagas allow for the development of concepts, characters, and literary worlds. Short stories are cognitively demanding, with the reader being asked to imagine a completely new environment with every story, while sagas provide the security of the well-known, reducing effort but also risk: you know what you get. On the other hand, short stories do not tax your memory, while sagas ask you to keep track of a whole universe. And of course, sagas allow to tell short stories within a fixed setting without having to clarify every detail, and series of connected short stories can explore a universe without having to develop an all-encompassing, epic story arc.

Then again, maybe the very underlying question which gives rise to such reflexions is fundamentally wrong to ask. Why do we have to compare short stories and book sagas at all? Why should there be a more-or-less implicit judgment among them? Merely because both are written on paper (or equivalent file format)? The boundaries of literary forms should not follow such a superficial classification.

Written short stories are comparable to movies (at least the ones which do not have ‘Part 13’ in the title) or graphic novels. They tell one-shot stories and force the reader/viewer to imagine a new setting. Book sagas are comparable to television series or comic collections: they develop a universe.

That brings me to a different point. Yes, comic collections and TV series are a form of literature. There are bad ones, and there are excellent ones. They tell stories. The physical format should matter less for literary purposes than the actual content. Hence my contempt for cultural wannabes who attack a genre on the basis of format. More often than not, wholesale comments of the sort just show an appalling ignorance. In Germany and Spain, it is not uncommon to hear the comment that comics are “for kids” or “a lower form of communication.” Obviously, people making such comments live in total ignorance of the incredible richness of the French Bandes Dessinées (where the question is often whether the genre is Art or Literature), or the pervasiveness of fumetti in Italy (I will refrain from the obvious comments on the Japanese case). Likewise, those who throw all television in the same hopeless box are missing some of the greatest stories told in our time (don’t get me wrong: I don’t own a television set; but that is a different point), ranging from Babylon 5 to Mad Men.

Thus, I did not put down a book to read short stories. I am still reading the book. Those are different activities, competing for a perfectly fungible commodity: my time. But when I tackle a leisurely activity rather than another, it does not mean I am substituting one for the other. I do not refrain from going for a walk in order to read a book or watch a movie. I merely allocate my regrettably scarce spare time among different activities.

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