Widgets Magazine
Behind the connotations: short stories & novels
(EMILY SCHMIDT/The Stanford Daily)

Behind the connotations: short stories & novels

I’m sure any English major could attest to being asked at least one of the following questions: What’s your favorite [book, poem, series, author etc.]? Are you going to be an English teacher? Have you written a novel? I think I’m asked the last question most frequently, but the number of novels I’ve tried (take notice of the past tense) to write is embarrassing. However, I’ve written about a dozen short stories since coming to Stanford, but all of them combined will never earn the same prestige as a novel.

The difference in connotation between a short story and a novel is quite interesting. Writing or even reading a short story is like having a one-night stand. It’s exciting. It’s brief. It’s noncommittal. You can send your work to a local literary magazine, delete it from your computer, and forget about it if the experience wasn’t as great as you’d imagined. A month or two later you receive an email about the publication acceptance and it’s like seeing that bad hookup at Jamba Juice after CS106A.

On the other hand, writing or reading a novel is like being in a committed relationship. It’s a journey of emotional growth. You become invested in the characters and care about what happens to them. Sometimes you’re inseparable, but that kind of dedication is what makes parents proud. You introduce the novel to all of your friends and hope they approve. And even when you think the relationship is finished, you’re back together with a sequel in a few months.

Of course, not every short story or novel fits this analogy, but it’s obvious that society values novels over shorter works. In fact, 72 of 113 individuals have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature  for novels, while 31 have won for short stories. Like SAT and ACT scores on a college application, these numbers do mean very little, but I can’t remember the last time I read a short story or a collection of them outside of an English class.

In my fiction writing class this quarter, I’ve been reading “Night at the Fiestas” by Stanford alum Kirstin Valdez Quade. All based in New Mexico, the short stories deal with themes of religion, privilege and tradition among many others. Her precision of language and talent for creating empathetic characters have made me appreciate the short story more as both a writer and a reader.

“I love the short story: I love its flexibility, its distillation of language, the pressure it exerts on the moment,” Quade said in an interview with The Writer Magazine. “A story demands that the reader look closely. And yet, despite the intensity and constraints, a story can be surprisingly capricious.”

I’ve witnessed that capriciousness in Quade’s own stories. As a writer I hope to imitate even a portion of her talent; as a reader, I hope to read more stories like hers. But ultimately, I’d like to change the connotation of short stories in our society to match that of novels: they’re like the individual adventures you have in a committed relationship. Some are hilarious. Some are depressing. Some are normal. The beautiful part is that together these stories embody a relationship just as worthy as any other.


Email Emily Schmidt at egs1997@stanford.edu.