The Fantasy Worlds That Short Stories Built

Recently, I read an article in which Natasha Pulley explained at some length that Fantasy Cannot Build Its Imaginary Worlds in Short Stories.

“Try building one of these in a short story” is the next line, beneath an image of the earth.

The article goes on at some length and I am pretty sure it was written solely to make me stand in the way of traffic in a local mall, staring at my phone and getting more and more grouchy as it went on.

1,000 words of description per item on the table or you're a HACK

1,000 words of description per item on the table or you’re a HACK

So: the gist of what we’re talking about is that fantasy novels by their nature require the gigantic door-stopper, thief-stunner volume novels that we are accustomed to, because there is simply no way to put all of that world-building into a short story in any adequate way. There’s no room to tell Game of Thrones in, say, 10,000 words. No, it is only possible in one billion pages of material, I guess.

The puzzling thing in the article for me is that Natasha Pulley is discussing coming to this realization while teaching a course on short fiction, which you’d think would give her some of the necessary knowledge and expansive reading to note that you really can tell a tremendous amount in a short story, but to also note that it works in a very different way than a novel (and nowhere is this more obvious than in the types of fantasy which she is discussing, the epic high-fantasy stuff that tends toward the huge and long). A short story is not a novel. They are very different forms but they can accomplish very similar things.

Roger Zelazny had a wonderful quote which lends itself here, and which was “I tend to think most of my best short stories were just the last chapters of novels I hadn’t written.” It’s pithy, but it’s also very true, and I found it impossible to forget or not notice when reading his short fiction.

The short stories can be like this too. Like a painting of a group of people on a hill, having a picnic, you can infer and understand the existence of the entire world and all of its political elements and geographical features around the hill. You don’t need to look at the painting and then read an 800 page “background manual” before you’ve got the full experience. A short story has more in common with a painting, or a haiku, than with a novel. When it comes to world-building, inference is the name of the game, not blatant spelling-out.

This doesn’t make the fantasy world around the immediate action of the story any less in existence, it is simply fainted with fewer and more simple strokes. One who is a good writer can convey political and personal tensions, past and future actions (of the mental sort, and the physical world sort), in lines of dialog or glances at the environment around them. And (here we venture into the matter of completely personal opinion) I prefer this infinitely. When I read fantasy, it’s in short story form. When I read fantasy novels, they tend to be shorter, longer series. They definitely are never Game of Thrones, Wheel of Time door-stopper with complete menus provided for every meal ever eaten. Fair enough if you like those, but I inevitably get bored and wander off.

Here, let’s put it another way. I’m going to talk haiku again, I’m afraid, because I am tremendously fond of haiku. Here is one by Richard Wright,

In the falling snow
A laughing boy holds out his palms
Until they are white

This is the haiku that made me a fan of the form. Previously, they were nice but I didn’t “get” them. They weren’t rhyming poems so what were they really for? But then the teacher began unpacking it, pointing out that not only was it a single vivid image on the surface, but it was an eloquent statement about race by an author who spent all of his writing years writing about it, and his latter years doing so almost entirely in haiku. (The discussion of the haiku is remarkable, but I don’t want to get it all wrong, and it also wanders far afield of our point here). Suffice it to say, by the end of his discussion, I was a tremendous fan of haiku, these tiny and simple structures which had so much inside and unpacked to cover so much more territory than one expected.

So. The short form can contain as much, as remarkably, as the long form, but it is made to do it in a different way. The short form must be more eloquent. Or, as Ellen Datlow herself put it:

As a short story editor who has been reading and publishing sf/f/h stories for over 35 years, I’m astounding at the author’s ignorance. There are hundreds of brilliant, effective, imaginary world short stories that have been published and continue to be published. I don’t know how someone who claims to have taught a class in short fiction can claim that “That means that there is an incredibly narrow taxonomical window in which short fiction can be recognised as fantasy at all. What we recognise as fantasy is long. Sometimes really long.” Even if your definition of fantasy was valid (and it isn’t), you’re dead wrong.

Given that she lives and breathes short fiction, I would be hard-pressed to ever argue with her on the topic.

Moreover, I like something that Harlan Ellison said. “It took Tolstoy one book to talk about all of War and Peace. It doesn’t take ten books to talk about goddamn dragons.”

It’s snarky more than anything else, but there’s an element of truth in there, I think. If you want to write about your big fantasy world then fantastic, go do it. If you want to do it over the course of a zillion pages, likewise fantastic. I’m all for it. What I am not in favor of is some suggestion that one form or another is the only way to do it. It’s the black and white attitude I object to. Just because one person cannot imagine it, or doesn’t see how to make it work, doesn’t really mean anything about the form itself. It’s just a single person’s view, not an objective world view.

 

 

Editor’s note: The name of the author of War and Peace has been corrected.

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