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William Trevor: the art of the glimpse

For over a year now I have exclusively been writing long fiction.  I am therefore rusty at the short story, I find it hard to cut, cut, cut, as my editor, Manpreet Grewal, is so fond of writing in my margins! As a Creative Writing student at MMU I did, however, want to enter a story for their bi-annual competition, and so I oiled my creaky short-story limbs and had a go.

It was hard.  Really hard.  I got to 4,000 words and didn’t feel I was anywhere near the end – which, according to competition rules, should come in at 2,500. And so, today, I headed for Costa, settled down with a latte and a biscotti, and set about some serious pruning. I got there – and learnt a great deal in the process.

Mainly, I learnt about how different each form is and that, unlike what some people think, you don’t ‘move on’ from the short story to the novel, the short story stands alone as an art form complete in itself and to write either a good novel or a good short story, you need to master their rules in isolation rather than assuming that one is a misshapen twin of the other.  In other words, the following statements are not true: that the novel is longer because it allows for more room to waffle – I actually read that in a creative writing book this morning! – or that the short story is a warm-up exercise for longer fiction – I saw a book in Waterstones entitled ‘Moving on From the Short Story’, as though it were merely some preliminary stage to the longer work.

William Trevor put it well when he was asked to define the short story in relation to the novel.  One is a glimpse, he said, the other a renaissance painting:

I think it is the art of the glimpse. If the novel is like an intricate Renaissance painting, the short story is an impressionist painting. It should be an explosion of truth. Its strength lies in what it leaves out just as much as what it puts in, if not more. It is concerned with the total exclusion of meaninglessness. Life, on the other hand, is meaningless most of the time. The novel imitates life, where the short story is bony, and cannot wander. It is essential art.

(Quoted in The Guardian, Tuesday 20th March 2012).