Short Stories and their Novelists

Raymond Carver wrote an exquisite set of stories called What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Each story is quite short, only a page or two, and the prose is incredibly economical – there is hardly one wasted word. When I read the collection for the first time, it hit me like a freight train.

A couple of years after WWTAWWTAL, he wrote a second collection, called Cathedral. He recycled the plots from several of his key earlier stories, expanding and clarifying them. In comparison, they were generally pretty washed out. It was as if he had piece-by-piece gone through and destroyed the incredible intensity of his earlier collection. Who knows – that might be for the best; Carver was one of those troubled geniuses, and maybe he felt better afterwards.

Raymond Chandler got his start in the usual way for genre novelists – he began writing short stories for magazine publication. In the beginning, he consciously modelled his writing after Dashiell Hammett’s: taut prose that expected the reader to keep up. He was able to use the lessons of Hammett’s early writing to come out of the gate with decent stories that hung together as narratives and whose plots more-or-less make sense. They’re not all masterpieces, and I’d obviously be inclined to prefer Hammett’s better work over Chandler’s. On the whole, the stories are swift moving and evocative. 

When Hammett came to write novels, as encouraged by his editor, he bridged into them by writing story sequences. His last experiment was The Big Knockover/$106,000 Blood Money, a pair of stories about a massive heist and the fallout. It’s not quite long enough to count as a novel by even the most generous standards, but it’s far too long to comfortably be described as a short story. His first novel, Red Harvest, was written and published initially in serial form, in 4 parts, with the intention of forming a single story. He then sent this concatenated short story set to a publisher who helped him unify and streamline it into a single narrative. Close reading shows clearly the seams. His second novel, The Dain Curse is even more clearly modular, although it has other merits. His last three novels, The Maltese FalconThe Glass Key and The Thin Man, were all conceived as single works: a novel’s worth of material in a novel-sized chunk of text.

In each work, and this is true of his short stories as much as his novels, Hammett looked to expand on what he’d done before. He recycled story concepts, rather than specific plot configurations. For example, in one of my favourite stories, The House on Turk Street, the Continental Op is trapped by a group of desperadoes, but their alliance fractures with his assistance and in the end he’s the only one still standing. Red Harvest uses this same story concept, but replaces the characters with factions and the house with a city. Having successfully executed the basic story schema in short form, he tries a long-form version of the same trick. Red Harvest is not without its structural problems, such as a superfluity of factions, but it is clear that Hammett understood what had worked about The House on Turk Street and sought to extend its range.

When Chandler came to write novels, he too recognized that he had a successful back-catalogue of short works to support a story at novel-length. However, instead of using functional story schema in more complex ways, he took clusters of short stories and interspliced them, altering identities in several short stories so that similar people in those stories became one single person in the novel. The short stories that he liked, but which were not structurally compatible or suitable for intercutting, became self-contained episodes inside his Frankensteinian monster of an outer tale.

His physical writing process helped make this process easier. He would write individual scenes and moments on large-sized index cards, meaning that it was a simple matter to rearrange the order of the cards into a suitable form and then write bridges between them.

He then began the process that Raymond Carver would undertake years later, and set about destroying the clear elegance of his earlier writing. Side-by-side comparisons of text have been carried out by other scholars and in raw numerical terms, you add about 50% text for the same story beat or descriptive moment. Having began his career by modelling his writing on the spare and frugal Hammett, he achieved fame and success as a novelist by consciously destroying that virtue.

As a result of all this, his novels tend to feel disjointed and their structures are all quite peculiar, which explains the difficulty I had with Farewell, My Lovely when I first read it about 2 years ago. Naturally the story doesn’t quite make sense – it’s not a story at all.

The claim was often made in the early days of detective fiction that it was a story form best suited to the short story: that was how Poe and Conan Doyle invented it. Agatha Christie proved how wrong that assertion was by being able to imagine larger and more complex plots with more and more moving parts, each perfectly balanced with the rest. Hammett proved how wrong that assertion was by refocusing away from an individual mystery and onto a wider criminal milieu and the effects of crime on the detective. Raymond Chandler tricked everyone by simply recombining his short stories into something that looks like a novel.

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2 Responses to Short Stories and their Novelists

  1. Pearce says:

    Actually, with Raymond Carver it was the other way around. The stories he wrote in WWTAWWTAL were originally longer. They were substantially edited (and in some cases rewritten) by his editor prior to publication. Cathedral more accurately represents Carver’s actual writing, for better or for worse. The stories in WWTAWWTAL have subsequently been “corrected” to Carver’s original texts for his Collected Stories.

    • mashugenah says:

      That is very interesting, thanks for sharing. 🙂

      I have to admit, somewhat shamefacedly, that I didn’t bother to check up on Carver myself, I was recollecting from an American Lit paper in 2005. Shame on me. :/

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