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Is short story inferior to novel?

A critique of the assumption that longer fiction possesses ample space to grasp and create all kinds of development

Is short story inferior to novel?
Aag Ka Darya, Qurratulain Hyder’s magnum opus, has unfolded its vast space through events that are spread over more than 2,000 years of India’s cultural history. But there are many novels whose events take place in just one day, such as James Joyce’s Ulysses and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.

Some literary critics are of the view that the true potential of fiction can only be revealed through the form of novel. To them shorter forms of fiction are structurally incapable to portray multilayered and complex reality of life. To support their take, they mention Russian, French, English and Latin American novels of 19th and 20th centuries.

We find very few critics who have ever made mention of Urdu novels in the list of world class fiction. Though they don’t forget to refer to Urdu short stories while talking about masterpieces of Urdu fiction, they have rarely assigned them the same status as novels. Somewhere in their unconscious minds lies the so-called structural and formal difference between novel and short story.

Every serious reader of literature would testify that literary critics have been accustomed to differentiate between genres not only on the basis of stark differences between them but also by presuming a hierarchal order — both outcomes of thinking in terms of ‘binary opposite’. This type of thinking initially places fiction as an opposite of non-fiction, ascribing all worth and value to fiction and pushing to the margin all that is not fiction.

The same type of thinking is at work as they come to distinguish between longer and shorter works of fiction. The idea of something big, something vast, is attached to the very meaning of word fiction. Even when it applies to short story, it seems to urge the writer to deal with some big philosophical or existential issue.

As stated earlier, hierarchisation ensues from thinking in terms of ‘binary opposite’. Two different things are put in an order of hierarchy. So it seems quite ‘natural’ (in reality nothing is natural in our process of thinking) to think that longer fiction (novel) is superior to shorter fiction (afsana /short story). It has been argued that longer fiction possesses ample space to grasp (and create, of course) all kinds of development, whether related to characters or situations or events ranging from historical to psychological to existential.

Hierarchisation ensues from thinking in terms of ‘binary opposite’. Two different things are put in an order of hierarchy. So it seems quite ‘natural’ (in reality nothing is natural in our process of thinking) to think that longer fiction (novel) is superior to shorter fiction (afsana /short story).

This line of argumentation ignores two basic things. The first one is related to ‘ample space’. What might be called ‘space’ in the context of fiction doesn’t lie in the outside world but is created during the development of characters and situations. We might say every event has its own space which is unfolded during the course of its narration. And an event of fiction is not a replica of what happens in the outside world, it occurs in the mind of the narrator of the story.

Aag Ka Darya, a magnum opus of Qurratulain Hyder, has unfolded its vast space through its events which belong to the cultural history of India spread over more than two thousand years. On the other hand there is a long list of novels whose events take place in just one day. Ulysses by James Joyce, Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn are only a few of them. While Ismat Chughtai’s short story Nanhi ki Naani (grandmother of Nanni) covers the events of whole life of a woman.

We know all events occur at some place and at some moment. But real time and fictional time are two different categories. One day in fiction might need a vast space of say thousand pages to be told. On the other hand, a hundred days in fiction might be narrated in few minutes and on few pages.

The second thing that critics have ignored is that all forms of fiction are basically a manifestation of ‘narrative structure’. Narrative structure consists of three things: narrator, narrated events and focalisation. Every fictional narrative is told by someone, i.e. by an omnipresent third person, by first person, or by a voice representing a blend of first and third person voices. Narrator decides what should be narrated and what should be left. As the writer comes to choose the type of narrator, he or she actually would be going to select the way of narrating events too. The course of selection and omission of events and their way of narrating create the focal point of any fictional narrative.

We don’t see any qualitative difference between a novel and short story as far as the narrative structure is concerned. The narrator’s voice plays the same role in novel, novella and short story. First person narrator in Tazkira, Intizar Husain’s novel, creates the same kind of subjectivity we find in Nayyar Masood’s Itr-e Kafoor. A novel’s and afsana’s subjectivity might differ in degree but not in kind.

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[The reason why If I haven’t wished, as opposed to my elders, to write my family history, could be that I am a displaced person.]

(Tazkira, Intizar Husain)

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[I say nothing in response, because there is nothing special in scents I produce except that I put ordinary fragrances at the base of camphor’ scent. Whatever I have made is actually camphor’ scent.]

(Itr-e Kafoor, Nayyar Masood )

Surprisingly, the narrators of both stories seem to be establishing the same thing: the reason why they have opted to unfold their life. This reason might be termed as focalisation of their stories, a kind of binding force of all events told by first person narrators. Both are equal at the level of narrative structure. So the question of superiority of novel or inferiority of afsana becomes quite irrelevant. Only the question of manifestation of narrative structure makes a difference. A bad manifestation in novel can turn it worthless and a skilful manifestation might create a great short or even shortest story.

Margaret Atwood six-word story is wonderful manifestation of narrative structure. “Longed for him. Got him. Shit.” Same is the case with one of the Manto’s Siah Hashaiy (black footnotes) shortest stories written in the backdrop of partion.

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[‘’Please don’t kill my daughter in front of me’’. “Ok. Agreeing with him, unclothe and drive her away.’’]

It would be wrong to think that every story can be compressed into a short or a shortest story. Equally erroneous would be to think that skilful manifestation means brevity. It denotes what event needs to be elaborated and what should be omitted; also, what aspects of event have to be probed psychologically and what calls for just objective narration. In Margaret Atwood’s and Manto’s shortest stories, brevity stems from a particular technique of manifestation in which the narrators are not mentioned but their voice might be discerned. It is the events occurring in the mind of narrator that decide whether the narration will be long or short.

Nasir Abbas Nayyar

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The writer is a critic and short story writer of Urdu. He teaches Urdu at Punjab University.

One comment

  • superb line of thought Abbas Nayyar sb..

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